Fine dining on the edge of the world
The Pemberton Valley’s culinary growth matches its population boom
"They don't have fries here."
– overheard from a father explaining a Pemberton menu to his young son
Story & photos by Chris Woodall
Pemberton, that wee townlet north of burgeoning Whistler, has two competing reputations.
The first — as you'd expect — is Pemberton as sleepy B.C. Interior community. Some farming, some logging, and some horsing around of the four-legged variety covers about everything done there.
The second reputation is Pemberton as Dining Colossus.
We're not talking greasy spoons here. Yes, this town of 800 (maybe) has the usual stuff found in tiny towns everywhere, with its Chinese restaurant on one end of the street and a hotel beanery at the other end, but it also has a handful of funky dining spots chefed by Whistler escapees whose résumés tally time served at Whistler's best stand-alone or hotel restaurants.
From that background comes food fare of a sophistication that would appeal to jaded city folk, or Whistlerites willing to go an extra distance to satisfy that feedbag craving.
This hive of creative cookery has also raised the consciousness of Pemberton Valley locals' taste buds over the past few years of this gourmandish renaissance.
Among the nouveau gang are The Pony Espresso, Santa Fé Station, Willy G's, Valley Grind, The Outpost Restaurant; and in "downtown" Mount Currie, a bit up the road, The Wicked Wheel.
Quite a lot of choice for a community without a proper community centre, movie theatre, and only one tavern.
Each place has carved a different niche for its kitchen.
The Pony Espresso's nouvelle pasta dishes go up against Santa Fé's Tex-Mex, Willy G's Greek, wraps at Valley Grind, steaks and burgers at The Outpost, and gourmet pizzas, pastas and amazing chicken wings at the Wicked Wheel.
That still leaves the traditionalists: Grimm's Deli, Centennial Cafe (Chinese), and the Pemberton Hotel (bacon ’n' eggs, burgers ’n' fries).
That so many pleasant dining experiences are possible in such a relatively isolated place as the Pemberton Valley has a lot to do with Pemberton's being in the boonies.
It's che-e-ap up there.
Consider the tens, nay, the hundreds of thousands of Canuck bucks that Whistler restaurant impresarios poured into their little nooks of tummy temptation. Think of Moe's (now dead) recreation of a subterranean Montreal; think of the Plaza Bistro's (also dead) all-out concoction of something Frenchly luxe. Blow the budget on decor and you'll soon end up blowing town.
An inexpensive place can be the "Maltese Falcon Factor" of any business plan that requires a hangout. You know what I mean: "It's what dreams are made of."
"It probably wouldn't have happened if we were in Vancouver," says Phil Dunbar, owner and chef of the two-year-old Wicked Wheel.
He and wife Claudia had been working in Whistler's eat-out scene for eight years when the Mount Currie location became available. Phil handles the kitchen and the operation of the restaurant while Claudia "is really good with money management: she does all the bookkeeping and keeps the costs in order," he says.
"One reason we're doing okay is better control of our costs," Dunbar says. "Every cost has to be closely watched so you at least have a chance to make a profit," he says.
Locating in the Pemberton Valley has helped big time to make persnickety control of costs easier. The original plan was to open small: offer deep-fried chicken fingers, fish & chips and pizzas for take-out or delivery only. Put off renovations to the sit-down side until cash flow could build.
Not having mega bucks invested made Phil and Claudia brave. "I don't think either my wife or I were afraid to lose our shirts, because our shirts weren't worth much," chef Dunbar says. "We are still young (Phil's 28) and could go back to other jobs."
Because of Claudia's financial skills, "we've never spread ourselves so thin that a mistake would break us."
Opening their restaurant in Mount Currie still meant some nervousness at what would happen. The Dunbars didn't count on the appetites of area residents.
"We opened in the fall. It was pine mushroom picking season. Lots of buyers were around at that time of year so there was a lot of cash in locals' pockets," Dunbar remembers. "We were so overwhelmed that first weekend we completely sold out of all our pizzas and chicken.
"People would insist on wanting to sit inside to eat their dinners. We had to close for a week to re-group, get the renovations done and re-do the kitchen."
The evolution of the restaurant has continued to be bit by bit.
The Wicked Wheel empire has expanded into downtown Pemberton with the opening of the Valley Grind. The price was right for the space, but could Pemberton cope with side-by-side eateries with Valley Grind next door to the established Grimm's Deli?
"We don't want to compete with Grimm's. The two places complement each other," Dunbar says. Indeed, the Valley Grind's menu of wraps, specialty coffees and fresh-baked goods is quite different from Grimm's traditional sliced meat sandwiches and salads.
"I think it draws more people because they have a choice to go to us or Grimm's," Dunbar says. "It motivates both to make good stuff."
Saving money on a potential location also drew Yves Boulanger and Robert Seguin to open the Santa Fé Station in Pemberton after years toiling at somebody else's joint in Whistler.
Located beside a building supply store, their passion for restauranting began in May, 1995, when they leased an industrial shell: no finished ceiling or floor, no plumbing and no electricity.
"We had a feeling Pemberton was going to start growing and there was only one good restaurant at the time — Willy G's — so we felt there was room for two," Seguin recalls.
"We basically designed it ourselves," Seguin says, after blue prints by non-restaurant types failed to impress. "We hated them."
But the deal was, the duo had to open on Dec. 17 that year.
"We made it. The hot water tank was hooked up one hour before the first party came in, an office Christmas party," Seguin says. "That was really hairy, but openings are like that."
Getting funding through Sea to Sky Community Futures was also instrumental to launching the Santa Fé adventure. "We had to prove we were different and we certainly did that," Seguin says of the South-West U.S.-themed cuisine.
That theme helped in keeping decor costs to a minimum. Santa Fé has bare fir plank floors and uses terracotta, Navajo red and wine mustard colour schemes to lend an "adobe" sense to the bare cement block wall separating the restaurant from Mountain Building Centre next door.
Willy G's started almost six years ago as a way for Laura Downs and partner Bill Gonidis to escape the, well, unreality of Whistler.
"We felt Whistler was like a permanent holiday," Downs explains. "It didn't feel real anymore. We didn't feel like going into the village to play tour guide. Pemberton is more laid back."
And cheaper. "You don't need as much capital to start with, but I think everyone (in the restaurant biz here) would say they wish they had started with more cash," Downs says.
A little help from your friends goes a long way to offset physical plant costs, too, as Mike Richman of the Pony Espresso attests.
The funkiest of the Pemberton dining out enclaves, the Pony Espresso might be viewed as little more than a shack on the side of a swamp if it weren't for the brazen colour schemes, the beach club-esque outdoor patio and the wood staircase leading to a flying bridge of a rooftop deck.
Inside, it's an evolving work of wood tables, reclaimed chairs, a lounge area centred around a wood stove and the over-all feel of a relaxed cottage.
"It's growing piece by piece as I can afford it," Richman says of his 3 1/2-year-old establishment. "It's growing pretty weird, but it's growing."
Indeed, once a year for two or three days, Richman lures some of his regulars to donate time in exchange for a few beers to renovate the Pony just a little more.
"I could never do all the renovations without their help, and I certainly couldn't do this anywhere in Vancouver or Whistler," Richman says.
Beyond cheap digs, the Pemberton dining renaissance can thank the diversity of its clientele.
More than one Pemberton restaurant mogul thanks the paving of the Duffey Lake Road for creating a highway "loop" that has RV'd city dwellers to the local wilds for a looksee.
They like what they get.
"It's nice when they come in for a bite and they'll say, 'what are you doing here?'," Downs says of visitors’ surprise that such a diverse set of dishes can be available in so remote a place.
"We also get a lot of Whistler visitors on bad weather days," Downs says.
The housing boom in Pemberton hasn't hurt, either, as prospective home owners pop up to survey their potential piece of heaven and sample the local cuisine as they settle into their new nests.
"There's definitely been a lot of new clientele in the past year with the three townhouse developments that have opened up," Downs says.
"I don't think people working in Whistler want to drive there on their day off," she says. "In Pemberton they can have a bottle of wine with dinner and walk home."
Then there are the long-time locals. Each of the bistro barons had lessons to learn in presenting their opening day menus, the biggest being that local opinions on food could be enlarged, given enough time.
The Wicked Wheel, for example, started its business with deep fried meals and the usual modes of pizza, with prices to match.
"We had nothing over $10.95 and no pasta at all when we opened," Phil Dunbar remembers.
"At that time it was what the market would bear," Dunbar says. "I could've created a pretty hi-end menu, but I'd be the only one eating it."
Dunbar gradually added new items to his menu and tempted his customers along the culinary path of knowledge in the taste test process.
The latest menu has several steaks, chicken florentine and seafood pasta entrées in the $14-$15.95 range. Thirteen pizzas featuring cheeses other than mozzarella and "unusual" toppings — including a spectacular crisp-crust pizza topped in smoked salmon and a tomato cream cheese — are getting applause.
"Pemberton is a meat and potatoes kind of town, but we're very surprised at the sophistication of Pemberton," says Santa Fé Station's Yves Boulanger of folks' willingness to try something new.
All the puffy white hats agree that a lot of their success comes from what Pemberton hasn't got: an arena, variety of night clubs, or other entertainment to provide after-dark thrills.
So Pemberton goes out to eat.
For the Santa Fé, that means being able to add "totally off the wall" pastas to the menu, but taking the time to explain what the diner is getting.
"If we have an alfredo sauce pasta, for example. I want my serving staff to tell customers it's a white wine cream sauce," partner Seguin says. "It takes the fear out of dining."
Regulars still rule, however. "We've changed our menu, but not nearly enough," says Downs of the Greek and West Coast Mediterranean selection at Willy G's.
"We have a lot of regular clientele who have their favourites we can't get away from," she says.
"When I write my menus I have to strike a balance between old timers and (food and tourist) industry people," Richman says, remembering how his initial offerings went over.
"I had tapas on my first menu," Richman says. "Industry people were ecstatic, but locals weren't sure what to do."
The trick, he found, is to offer something familiar and run with it, kitchen-wise.
"They'll see something they recognize, like chicken and pasta, and then want to know 'what the green stuff is' and I'll tell them it's arugula," Richman explains.
"You have to get their trust," Richman says. "I now have people who've been 40 years in the valley say they're so spoiled with all the restaurants to choose from."