If you had to hazard a guess about the hottest foodie cities in North America, what would be on your list? Maybe New York, Los Angeles, or Montreal? I’m guessing not many people would say Kingston, Ontario, but it’s not just a great foodie city. It’s practically the foodie city!
This small city of about 130,000 people sits on the northeast corner of Lake Ontario, just minutes from the American border and destinations like Ogdensburg and Watertown, New York. Kingston is famous for being a one-time capital city of Canada, but now it’s the ultimate foodie capital.
Statistics may have changed slightly in recent years, owing to the shifting restaurant landscape during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Kingston has more restaurants per capita than any other city in North America, save for New Orleans. And it’s not just the volume of Kingston’s restaurants that’s impressive. The quality is second to none, a fact I know firsthand as I once lived there and it remains my favorite eating destination of all time.
So what exactly makes this small city such a restaurant powerhouse? I spoke with Heather Ford, owner of Kingston Food Tours, to get some insight. She points to the fact that 30,000 students call Kingston home each year. She says, “That’s a huge influx of energy and enthusiasm. That really adds up to make our city exactly what it is.”
However, while the huge student population helps drive Kingston’s restaurant scene, it’s certainly not the only reason the city has such a spectacular reputation for good food. Ford also talks about Kingston’s ability to attract and retain talented young chefs. She points to the city’s low commuting times and relatively affordable cost of living compared to other destinations and says, “I think that really lends itself to making this seem like a great place to open a business.”
So what is Kingston’s food scene like? In a word, diverse. There’s no single dish or flavor that defines the city. Instead, it’s a mix of all its influences — students and professors, talented chefs, and everyone who loves the city. I chatted over email with Josh Hayter, president of Spearhead Brewing Company, to get his insights into the Kingston food scene. He said: “Much like the brewery scene, I feel like the strength of Kingston food comes from the diversity of product. You don’t see a lot of copycat restaurants. Everyone goes with their own vibe. The common thread is quality food and beer. That said, not everything is fancy. We have a lot of little diners and sandwich spots.”
I couldn’t agree more! Here are some notable delicious destinations everyone should try in Kingston.
1. Chez Piggy
Do you believe in magic? Back in 1979 Rose Richardson and Zal Yanovsky sure did (yep, that’s the same Zal of rock and roll’s The Lovin’ Spoonful). They had the vision to take an abandoned stable made of the city’s signature limestone and turn it into an elegant restaurant. Kingston chefs and foodies all credit Richardson and Yanovsky’s Chez Piggy with revitalizing and elevating the city’s dining scene.
2. Pan Chanco
Chez Piggy’s casual sister, Pan Chanco is a relaxed little cafe in the back and bustling takeout shop in the front. They serve up local gourmet food goods, cheeses, sauces, baked goods (including my beloved lemon currant bun), and an assortment of deli-counter cold salads and mains. I always reach for the Moroccan mint chickpeas and the dragon noodles. The dessert counter is a gorgeous display of beautiful little gems that almost — almost! — look too good to eat.
3. Dianne’s Fish Shack And Smokehouse
Imagine a Mexican beachside surf shack with a hint of New Brunswick-style hominess. This unique combination is what makes Dianne’s so wonderful. They serve up a haddock and potato chowder seasoned with salt cod and bacon, beer-battered Baja fish tacos, tuna poke, lobster rolls, and killer guacamole.
Josh shares my love of Dianne’s. He says, “When I bring people in from out of town one stop I always have them make is Diane’s. They have a great mixed menu for all.”
This family-run modern Italian kitchen in downtown Kingston is right in the heart of the action by the market square but inside it’s a cozy space. Their gnocchi with beef cheek ragu will make you weak in the knees, and their antipasti menu could keep you busy for days. Olivea is an exceptional bargain at lunch, with most dishes costing less than $20.
5. Days On Front
You have to be in the know to have Days On Front on your radar because it isn’t downtown (it’s all thanks to Heather that I learned about this delightful spot!). This unassuming west end spot is turning out dishes like Arctic char with beet risotto, spinach and leek puree, citrus beurre blanc, and mango pea shoot salad and roasted chicken thighs with spinach spätzle, pancetta cream sauce, pecorino, parmesan, and paprika oil.
6. Black Dog Tavern
Black Dog does upscale comfort food in a homey-chic atmosphere. Imagine squishy pretzels with beer mustard, French onion soup, garlic shrimp, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese. Heather describes it as “second to none.” While dining there, it’s worth making a stop across the street to visit their neighbor, the Kingston Olive Oil Co, which offers a tasty selection of flavored oils and balsamic vinegar.
7. Tango Nuevo
Effortlessly straddling the line between intimate and gregarious, Tango Nuevo is the perfect spot for a romantic date but does just as well hosting a large group of friends or even a solo traveler. They specialize in globally inspired small plates, and their dish of roasted Brussels sprouts with feta yogurt, almond, brown butter, and pomegranate jelly is a thing of beauty. Every meal I’ve had here has been exceptional.
8. Mayla Concept
One of the city’s newest restaurants, this intimate, romantic space offers high-end experimental cuisine. Mayla’s menu is organized not by courses but by the elements. Imagine zucchini with lemon, tahini, and pumpkin seeds under “Earth” and tuna with miso, chili, cucumber, and avocado under “Water” to get a sense of what’s happening on their small plates.
9. NORTHSIDE espresso + kitchen
On my last trip to Kingston, all the chefs I spoke with asked me where I was eating, and then they ordered me to make room in my schedule for NORTHSIDE espresso + kitchen. This little spot serves up a menu reminiscent of Melbourne’s brunch scene, and standout items include a French toast bake, Nashville-style squash, and avocado toast.
10. Kingston Coffee House And The Kingston Public Market
The Kingston Coffee House is my go-to spot for huge lattes featuring ultra-fresh espresso and killer latte art. It’s located across the street from the Kingston Public Market, making it the ideal spot to grab a hot drink (and some cookies, of course) before wandering the stalls. Established in 1801, the Kingston Public Market is the oldest of its kind in Ontario. In addition to the usual fruit and veggie vendors, you can expect to find herbs, maple syrup, baked goods, handicrafts, art, soap, and much more.
This unpretentious little pub in the heart of the student village serves up what may just be the best club sandwich in town — and undisputedly the best French fries in the city. Some say that they’re dusted with chicken salt. I personally think it must be magic.
12. Harmony Flavours Charcuterie
This is exactly the kind of spot I wish I could find in every city I visit. Harmony Flavours Charcuterie offers huge, mouthwatering platters of meat, cheese, and nibbles from local producers and they offer individual-sized packages for just one or two people. This is perfect for travelers who want something between a meal. Harmony Flavours also offers Cubano and Montreal smoked meat sandwiches.
13. SENS Cafe
Owned and operated by French expats, SENS is serving up the kinds of pastries that you’d find in Paris (if Paris had it so good…) This little cafe has eclairs with dark chocolate glaze and vanilla bean patissière cream, sandwiches of butter ciabatta, saucisson sec (thick, dry-cured sausage), and pickles, and fingerling potato salad with lemon Dijon dressing, radish, tarragon, and dill.
I must admit that Bubba’s doesn’t exactly make its way into many lists of Kingston’s best eats — and that’s because those other writers don’t have my husband looking over their shoulder. Before my beloved met me, he was head-over-heels in love with Bubba’s. Bubba’s is famous city-wide for its poutine, perfect after a night of exploring Kingston’s pubs, including Tir Nan Og, The Toucan, and the Iron Duke.
15. Cooke’s Fine Food And Coffee
Can this list make room for a place that’s technically not a restaurant? It can for Cooke’s! A local institution, this elegant old store is the place to go for imported gourmet goodies, regional cheese, and excellent coffee.