Rene’s Bistro – Stratford. Gimme the Mussels – Rush!



We got trapped – hungry for dinner before the theatre, on a Saturday night – with no reservations in Stratford, Ontario. And I won’t do Chains, or Pizza. So finding a place that I’d enjoy was not going to be easy. We were turned away from 2 other restaurants – sorry – we’re full. Good for them, bad for us. But Rene’s was welcoming – and while our tiny table for 2 wasn’t the best located – right by the server’s stand and against the wall separating the restaurant from the bar – the welcome was genuine. We explained that we were going to the theatre, they basically said – What’s new, and got on with their jobs.

We were handed menus, our order taken, and the kitchen alerted within minutes of our arrival. And the place, like most restaurants in Stratford on a Saturday before the theatre, was packed. But not noisy – a very pleasant surprise.

We ordered mussels in 2 different preparations – one in a cream sauce, one in a white wine sauce, both of which were served very promptly. The bread – a requirement if you are going to mop up the sauces – was wonderful, warm and fresh. Unlike Montreal Mussel restaurants – fries didn’t come standard. So we did without. But the nice sized portion – and the rapid bread basket refill – did the job nicely.

So – table cloths, good food, and no reservations required – Rene’s Bistro was a winner. Next time I’m going to explore the menu more efficiently – they had some other dishes that sounded great. But noticing the number of mussel servings that walked past – I’m thinking that mussels are their go for dish.

A B. Nice service, good food, worth the price asked. And fast – we made the Theatre with time to spare.

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Pazzo Restaurant and Bar in Stratford, Ontario


Pazzo Flashback – Too good to ignore

Sometimes it really is location – location. And Pazzo is perfectly located – right on the walk way between the main theatres in Stratford. It’s insanely hard to avoid getting pulled in. Between the location (perfect) and the adorable cafe tables that liter the sidewalk and the 2 floors of eating establishment – housing a bar, a restaurant and a pizza/restaurant combo – there’s clearly something for everyone.

Our meal was perfectly acceptable – not insanely expensive, well prepared, properly served, and fast. We were naturally rushed (in Stratford – that’s the norm, not the expectation) and as we’ve begun to suspect – restaurants know the pattern and are totally prepared. Our meals were served amazing promptly – including our make to order pizza.

Was it outstanding. Nope. Was it do it again-able. Yes

A B.

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The Awkwardly Shaped Tom Patterson Theatre – and Mary Stuart


Last but not least – there’s the Tom Patterson Theatre. I describe it as awkward because the theatre is in a curling rink – long and thin, with rows of seats extending all the way from the narrow front of the stage to the far back. It’s a huge space – and the actors are challenged to be heard and to be seen when their backs are to at least 1/2 the audience at all times. By definition the staging is minimalist – but this is Stratford – minimalist doesn’t mean boring or empty.

At the Tom Patterson, lighting takes on a leading role. In the case of Mary Stuart – the only play we saw there this year – lighting produces the mazes that the players walk to show their captivity, their helplessness, their forced upon them artificial lives. Lighting makes the play.

And when the theatre suddenly went dark because of a Stratford wide power failure – the audience and the actors were stunned. The actors quite literally froze in their paces – I’m guessing hoping that the computer controlled lights would remember where they had been moments earlier. No such luck. The lights had to grind thru their positions, and the play had to start over several pages back. Kinda neat – as an audience you rarely see how professionals can with such apparent ease virtually repeat every movement again and again.

For those wondering about the play – the story tells of an imaginary meeting between Queen Elizabeth and her rival for the throne of England, Mary Stuart. But the meeting, despite being the ‘heart’ of the play – is fore-shadowed by the preamble to the meeting – the posturing by both Mary and Elizabeth, the fawning of their staff, the desperate need to be right, to be loved, to be respected. It does make for powerful drama.

I’d give this play/production a medium recommend. Not as much fun as Fiddler, not as uncomfortable for the audience as The Merchant of Venice, not as noisy as Tommy, not as fun as Blythe Spirit and not as dramatic a tour de force as Thrill, but still worth the money.

The Avon – Window Wall Proscenium Theatre, at least one play worth seeing


The Avon Theatre – Just because its Proscenium doesn’t mean its boring

The Avon is a converted theatre – dating back over 100 years – and both it’s age and it’s format are reflected in the type of plays choose to be produced in this hall. There is a decidedly conservation bent to most of the productions – captured as they must be within the window wall space. But that hardly translates into dull or boring. In fact, some of my favorite productions in the past have been produced here.

But not this year. We saw 3 different productions at the Avon. Othello, Tommy, and Blythe Spirit. Of the 3 – there were parts to love, and parts to sleep through. The most sleep worthy was unfortunately Othello. There were moments of superb drama – as one would expect at Stratford, and for some of the audience, the story was a complete surprise. Spoiler alert here – Desdemona dies, but apparently the people in the seat next to me didn’t know it. One urgently whispered to the other – right at the heart of the bedroom scene – Oh my goodness – he’s going to kill her! But the designers attempt to break out of the window space using a revolving triangular stage sloped dramatic to one side meant that actors were being flung off in all directions. Several times I saw people stumble trying to regain their balance as the set rotated them out of the ‘center’ space. On the other hand – when the rotating stage worked – it worked well. At one point we see the bed from one view-point, later on from the opposite side. A clever device that makes us feel like we are there with Desdemona. But great set doesn’t quite balance against mumbled lines, something that really shouldn’t happen here. Oh well – it’s still in preview – maybe they will get it together before it opens. One lives in hope.

Tommy is today, and was in the past, a mess. And Stratford’s highly original stage set with airplanes taking off into the audience, parachutes being shot out of the ski, and giant pin ball machines just doesn’t cover up for the fact that most of the music is really pointless. I didn’t really ‘get’ the story when I was 15 – and I’m afraid I still don’t ‘get’ it today. Neat visual effects though.

Of the 3 – Blythe Spirit is the clear winner – if one must pick a winner. The dialogue is snappy and smart, the debate on the meaning of life and death no less intriguing today than it was when the play was first performed, and the surprise ending is always a surprise. My favorite character of course is the medium. Such a wonderful character – so smartly performed by Seana McKenna Most surprisingly, she also takes on the deadly serious role of Elizabeth in Mary Staurt. One of the things I most love about Stratford is just that – the chance to see the same actor – sometimes on the same day – in 2 entirely different roles, both performed superbly. It’s amazing. And while my sister – who is a ‘theatre folk’ and commented that it’s all in a days work – for me, the non-professional – the ability to memorize so many lines, in such different performances, with different directors nothing short of awesome.

So – plays at the Avon – bit hit and miss – but for sure see Blythe Spirit. The other 2 can be missed.

Stratford Studio Theatre – Smaller is definitely better!


Of the 4 theatres at Stratford, the smallest is the intimate Studio space. Only two production were being featured there in August – but both are absolutely brilliant.

Both are new productions, but expertly produced, directed, acted, and told. I highly recommend seeing them both – but for far different reasons. “Thrill” is a tour de force for Lucy Peacock – one of Stratford finest. Her performance of a wheel-chair bound crip is so believable – that I was shocked – absolutely shocked – when she walked out to receive her well-earned standing ovation. She spends the entire play – and she is in almost every single scene, bent and contorted in one of those motorized wheel chairs – which she drives around the stage like a 6-year-old drives a Matchbook Car – in circles, spirals, with startling stops and starts. Amazing.

The story is both heartfelt, heart warming, and devastating. Despite the heroine’s severe handicaps – there’s no issue with her mental acuity – and she wins you to her side through wit and creative story telling. You are cheering madly for her at the end, regardless of the blinders you might have been wearing when you entered the Theatre.

“Taking Shakespeare” is a horse of another color completely. The hero this time is a rag-tag 24 year-old student is not living up to ‘expectations’. He is sent for private Shakespeare lessons with an aging female professor – and the chosen play is Othello. This is particularly appropriate because Othello is actually playing at the Avon – another theatre in the Stratford world. So one can easily apply the lessons the hero is learning to the play itself!

The ending, while not entirely unpredictable, is a story of growing up – at any age. I loved it, my husband loved it, our friends loved it, and by all accounts the audience loved it too. So go – if you can get tickets.

If you can’t – not to worry – I’m sure a production of this play will soon be done near your hometown.

Stratford – Canada’s Go to Theatre Experience – The Festival Stage


9 Plays in 5 days – really? Am I nuts? I guess the answer must be the obvious yes – but somehow it didn’t seem nuts to plan one trip to Stratford – and while there see as many plays as I possibly could.

And probably it’s only at Stratford, the repertory theatre par excellence of Canada, that one can squeeze in that many plays without worrying about conflicts and travel times. All the 4 venues are within easy walking distance of each other, and all performances start at 2:00 or 8:00. Since much of the staff performs in multiple plays – they need time to get to the next gig – just like the audience does.

I’m not going to review all 9 plays in one super blog – My plan is to break up the plays by Theatre – starting with the Grande Dame – The Festival Stage. It’s huge, it’s famous, the acoustic are awesome, the staging reliably stunning, and of course the acting is superb. So picking winners is a bit like choosing between grand-kids. You kinda love them all! But that said – here goes nothing.

My favorites of the 3 we saw on the main ‘Festival’ stage was a toss-up between the absolutely brilliant Fiddler on the Roof – excellent in its ability to convey the conflicts, the joys, the troubles of the fiddler in top-notch fashion. Great singers, solid convincing acting, a lovely set that was inspired by the art of Marc Chagall combine to get and keep the audience enthralled. No wonder good seats are hard to get. This is a production worth seeing.

My second favorite – and it was a close call thing – was the outstanding production of the Merchant of Venice. The actor playing Shylock also plays Tevye – which quickly tells you a lot about his range and capabilities. He was quite literally mind-blowing in both roles, in such hugely different ways. For those who don’t know – and apparently some of these people were in the audience – the Merchant is one of Shakespeare’s toughest plays. Today no one likes to watch people callously making fun and then physically and verbally degrading another person – regardless of why that person is ‘different’. And at the end of the highly dramatic and very emotional court scene – Shylock lies degraded and abused on the very front of the stage. It is a highly charged moment – made more so by an audience member who choose that point to stand up – throw his program to the ground and state clearly enough so everyone could hear – “This is the most antisemitic thing I’ve ever seen”.

True – and my husband argued afterwards that the director had perhaps taken the text a bit too far by placing the play in Fascist Italy just before World War II. The presence on stage of ‘brown shirts’ did little to make the audience feel better about the behavior of the main characters, and even the color-blind casting doesn’t quite make us forget that in the Merchant – what is objectionable behavior today was very acceptable when the play was written. But topic aside – the production is outstanding. Just go prepared.

The ROM – Big, Overwhelming, Awe-Inspiring, Probably a Must Visit – Certainly a Must Shop


The newly redesigned entrance to this grande dame of the museum world says it all. The ROM is here to stay – and determined to stay impressive. We showed up at opening time – wanting to avoid the crowds that a civil holiday Monday were sure to inspire.

Like most major museums – there are the ‘permanent’ exhibits, and the traveling shows or special exhibits. We opted for a combined ticket that gave us access to everything – $26 each, but we’re talking a full day of walking, reading, listening and thinking. Worth it for adults, maybe not as child friendly as today’s kids might expect.

The ‘Special’ Exhibit during our visit was a very interesting one on Mesopotamia. Replete with some pretty new technology – like carved stone reliefs that came to life to show you the story they were telling in a more ‘modern’ fashion, seeing just this one exhibit took us most of the morning. That said – people shot past us frequently – either unable or unwilling to read and listen. But I found the content fascinating, the short ‘expert interviews’ appealing, and some of the technology on display impressive. My favorite, the recreation of the city of Babylon, complete with people walking the streets.

The permanent exhibits represent a quick look at just about every thing that caught the eye or interest of curators in the past. The guide gives you a handy hot list of the 13 or so ‘not to be missed’ exhibits – easily identified by the presence of a video monitor on a post nearby. Watching these quick intros into the why and wherefores of these major collectables was interesting to say the least. And believe it or not – took up all the rest of the day. It’s a huge place. Trust me on that!

For those who eat in Museums – I must say that I had some of the best food I’ve ever had in a museum in the unassuming ROM cafe. Delicious, reasonable, kid friendly, attractively presented. What’s not to like.

Is this my favorite museum in Toronto? No
Is this a must visit museum? If in Toronto, probably Yes
Would I see this one first? No
Would I see this one on my second day, or if the weather were terrible? Absolutely Yes

There you have it. The ROM
Visited August 2013

Devon Cream – Divine stuff – and you can get it at Harry Ten Shilling in Stratford


There’s nothing quite like Tea Time and the Devon Cream at Harry Ten Shilling.

Clearly a ‘Oh Yum’ kind of place – it features Devon Cream, Rich ‘Coffee’ Cakes or ‘Tea’ Breads made with fresh fruit, a rich strawberry compot, and at least 40 different teas to enjoy.

And ‘Oh Yum’ pretty much sums it up. The Harry Ten Shilling is utterly adorable – for women. It’s easily my favorite lunch spot in Stratford. Truly a teeny tiny place, it is conveniently located directly across from the Avon Theatre. Easy to enjoy, and truly easy to get to your matinée performance.

But my husband hated it. Cute sandwiches just won’t do it for him and the savory options – an overly peppered cold Gaspacho and an overly peppered Quiche were both better avoided.

But the Tea for Two at $48 was a delicious delight. Served on a double plate rack loaded with tea sandwiches (no crusts of course), tea bread, Devon cream, sweet treats and a pot de creame. I opted for a Roibos tea called Tuscany Pear. Oh dear – it was wonderful.

There are other less pricy options of course – a simpler tea just gives you Devon cream (I simply can’t get enough of that) and a sample of what they call scones – but I call tea bread.

From the fine porcelain cups and saucers to the rose decorated plates this is place that knows which side of the toast is buttered – and definitely does it right.

The Prune – Crazy name, great food, lovely restaurant


I adore eating a meal at the Prune in Stratford. Yes every option is Prix-Fixe – but there are lots of options – a ‘Chef School’ option for $49, a ‘Vegetarian’ option for $59, a 4 course meal for $85, and a 5 course meal (it includes the cheese course) for $95.

To challenge the kitchen we ended up ordering 3 different options. I was torn between the vegetarian option that sounded yummy and the ‘Chef School’ option which featured a Flat iron Steak. I ended up with the steak – which aside from being a tad over-cooked (I prefer raw, it was served without asking at Medium Raw), was delicious. I found my beet and Kielbasa salad delicious – and my desert of lemon semi-fredo was amazing.

My husband’s fresh pea soup was thick, creamy, and a delight on the tongue. I didn’t try my sister’s chicken liver mousse (I hate liver) – but she seemed to enjoy it! Her main course – a risotto – wasn’t as creamy as she expected, but she refused to let the chef know. Her choice, I guess. My husband’s main course was the clear winner – a pouched trout Napoleon. Layers of crisp pasty dough sandwiched between slices of pouched trout. Oh, it was wonderful.

For the cheese course, they offered 4 cheeses from Ontario – none of which I’d ever heard of. They were properly served with toasted walnut bread. Perfect.

But the most fun – the conversation. We were seated in a side section of the restaurant – and the people at the next table heard us discussing a play we’d just seen – and joined in. Eventually, our entire corner of the restaurant was engaged in a free-for-all discussion of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. Only in Stratford, eh?

Bottom line – great looking restaurant – modern without pretention, excellent food, a variety of price points to suit many different budgets and requirements – and as an added bonus – fab conversation.

A winner, for sure a winner.

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Rundles in Stratford – Overpriced – but oh so elegant


Used to be that getting a reservation at Rundles was impossible. You needed reservations months ahead, and even then it would be a challenge. But the food was amazing – so the planning ahead was worth it. And if you asked, and it wasn’t rented, they would give you a tour of the house next door.

Well things have changed over the years – and not to the better unfortunately. Prices are up, food quality is down, service is lacking – and no house tour was available. Guess it figures – getting reservations was decidedly easy.

We arrived promptly at 5:00 – with a theatre at 8:00 – we needed to eat and go. But in 2.5 hours – you should be able to get us in and out. And that went well. We did leave on time, we just didn’t leave impressed.

The menu is now prix-fixe – and at $95 per person, a bit of a gasp if you aren’t planning to eat a lot. We opted for 3 different appetizers, three main courses, and 3 desserts. The meal was so forgettable – I can’t even remember what I had. My sister had duck – presentation was lovely, taste was good – but for the price – well, a tad over kill.

I hate to say this – but Rundles – I think you’ve seen the last of us.

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