Stratford Shakespeare Festival

The small town of Stratford, Ontario, has charming 19th century homes and the river Avon runs through it. Get it? Stratford? Avon? What better place for a Shakespeare Festival?

That’s what Tom Patterson thought when in 1952 he convinced the town fathers to finance a trip to New York on a quixotic quest to convince Tyrone Guthrie to comes to the tiny burg to start one. To Guthrie’s eternal credit, he agreed and then convinced Alec Guinness to come over to launch the first season – in a tent, no less!

The tent is long gone, replaced by a technically advanced 1,800-seat house with a thrust stage (a Guthrie trademark) housed in a commodious modern building that pays homage to its canvas roots. It has been joined by three other theaters, the Avon, the Studio, and the Tom Patterson. Every year, in a season that runs from April to November, the Festival presents a dozen plays, with an accent on the Bard. The Festival attracts rabid fans from both Canada and the United States and, for the past two seasons, I and the beautiful and mysterious woman I travel with have been among them.

Each season is an embarrassment of theatrical riches. The productions are sumptuous (the average costume, we learned, costs $5,000) and the company features some of Canada’s finest actors, many of whom have built entire careers around the Festival. There are usually some “big names” in attendance (Christopher Plummer this season, Brian Bedford the season before, with Brian Dennehy announced for next), but the caliber of the players is such that many Festival-goers look forward to reuniting with favorite members of the company like Juan Chioran, Lucy Peacock, Tom McCamus, Bruce Dow, Seana McKenna, and . . . well, the list just seems to go on and on.

The density of talent on offer might not seem out of place in New York or London, but in tiny Stratford it’s a source of wonderment for the uninitiated. And the new artistic director, Des McAnuff, seems to be hitting his stride, if the 2010 season is anything to go by. We saw eight plays this season and liked ever one. When was the last time you saw three plays in a row that knocked you out? Or even two?

For a quick take on what we saw, see What’s Playing in Stratford.

Enjoying Stratford

The Festival aside, Stratford itself is pretty much devoid of “tourist attractions” in the traditional sense of the term, which is part of its great charm. Like many of the nearby towns, it is a tidy little burg in a sea of lush green farmland, with the sort of viable town center that seems to elude so many American small towns. The homes you are likely to pass en route to the various theatrical venues are charming, with sturdy brick Victorian homes predominating. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself entertaining fantasies of moving there.

The main activities for visitors are strolling and picnicking and Stratford is artfully designed for both. The River Avon has been dammed to create a long narrow lake that stretches from downtown to the Festival Theater. It is populated with a dozen or so swans (including one black one) and too many ducks to count. If you come in early June, you will be treated to the birth of the next generation.

A small island is an ideal place for a picnic, although some picnic tables are provided along the south shore. Not too far away, you can pick up take out sandwiches at the excellent York Street Kitchen. Or stop into Milky Whey on Ontario Street and ask the attentive staff to put together a selection of local cheeses, paired with the perfect crackers. A bottle of Niagara wine from the state-run liquor store downtown is the perfect accompaniment.

A circumnavigation of the lake makes a nice short stroll, or you can get adventurous and follow the river westward to the T. J. Dolan Natural Area, a small tangle of trails sandwiched between a cemetery and a housing development.

The exercise will do you good and, after one of those terrific B&B breakfasts, help make room for a nice pre-theater dinner.

Food, Glorious Food

After the Festival, Stratford greatest attraction is the food. Thanks to the presence of a highly-regarded culinary school, Stratford is graced with more than its fair share of fine dining establishments. Perhaps rising to the standards set by the Festival, many of them specialize in the kind of meals that might well be called “theatrical.”

Perhaps the most famous are Rundles and The Old Prune, both of which serve high-end cuisine with appropriately high-end prices. Expect to spend anywhere from $110 to $150 per person with wine. Worth it? Opinion is divided, with the online chatter veering from “best meal I ever had” to “overpriced and overrated.” Sadly, I cannot put in my own two cents because I have yet to sample their wares.

I can, however, vouch for Bijou and The Church, two nearby restaurants (actually, all of Stratford’s better eateries are located within a few blocks of each other) that are in roughly the same price league although not as highly touted.

Of the two, I prefer Bijou for the food. The menu changes daily with the accent on local ingredients. However, nothing can beat The Church for theatrical décor, for the name can be taken literally. On a recent visit, one of our dining companions found himself spotlit by the sun pouring through stained glass windows, prompting several visits from other diners to praise his rather theatrical shirt.

Another eatery that has a devoted following – so devoted that we found it entirely booked up – is Rene’s Bistro, serving gourmet meals at more moderate prices that the big guys.

The newest entry in Stratford’s food sweepstakes is Simple, conveniently located across the street from downtown’s Avon Theater. Fish is the specialty and every dish we sampled was exemplary. Best of all, prices are extremely reasonable given the quality.

Restaurants aren’t your only eating choice. The picturesque park spaces that ring Stratford’s lake cry out for a picnic.  One option is to get in line at the popular York Street Kitchen to order one of their delicious sandwich creations. Or stop into The Milky Whey, a gourmet cheese shop on Ontario Street and ask them to put together a cheese tray for you. You can even buy a cheese board, which makes a nice Stratford souvenir.

Both the York Street Kitchen and The Milky Whey are a short stroll from the lake.

The B&B experience

If you make the pilgrimage to Stratford, I strongly advise staying at one of the town’s more than 100 B&Bs. You can be virtually guaranteed that you will share breakfast with kindred spirits drawn to Stratford by the their love of Shakespeare and the theater. The conversation will be lively and it is more than possible that you will form lasting friendships with those you meet. It’s happened to me.

The beautiful and mysterious woman I travel with cannot imagine Stratford without a stay at the Avery House, a superbly designed hostelry on Ontario Street, ideally situated within easy walking distance of the Festival’s four venues and downtown’s many fine restaurants.

Partners Judy Spence and Sue Mustard have created a showcase. Judy is in charge of décor and each room is different. Our favorite? The Key West Suite, with its own balcony, although The Loft, which features a small kitchenette looks tempting too.

Sue is responsible for the lavish breakfasts, which always combine sweet and savory entrees; local sausage and organic eggs might be paired with fruit-stuffed French toast. It’s no wonder breakfasts here tend to last for two hours, filled with conversation and fueled by strong coffee.

Avery House
330 Ontario Street
Stratford, ON N5A 3HB
(800) 510-8813
(519) 273-1220