Wander through any city’s downtown core, and you’ll undoubtedly find a plethora of pubs, restaurants and wine bars near a business or financial hub. At the end of a long workday, almost nothing beats indulging in an expertly poured drink—or the sights and smells that convince you to stay out for dinner. Part of why I love Halifax is its compact downtown core. It’s easy to hit a happy hour following a client meeting or stroll to dinner and drinks with colleagues at the end of the day.
THE BARRINGTON STEAKHOUSE & OYSTER BAR
1662 Barrington Street
The Barrington Steakhouse & Oyster Bar, perfectly poised on Barrington Street, is such a destination: close to offices, shops, hotels, and the convention centre. Easily walkable from anywhere downtown, with a classic steakhouse menu complemented by their offering of East Coast oysters, The Barrington is the kind of place to grab post-work food and drink. Entering at street level, the darkly imposing u-shaped wooden bar in the centre of the space immediately gestures it’s time for a drink. Like many buildings in the downtown core, the bar’s exposed brick wall behind signals the building’s age and history. Floor to ceiling windows face Barrington, still the main artery of downtown, and a baby grand piano sits in the corner (live music is on offer Thursday through Saturday nights). Their daily happy hour, dubbed “tip ‘n’ sip,” offers six oysters and a glass of Cava for $20 from 4 to 6 p.m.
The evening I visit for drinks and dining, I’m seated directly beside the window, allowing me to gaze mindlessly at the trickle of post-workday traffic and pedestrians hurrying through their commute. I sip on a Barrington Nova 7 Spritz and explore the menu. An ideal starter cocktail, this spritz combines Tito’s vodka, cucumber, lime, grapefruit, and Benjamin Bridge Nova 7 wine—refreshing, light, easy-drinking. The bar manager Mehvish Hussain is taking care of my table, and she quickly brings over a trifecta of Maritime oysters. Freshly shucked Saint Simon from New Brunswick, Raspberry Point from Prince Edward Island, and Sober Island from Nova Scotia. Traditional accoutrements of lemon, fresh horseradish, cocktail sauce, and red wine mignonette accompany the oysters on a stainless steel tray of ice. They are all delicious, but the Raspberry Point oysters are my favourite with their delicate, clean flavour and sweet finish—especially lovely with the spritz.
Typical of most steakhouses in the Maritime provinces, the menu has a healthy offering of Atlantic seafood alongside a sophisticated beef program. To follow the oysters, Hussain drops off two appropriately light appetizers paired with Lightfoot & Wolfville Tidal Bay: scallops with crispy pork belly and sesame tuna. The tuna is lightly seared and sliced sashimi-style, topped with fresh cilantro and crusted in black and white sesame seeds that give a nice crunch. Underneath the fish is thinly sliced avocado and cucumber; sweet, creamy wasabi dressing and chilli oil dot the plate. Deep green basil gremolata painted in two strokes provide the base of the second dish. Topped with three seared scallops, crispy slices of pork belly (kind of like giant bacon bits), and a summer salad of green beans, roasted corn, and dill pickle in a kimchi dressing, the plate is garnished with red nasturtium flowers. The appetizer portions are dainty enough to prelude the enormous steak coming my way.
Hussain explains that the Barrington uses Blue Dot Reserve, the top tier AAA beef from Atlantic Beef Products. Raised on small family farms in Atlantic Canada, the cattle are fed a diet of potato and grains, finished with high-quality grass. Raising the cattle this way is said to ensure consistency in marbling and flavour.
Next, a family-style 14 oz. ribeye arrives, plated in a large stainless steel frying pan (fun!). Cooked medium (chef’s preference for this cut), the steak is topped with succulent, seared foie gras made crispy on the outside and melty in the middle. Cozied up to the beef are sautéed mushrooms and onions, roasted beets and carrots, green beans, rosemary rock salt, and a little pitcher of rich demi-glace. The ribeye is finished on a cast iron pan for crust before being plated in the stainless steel, and the menu has a section of these cast iron steaks for two, which are typically 48 oz. and come with two additional sides. Mine came with a classic, perfectly creamy mac and cheese topped with crunchy breadcrumbs and house-cut fries served with truffle aioli. Paired with 2016 Torres “Altos Ibéricos” Crianza Tempranillo Rioja, the wine perfectly suits the well-marbled ribeye feast.
Saving just a little room for dessert (definitely used a takeout box), a white paper bag stamped with The Barrington’s logo arrives filled with hot, fresh cinnamon-sugar doughnuts. Along with the doughnuts are two dipping options: chocolate and house-made caramel. The doughnuts are two or three bites each, and a great way to end the meal. As that post-dinner relaxation takes hold, I look around and see most tables are enjoying bottles of red and sedated conversations. The sun has set on Barrington Street, and there are fewer cars and fewer people (the quiet vibe of downtown Halifax on a weeknight). I’m glad I didn’t go home to cook.
1600 Barrington Street
Blowing in on a blustery night, I arrive at Obladee just as the band finishes tuning their instruments. By the time I’ve sanitized and found my seat in the right window alcove at the front of the bar, lively Celtic tunes have started, and the vibe is cheerful. It’s a Thursday evening, and Obladee is nearly full. The sun has already gone down, allowing soft light and warm candles to create the bar’s signature ambience. Perfect for sipping offbeat wines and sampling their thoughtful new menu.
Nearing the end of their tenth year, owners and siblings Heather and Christian Rankin first opened the doors to Obladee in October 2010, in the corner space at Barrington and Sackville Streets. “The concept of a young, independently owned bar or restaurant didn’t really exist in the downtown,” says Heather, of the early days. She’s watched first hand the changes in downtown Halifax over the last decade.
Opening at 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, Obladee has earned a well-deserved reputation as an after-work destination, with the small space filling up once downtown’s nine-to-five workers are off the clock. The generous by-the-glass wine options and selection of beer, cider, and spirits lend well to grabbing after-work drinks and trying out bar snacks like olives, “posh” mixed nuts, and oysters. A daily happy hour from 4-6 p.m. offers small plates for $10 and any wine by the glass at $2 off. When Obladee first opened, their focus was only cheese, charcuterie, and chocolate boards—all of which are still on hand. But, over the years, the bar worked hard to get the most out of its tiny, open kitchen, like bringing in talented chefs to pull off thoughtful, wine-friendly plates.
Most recently, Heather brought chef Joe MacLellan on board to work alongside chef Josh McCarty. “We felt that having two very accomplished, talented chefs working together as co-chefs was the best way to leverage their individual strengths and move our food program forward,” says Heather. “Getting our exceptional food in front of more people will be our focus in our eleventh year.”
Since the menu offers just three small plates and two bigger dishes, and since I’ve enjoyed the oysters, cheese and charcuterie boards at Obladee many-a-time, I decide to try the new menu—all of it. I know this is doable as I’ve brought along a friend. We start with cold glasses of Benjamin Bridge Methode Ancestrale, a pétillant naturel (or pet-nat)—a spritzy, natural wine made in a method so old it predates Champagne, where the wine finishes its first fermentation in the bottle. I find it easy to drink and a bit of a palate cleanser, the perfect wine to sip while awaiting our first course.
Just about to transition from dishes shaped by summer to fall, we get to hang on to a few lighter creations. First is a take on classic melon and prosciutto salad. Sweet local cantaloupe, cucumber, salty prosciutto di parma, spicy, crunchy peanuts, and a Thai-inspired vinaigrette with cilantro make this a delightful, breezy start and great with the pet-nat.
Next up is beef tataki made with Windy View Farm strip loin. The beef is quickly seared, marinated, then thinly sliced, giving it a delicate texture rich in flavour. The dish is one of the best I’ve eaten in a long time. Local plums charred to draw out deeper flavour sit atop fanned slices of beef. Underneath the meat sits a line of garlicky chimichurri with crumbled blue cheese. The plums’ sweetness mellows the cheese, and a rich, intensely umami porcini mushroom oil softens the chimichurri’s acidity. There is smoked salt on top that ties the flavours together, and the beef melts in your mouth.
Switching gears again, the beef is followed by Fogo Island cod tiradito, a Peruvian dish similar to ceviche. The raw cod is cut into sashimi-sized bites and cooked briefly in citrus; in this case, lime. The dressing also has passion fruit and Aji Amarillo (Peruvian yellow pepper), giving the cod a silky consistency and sweet flavour. Creamy sweet potato, charred corn niblets, and an intensely flavourful lime leaf oil balance the tart citrus notes. Thinly sliced red and green onions and fresh cilantro finish off this beautiful, lively dish.
Before we start the two bigger dishes, wine pairings arrive. An off-list natural red wine from Corsica called Domaine Giacometti Sempre Cuntentu made with a grape I’ve never heard of—Sciaccarello—is meant to pair with a house-made cappelletti, the stuffed pasta shape named for “little hats.” Filled with Jonah crab, caramelized shallot, and toasted chèvre, the cappelletti sits in a red chorizo-coconut broth topped with mussel conserva—Spanish-style preserved mussels. The rich broth is a bit milder than I was anticipating and deep in flavour, and there are crunchy, salty little bits of chorizo on top, an excellent complement to the sweet crab meat. A belly-warming dish and wonderful pairing, too.
I am excited to try our last big plate, as it’s a play on Mexican street corn, called gnocchi elote. House-made gnocchi in creamy corn bisque, charred corn kernels, jalapeño, creme fraîche, and crunchy Tajin-seasoned asiago cheese bits—this dish is a lot of fun. The spot-on pairing is Avondale Sky Benediction, a dry, traditional method sparkling white wine made with Geisenheim grapes grown in Nova Scotia. As a corn lover, especially elote, I thoroughly enjoy the pure corn flavour; it’s rich but not too heavy. The combination of textures is even better.
Not quite up for a full-on dessert, we finish the night with a three-cheese flight and fortified wines—I choose Dow’s Colheita 2002 Tawny Port. My favourite way to end a meal. Heading back into the still-blustery night, I reflect on Obladee’s arrival and how it helped set the scene for downtown Halifax’s wonderful food and drink scene, and I can’t wait to see what their next decade brings.
RISTORANTE A MANO
1477 Lower Water Street
There’s something incredibly reassuring about restaurants that never let you down. You can stroll in, knowing your favourite dish will taste exactly like you remember, every time. Ristorante a Mano is that kind of place, for me. It’s a place you go to eat. While the wine list is excellent and the Aperol cocktails are too easy to drink, you aren’t going to last long amid the roasting garlic, pizzas firing, and lasagne baking and not order something to eat. And after work is the perfect time to pop in and claim a seat at Ristorante a Mano because it fills up fast. Settle in because you’re going to want to stay awhile.
Playing it safe, I made arrangements to come in early on a Friday, around 4:30 p.m. I snag a window seat full of late afternoon sun that looks out onto the cobblestone patio, scattered with empty tables—this was one of the first colder days of fall. Beyond that, The Alexander, a stone-faced condo building across the way. As a steady stream of patrons begin to arrive, I study the menu and order a glass of Nebbiolo.
Ristorante a Mano completed a substantial renovation in early 2019, shutting down for over a month. The layout didn’t change—the open kitchen still lines the entire left wall as you walk in from Lower Water Street, where you can see busy chefs pumping out steaming bowls of pasta, thin-crust pizzas, and bigger entrées like seared lamb chops and veal scaloppine. However, the transformation made the space lighter and airier. The ceilings are bright white, pillars are covered in shiny white tiles, and floor to ceiling windows still account for most perimeter walls. Blue hand-blown Venetian glass light fixtures hang in every other window; the water glasses and plate details match this same vibrant shade.
The only problem with deciding what to order is everything is so good. At Ristorante a Mano the culinary team makes everything from scratch: pasta, pizza dough, tomato sauce. All of it. And, if you’re hungry, it can be hard to choose. I decide on something new to start. The melanzane alla parmigiana is two pieces of breaded eggplant fried crispy, topped with mozzarella, and baked with tomato sauce, finished with parmigiano cheese and fresh basil. The dish is excellent. Crispy and satisfying with San Marzano tomato sauce that tastes fresh and clean. Simple, traditional Italian flavours that just work. I also try the calamaretti fritti, flash-fried calamari topped with chopped parsley, served with lemon-garlic aioli. Another classic, the calamari is cooked perfectly.
The atmosphere changes as the restaurant slowly fills and the background noise rises. It is Friday after all. While it’s hard to stray from my favourites—the pizza tartufata to be exact—I decide I’m in a pasta mood tonight and choose the ravioli. Large hand-made ravioli stuffed with Italian sausage, ricotta cheese, and fresh herbs are sautéed with tomato sauce and white wine and topped with parmigiano cheese. There is a subtle sweetness to the sausage filling, and the sauce is just so good. It’s a big plate of comfort. I also get a taste of the tomato, basil, and ricotta gnocchi, a dish I’ve had before that always impresses. The simplicity of the flavours and the airy, soft gnocchi works every time.
Persuaded to try one of the new dessert additions, I choose torta al cioccolato e arachidi, an amusingly tall piece of layered chocolate cake. Alternating layers of fudgy chocolate cake and peanut butter icing sealed on top with chocolate ganache and finished with peanut brittle, to be exact. The peanut butter icing has a subtle peanut flavour, and the cake isn’t as rich as I was anticipating—for my lack of sweet tooth, it’s completely doable, and a lovely way to end the meal. They also have a daily selection of house-made gelati e sorbetti, priced by the scoop and consistently delicious, along with Illy espresso drinks.
By the time I leave, every seat is full, and there’s a lineup waiting to get in. It’s approaching dusk, and there’s a bite to the air as I leave the tantalizing warmth of the restaurant.
I feel grateful to have filled my belly with comfort. Relaxed and heading home, it’s satisfying to know Ristorante a Mano is still a sure thing.