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Victoria's Marilena takes top spot as best new restaurant in Canada in magazine ranking

It’s No. 1 in magazine’s cross-country new-restaurant category

Victoria’s Marilena Cafe + Raw Bar has been served a top honour in its field — it placed first in the new restaurant category of Canada’s 100 Best magazine. It is also 27th in the list of the country’s best restaurants.

Marilena is approaching its one year anniversary after opening in June 2023, long past the original planned opening for the restaurant, which features local and global seafood.

Chef Kristian Eligh, who grew up in Gordon Head, had moved his young family to his hometown from Vancouver but then the brakes went on. “That was actually almost four years ago because the restaurant was ­supposed to open pre-pandemic.

“Right on the verge of getting ready to embark on a restaurant opening the world shut down.”

Worries about the future gave Eligh some sleepless nights but he kept busy with other projects for the owner.

The 185-seat Marilena at 1595 Douglas St. is part of the Toptable Group of restaurants, owned by the Aquilini Investment Group. Its diverse interests include the Vancouver Canucks, Rogers Arena, hotels and office buildings.

Three Victoria bars were recognized this year.

• Clive’s Classic Lounge in the Chateau Victoria, 740 Burdett Ave. is in 15th place.

• Citrus and Cane, 1900 Douglas St., is in 29th spot

• The Humboldt Bar, 722 Humboldt St. is 36th.

After 18 years working at top restaurants in Vancouver, Eligh was ready for the new venture.

“I’ve always loved the ocean and I’ve always loved cooking seafood. So to bring out what is a seafood-centric concept to an Island surrounded by water was kind of a no-brainer and a ­challenge I was willing to accept.”

He’s especially fond of Dungeness crab and halibut and points out that spot prawn season has just started.

Attention to detail, creating a warm non-pretentious atmosphere and using quality products from local producers are among his goals.

Diners can sit close to the kitchen and watch as Eligh and other team members prepare the food in what he calls a “very theatrical experience.”

Another watchable kitchen is scheduled to open next month. The Janevca Kitchen and Lounge in Rosemead House, the former English Inn on Lampson Street, will allow guests in the lounge to watch the team prepare food using wood-fired ovens.

Consultant Frank Bourree, of Bourree and Associates, said Marilena offers a sophisticated experience at a world-class level. “The food and the service are impeccable.”

The capital region is a place where “you can pretty much find whatever you’re looking for,” he said.

“We’ve got a good variety of ethnic food here in Victoria.”

Because Victoria is a tourist town it has always had a high proportion of restaurants, many of them downtown, Bourree said. “The variety is really good, really interesting.”

However, challenges around profitability have been “brutal over the last couple of years” and have hit small family ­operations particularly hard, he said.

Inflation has pushed costs higher for restaurants which in turn raise prices at the same time they face higher labour costs. They are paying higher wages to keep and retain staff, Bourree said.

Just finding servers and line cooks can be difficult, he said.

He was disappointed to see Bear & Joey close in May because of debt accumulated to open and run the 1025 Cook St. restaurant. It opened in May 2020 during the pandemic.

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