Home » Escape Plan: Stratford, Ontario

Escape Plan: Stratford, Ontario

by Billy McEntee

This Canadian city is celebrated for its theater festival, but you’ll find it has plenty of charm on stage and off.

Written by Billy McEntee (Image: Huron Street Bridge, Stratford by JHVE Photo)

Stratford is the kind of vacation destination that seems almost too utopian: swans swim along the Avon River in the heart of the city, Victorian architecture exudes an old-world flair, and Pride flags billow in the gentle breeze on main street.

While Stratford, a quick hop over the United States border, is technically a city, it has the vibe of a college town with its bountiful bakeries, pubs, farm-to-table restaurants, bookshops, antique stores, and more. Everything is walkable from downtown’s Ontario Street, including the reason most tourists travel to this city: the four theaters that comprise Stratford Festival, the largest classical repertory theater company in North America. With a festival at its center, it’s no wonder Stratford always feels cheery and bright. With professional theater productions, including everything from Shakespeare to contemporary musicals, running all spring, summer, and fall, there’s never a bad time to visit this quaint city on the river.

 

The Courtside Room at the Perth County Inn

 

STAY

There is no shortage of B&Bs in Stratford, giving tourists plenty to choose from. Passport recommends the gay-owned Perth County Inn, located at the base of bustling Ontario Street and on the Avon to boast riverside views. Accommodations include two-bedroom apartments or studio suites for groups of different sizes. Owner Bruce Whitaker, a Stratford fixture and family man, purchased the 150-year-old building in 2018 before lovingly restoring it, which earned him a James Anderson Award from a local heritage association.

 

Speaking of heritage, the self-check-in lobby features a detailed map timelining Stratford’s indigenous roots, settler history, and growth into one of Canada’s most important cultural and artistic hubs. Once using your unique code to access your room, each full of quirk and detail, whether it’s a PacMan arcade game, record player with musical theater albums, or exposed brick, unpack and head on out to sip and shop.

 

EAT & DRINK

Foster’s Inn (Photo by Billy McEntee)

 

If you want easy pub fare or elegant fine dining, Stratford has both and everything in between. Bluebird, a few doors down from Perth County INN, features a rotating menu and handsome chandeliers — the Prince Edward Island mussels make for a delicious entree (be sure to order in the bouillabaisse sauce for a flavor-forward meal).

 

Travel a few streets down from your inn for more dining options, including a culinary school and dozens of eateries. The upscale Lovage restaurant and wine bar is great for oysters and a cocktail, or a full sit-down meal. With Jamie Crosby (who has worked on the renowned Noma) in the kitchen, there isn’t a bad dish on the eclectic menu.

Even mid-day meals in Stratford are a delight: Sirkel Foods is a top-notch salad/sandwich shop located right off of Stratford Market Square where quantity and quality are both the name of the game. If you save room for dessert, they also have homemade pastries, including butter tarts, a Canadian specialty made with pecans and plenty (really, plenty) of sugar.

 

Right next to Perth County Inn is The Relic Lobby Bar, an exquisite cocktail lounge handsomely furnished with varied and colorful furniture. Owned by Ulises Sanchez Pantoja, the bar exudes Cuban flair (and music) and hosts a breadth of spirits. One bartender mentioned he took interest in a job there because its menu featured yellow chartreuse, a rarer and softer form of the herbal liqueur created by Carthrusian monks. But for those seeking more traditional fare, the martinis and mixed drinks are all divine and come in a variety of elegant glassware (and sometimes more playful vessels such as an open-mouthed fish or tiki men).

 

For a more casual experience, Foster’s Inn is a local pub with a full menu and outdoor seating that is perfect for al fresco dining and people watching.  Situated a few doors down from the Avon Theatre, one of Stratford Festival’s four presenting houses, Foster’s also plays host to post-show drinks for cast member spotting. And even if you don’t see any actors, there’s plenty of other art to take in: indigenous artist Maxine Noel has vibrant murals that add a splash of color and brightness to Foster’s woody interior.

 

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Richard II, Stratford Festival (Photo by Ted Belton)

 

SEE

Going to Stratford and attending the theater festival is a must, and this season abounds with LGBTQ+ and campy works. Brad Fraser’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard II places the doomed king in the grit and glitter of New York’s 1980s Ball Culture, with the monarch’s approaching downfall acting as a parallel for the simpler time before the AIDS epidemic devastated the queer community. If that sounds heavy, Jillian Keiley’s thrust (and thrusting) production is also, in moments, funny and as light as its home at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Festival’s newest venue and an absolute copper-filled and sun-soaked architectural stunner.

 

Members of the company in Rent. Stratford Festival 2023. (Photo by David Hou)

 

For musical lovers, two hits with gay themes are also on the menu: the ebullient and hilarious Spamalot and beloved, Rent are fan favorites and each turn in strong, Broadway-caliber productions. But this season, it was a more reverential work that was the top triumph: Nick Green’s Casey and Diana gifted a poignant world premiere about the week leading up to Princess Diana’s 1991 visit to Casey House, a hospice in Toronto that serves those living with HIV/AIDS. Tracing the staff and patients’ anticipation for the royal visit, Green’s drama evolves into a love letter for the men who lost their lives, the nurses and volunteers who give so much, and the hope that sustains us. It is a deeply heartfelt play, and one that deserves a much longer life.

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