An Eater’s Guide to Whistler, British Columbia – Eater
Even for North America’s biggest ski resort, Whistler punches far above its weight as a winter getaway. The same nearby coast that brings endless powder to Whistler’s peaks also supplies fresh seafood and keeps neighboring farms lush with crisp, clean mountain water. The town also draws world-class chefs and restaurateurs — from Vancouver, just 90 minutes away — who like being able to shred on their days off.
This year, a new 10-person high-speed gondola and six-person high-speed lift will shorten wait times for skiers and snowboarders. And while Vail Resorts poured millions into upgrading the chairs, vaunted local restaurateurs are working equally hard to make their own seats just as attractive. There are also new arrivals to get excited about, including a long-awaited Thai restaurant and a collaboration between veterans of the local scene. “Whistler has an amazing, well-educated clientele,” says Neil Henderson, who has worked in Whistler restaurants for 25 years and recently opened Wild Blue. “They know food, they know service, they know their wines, and they have high expectations.”
Whistler sits in a prime location in the culinarily blessed Pacific Northwest. Seafood suppliers swoop up the Sea-to-Sky Highway with the local top-quality catch. Menus brim with callouts to potatoes from the neighboring Pemberton Valley (reputedly some of the world’s best), oysters from British Columbia’s Fanny Bay and Desolation Sound, and wines from around the province. Many restaurants serve a sort of upscale mountain cuisine, seasonal and local ingredients used in dishes hearty enough to fuel outdoor adventures, combined with a decidedly casual setting and service.
Whistler experienced a boom in Japanese tourism in the ’80s, and though the groups in matching neon outfits headed back to Japan in the early ’90s after the decline of the yen, they left behind a standard of excellence in the town’s sushi restaurants, which have only multiplied since. The famed Sushi Village still leads the pack, and represents another factor in Whistler’s strong food scene: chefs and restaurateurs who set up shop here to maximize their time on the ski hill and bike trails.
What to Know Before You Go
Toptable Group: Jack Evrensel moved to Whistler from Montreal, ready to ski all day and serve food at night, debuting Araxi (see below) in Whistler Village in 1981 — just a year after Blackcomb Mountain opened for skiing, when only about 1,300 people lived there at the time (the current population is about 10 times that). He created and ran the Toptable Group, which now owns a few other places in Whistler and some of the top restaurants in nearby Vancouver, including Blue Water Cafe, CinCin, and Thierry. Evrensel sold Toptable in 2014, but the group continues to set the standard for high-end dining in Whistler. They’ve carried on the excellent Araxi, expanded with the purchase of Il Caminetto, and opened (and now remodeled) Bar Oso.
Breakfast: Condos and house rentals make up just under half of Whistler’s lodging, and many of the biggest hotels in town offer apartment-style set ups, so there’s not much opportunity for going out for breakfast. Most visitors and locals grab their morning meals at home, shoving a few bites in their mouths as they race to beat the crowds for first tracks. If you need to pick up some coffee and snacks, turn to Whistler’s exceptionally strong pastry scene.
Lodges: On the hill, the main lodges on each mountain (the Roundhouse, the Rendezvous) offer surprisingly good and varied foods, both in terms of traditional ski lodge eats such as chili and burgers, as well as custom burritos and udon noodles. Prices are high and lines tend to get long, though. Avoid the crowds by eating early or late, and/or hitting one of the smaller snack spots that dot the hill.
Ski season: Winter sports run late here, usually beginning around mid-November and petering out in early May, with the busiest times falling the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the January long weekend with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the February long weekend of Presidents Day in the U.S. and Family Day in British Columbia. If you want to dine out during these times, make reservations as early as possible, or plan to wait; even the lines at the grocery store get interminably long. (You won’t escape the crowds in summer either. Mountain bike season begins in May, and Whistler now pulls in more visitors in summer than in winter, with the biggest crowds during August’s Crankworx Festival.)
Shoulder season: Shoulder season barely exists anymore, but during the brief lull of May and most of fall (and generally early in any week), the top restaurants fight for the few diners by offering incredible deals and discounts. Check the ads in the local paper or social media to find three- or four-course meals at places like Alta Bistro and Araxi for less than $50 Canadian, about the same as a high-season entree.
Where to eat
2022 brought Whistler its biggest restaurant opening in years — both metaphorically and physically: Wild Blue, a high-end, 150-seat Pacific Northwest seafood house outfitted with turquoise velvet seats and infused with strong local restaurant industry DNA. For the project, Evrensel tapped Henderson, projects director at Toptable, and Alex Chen, the chef at Vancouver’s Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar, the ninth-best restaurant in the country, per Canada’s 100 Best. Chen’s menu takes cues from French and Italian coastal cuisine, but uses local ingredients to build chilled seafood towers and other dishes. Appetizers include snap peas with sea forest kelp and fish soup Provencal, while larger plates include Dungeness crab spaghettini, halibut T-bone, and salmon with summer squash and chanterelle mushrooms.
Jatuporn Nuttamarn and Chanidaporn Sriwanta worked in the kitchen of Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental before taking their talents to Vancouver and eventually the village of Mount Currie, where they opened Barn Nork, which means “Village House,” in 2016. During the beginning of the pandemic, after a year of limbo between locations, the restaurant successfully made the jump over to Whistler. The small menu of northern Thai classics incorporates plenty of local produce, as in the massaman curry made with Pemberton potatoes, and the occasional bit of whimsy, as in the house-made coconut pandan ice cream and Thai tea lime sorbet. With only four tables inside (plus a few outside, weather permitting), the best way to get your hands on the restaurant’s coveted hand-rolled spring rolls and pork belly in garlic oyster sauce is to pick up an order to go.
Toptable’s tapas and charcuterie spot (which mixes some of the town’s best cocktails, too), Bar Oso closed for remodels in January 2021. It reopens this winter, with the half-U bar now a complete horseshoe, doubling its previously tiny capacity. It returns with house-made charcuterie, traditional tapas, and menu of gin and tonics.
The original Toptable spot commands a hefty price, but delivers impeccable professional service and a menu of eclectic influences and modern dishes woven through with local ingredients. If not for the picture-perfect setting and smooth flow, Québec foie gras parfait, sea buckthorn-marinated scallop crudo, and house-made mentaiko bucatini might not make sense. Somehow, Toptable’s culinary director, James Walt, makes it all work. But doubters can start with happy hour, which pairs discounted drinks with oyster deals in the summer and fondue in the winter.
Co-owner Eric Griffith is one of the few restaurateurs born and raised in town, so he’s got an eye for what Whistler wants in a restaurant. Local cheeses and cured meats open meals of elk tartare, smoked mushroom tartine, and braised beef cheeks with Korean barbecue glaze and beef fat cornbread.
Since 1985, Sushi Village has served impeccable fish, creative rolls, and traditional Japanese dishes to the hungry hordes. Even after decades of wild popularity — as evidenced by the wall of signed celebrity photos (hi, Val Kilmer?) — it keeps its subtle quirkiness and sense of fun. Try as they might, few customers can resist a giggle at the “triple black diamond” sign marking the long trek to the washrooms. The huge menu includes original creations like the Super Hiro Roll, sushi-snob-pleasing uni and tuna otoro, and cooked items like spinach gomae, tempura, udon soups, and teriyaki dinners. Over the years, other sushi restaurants matched the quality or the menu at various points (Sachi and Nagomi both remain excellent), but nobody else can quite capture the strawberry sake margarita-fueled spirit of Sushi Village. It’s no secret, though, so waits get very long, starting before they open. Groups of six or more can reserve the tatami rooms ahead of time.
In 2018, Toptable took over and refreshed this nearly 30-year-old restaurant. The cuisine is Italy-meets-Canada, including 30-month-aged prosciutto di Parma, Pemberton beets with burrata, Nova Scotia lobster, and saffron linguine, all at a slightly more reasonable price tag than Araxi.
If you’re staying near Whistler’s Creekside Base, pop into Bred for baked goods by Brit Ed Tatton, who moved to Whistler to snowboard in 2013, bringing along his sourdough starter and experience in fine dining kitchens around the world. He created the bread program at Alta Bistro and ran a weekly bread service before he and wife Natasha opened their own plant-based bakery and coffee shop in 2019. Using primarily local ingredients, they bake a variety of sourdough breads each day, along with cinnamon rolls, cookies, and brownies, plus a savory focaccia. The couple also offer some snacky menu items for customers occupying the few seats, including hummus and olives.
Purebread opened its first location in Function Junction in 2010, followed by a more central Olympic Plaza location, and now the small chain stretches to Vancouver. It still wows everybody with an impressive array of baked goods, like seriously flaky croissants and whoopie pies. Little butter tarts, giant meringues, kid-luring rainbow sprinkle cookies, and elegant coconut passionfruit cake hold down the sweet side, while savories include bacon and egg brioche, vegetarian sausage rolls, and cheddar jalapeno scones. The shop also sells a slate of breads and coffee to go, plus a few gifts and specialty foods. The line stretching out the door moves quickly.
At Blackcomb’s base, the casual counter service cafe inside the Fairmont Chateau Whistler serves hot food all day, mostly a pretty standard menu of eggs, breakfast sandwiches, and waffles in the morning, followed by sandwiches and barbecue in the afternoon. But locals know to skip the lines and head to the second section, where the coffee counter also harbors a small selection of fresh fruit Danishes, colorful croissants, and creative doughnuts.
Where to après-ski
Merlin’s Bar and Grill
At Blackcomb’s Upper Village Base, Merlin’s packs in the crowds with its casual and classic ski-town-bar feel. Most tables begin with an order of the epically enormous nachos; within a few rounds they’re swaying to the familiar tunes that legendary local band the Hairfarmers bang out on the stage. Dusty’s Bar & BBQ offers Creekside’s version of the same, and the Garibaldi Lift Co. (GLC) holds down the scene in the Village.
Those that need to step away from the classic rock covers at Merlin’s should opt for Handlebar, which specializes in craft beer. Along with nine taps, the bar carries a few cans and bottles, plus a good selection of whiskey. Most importantly, after five years serving German beer hall-type food, in 2021 it started serving impressively good New York style pizza, by the slice or by the pie.
Further down the Upper Village, “Whistler’s coziest pub” waters the non-après crowd: the folks who just want to chill with a good beer or glass of bourbon. The Fitz is perfect, no notes. (If anybody reading this tries to bring Whistler Village-style “every night is a bachelor party” energy into this gem of a place and messes up my Yahtzee game, I will huff right out of my red Adirondack chair on the patio.)
If $19 poutine at the GLC busts your beer budget, head across the plaza to Whistler’s best place for quick and affordable food. You can smell the onions frying from the base of the gondolas; nothing will warm you up (and absorb pints) quite like Zog’s hot dogs, poutine, and burgers. Hours vary by season, but during busy times, it generally offers some of the only late-night food around.
Where to shop
Visitors can supply their house rentals at a slew of markets around the area. Nesters Market carries the best quality ingredients, including a good selection of local fruit in-season and nice cheeses. Fresh St. Market in Whistler Marketplace is bigger and has a larger, though less curated, selection. Whistler Grocery offers the convenience of being in the Village and just across the hall from the liquor store. But you can get a bit more variety by heading around the corner to Fuji Market, the small Japanese grocery store sibling to Ohyama Ramen. For additional variety in your menu, Whistler also has a Filipino mini-market, Cebu De Oro, out by the former Olympic Village, and a delivery-only cheese service: French’eese.
Where to sleep
Fairmont Chateau Whistler
This year, the grand dame of Whistler hotels finished a five-year remodeling project that included upgraded bathrooms, adding a high-end boutique hotel-within-a-hotel called Fairmont Gold, and completely renovated the indoor/outdoor pool area. With a plum location just a few steps from the Blackcomb Gondola and a classic elegance that belies its 1980s heritage, “The Chateau” remains Whistler’s most splurge-worthy stay. Peak season room rates start at $649 CAD ($488 USD).
Nita Lake Lodge
Though convenient for only Whistler’s Creekside base, just across the highway, this modern take on the ski lodge offers amenities that negate the need to leave the hotel. The comfortable lobby sports a cafe, restaurant, and bar, with fireplaces for winter and outdoor seating overlooking the lake for summer. Rooms feature heated bathroom floors, gas fireplaces, and rain showers or oversized bathtubs. And, if you do somehow need to leave the room, the hotel runs a free shuttle to the Village for guests. Peak winter season room rates start at $400 CAD ($300 USD).
Aava Whistler Hotel
With a prime location just a few minutes walk from the Village and gondola access to both Whistler and Blackcomb, the Aava offers reasonably priced convenience. Simple rooms keep the focus on the outdoor sports, with a bike valet, ski lockers, and free boot drying to help avoid equipment hassles. Until recently, the biggest complaint from guests was the lack of an on-site restaurant, but the opening of Wild Blue erases that issue. Peak winter season room rates start from $399 to $799 CAD ($300 to 600 USD) for a Deluxe Studio room.
A condo-style option makes traveling as a group or family easy, especially at the slopeside Aspens. Though furnishings vary by owner, each condo has a full kitchen, and the real draw here comes in the ability to pop off your skis, hand them off to the ski valet, and hit the outdoor heated pool that everyone on the lift overhead envies. Units rent individually, so rates vary by owner.
The Delta Hotels Whistler Village Suites
This hybrid spot combines the seamless ease of a hotel (and major hotel brand) with the space of a vacation home. The walkable location (to the Village and base of both mountains) and kitchenettes in each room make up for the lack of personality in the corporate-style apartments. Some rooms also include a washer and dryer and gas fireplace. Rooms start at $650 CAD ($484 USD).
If you’ve read this far, you’re all set for a delicious trip to Whistler. Just don’t forget the most important mouthful in town: face shots of powder on 7th Heaven.
Award-winning writer Naomi Tomky, the author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook, explores the world with a hungry eye, digging into the intersections of food, culture, and travel.