- an association of people for mutual aid or the pursuit of a common goal.
If there was ever a restaurant that was so aptly named, so literal in it’s nomenclature, it would be The Guild Freehouse. Located on Warf Street in Victoria’s picturesque Inner Harbour The Guild is the embodiment of passion and commitment to quality. We sat down with owner, John Watson to discuss what makes The Guild such a hub of like minded foodies.
TASTE MAG: I understand that owner of The Guild is a fairly new role for you, what was it that drew you to this place with so many restaurants in the city?
JOHN WATSON: “A guild is really what this place is – it’s a group of passionate people that want to support each other to make something really great. I was drawn to that idea and have really found an incredible team here – everyone has strengths and weaknesses and here at The Guild we really compliment each other by recognizing that and working together as a unit. I think the moment I really fell for this place though, was when I ate The Rueben. I seriously devoured it and was blown away when I found out that the reason it tasted so great was that the sauerkraut was made in-house. It really made all the difference. After that I was a quality convert – you can actually taste the passion and care behind the food.”
TM: I hear that The Guild is becoming a bit of a hot-spot for functions! it’s certainly a beautiful space, but what is it that makes it such a go-to place as a venue?
JW: “Yeah! Seems that way! We’ve hosted a lot of private functions so far, and each party has had rave reviews about their experience. It’s great because the building we’re in means that our function capacity is really malleable. Like, we’re able to accommodate parties from 10 to 220 people because we’ve got an 80 person capacity down stairs and a 140 person capacity upstairs. With a fully functioning kitchen and bar upstairs too, you can book out the top section, the bottom or both, depending on your needs. We’re also more than happy to work with the client and make a customized menu, and we’ve got an event planner on staff to help you along and make sure it goes off without a hitch. Just give us a call and we can set up the rest!”
TM: Looks like I’ve got my next birthday spot then! Let’s talk food: I know that you have a fantastic brunch menu, so this may be tough to answer, but if you had to choose, which brunch dish would be your ‘Must Try’?
JW: “Definitely the Mushrooms on Brioche Toast. It’s so delicious and simple, but decedent at the same time. Plus, the brioche is made right here so you can’t really go wrong. If I’m being honest though, all of our menu items are really fantastic and well thought out. I mean, our bacon is smoked and cured in house, so we’re involved in every stage of the culinary process which ensures that our guests are really getting top notch quality, every time.”
TM: Being a part of a relatively small downtown core and being a business in a heritage building must make you really community minded:
JW: “Oh absolutely! If there is one thing that I’ve learned from being in this industry and in this community is that giving back and taking care of the community that you live in is really, really important. In the past we’ve donated to Cops for Cancer, but honestly, I really want to kick it up a notch. I’ve got a charity poker tournament in the works so stay tuned for that!”
TM: What can you tell us about John Watson that not many people know?
JW: “Well I grew up in New Zealand and when I was 18 I moved to Victoria with my Mom. She moved back a few years later, but I decided to stay. I have to say, it was pretty tough. I was working as a line cook for minimum wage, I didn’t have a family support system and I was…well…not exactly responsible. I was pretty reckless with my money and I wound up in some sticky spots, more than once. But on the other side of the coin, it was a great learning experience, I had a lot of fun, and made some incredible memories. And now I’m at The Guild and loving it…I just sometimes wish it didn’t take 10 years to get here!”
TM: So you’ve been a Victorian for a long time!
JW: “Yeah! I definitely consider myself a local for sure. My first place was on Grant Street and since then I’ve moved all around the downtown core. I can’t imagine living anywhere else, I mean, in my opinion, Canada is the best country in the world and we live in the best city in Canada, so really, I’m living in the best city in the world. Like right now, I’m looking out my window at the Inner Harbour and I can’t help thinking “wow”. It may be expensive, but it’s worth it.”
TM: You must know the city like the back of your hand, so when you get the day off, which I’m sure is rare right now, what do you do?
JW: “Oh man you’re so right, it’s rare to get the day off, but when I do I like visiting other places in town. This is a great city for that, you can make almost anywhere a home away from home. You can usually find me at hanging out with Lee at Fiamo’s, or Willis from 10 acres. North 48 is another favourite – those are the places that for me are all about good food and good people. And I suppose I should fess up – I’m a gamer and a movie watcher. Sometimes there is nothing better than just hanging at home.”
TM: Is there anyone that you would consider your ‘foodie guru’?
JW: “It’s funny, my passion for food really comes out when I’m in my own kitchen, way more than it ever did as a cook – that’s just me though, I am fueled by interacting with people and looking at food from this perspective really inspires me. If I had to pick a ‘foodie guru’ though, I’d have to say that right now, it’s Chef Sam. His talent, ability and yes I’ll say it again, passion, is infectious. The other person that springs to mind though is John Waller from the Oak Bay Marina. I used to work with him and he was so inspiring to work with.”
TM: How does being a part of the Victoria community inform your plans and menus for The Guild?
JW: “There’s no doubt, Victoria is one of the most competitive cities to open a restaurant in – and I think that is what drives us. You have to be on top of your game all the time because if you aren’t you’ll get slaughtered. We really want to be a place where locals can come and have fun in a refined but cozy atmosphere. Sure, having a busy tourist season is a bonus, but having the support of our community is what is going to make or break any restaurant. As far as our food goes, our menu showcases as much local food as we can get. Living on Vancouver Island means that we have access to amazing, local products, so why not take advantage of that! I think also though, our menu can sometimes look a little heavy for health-minded locals with things like Fish Pie being showcased. But what is really important is that, yeah we make comfort food, but even the ‘heaviest’ dish isn’t going to leave you feeling awful and that all comes down to the ingredients. We use fresh whole foods and everything is made in house, so sure we cook with butter and cream but there isn’t anything processed on our menu, and that really makes all the difference.”
TM: What do you love about being a part of the Victoria dining scene?
JW: “Passion is the key to success in Victoria for sure and so we’ve aimed to hire and collaborate with people who have that level of passion that is going to make everything about The Guild great. From the food to the service and the cocktails, we want to make sure that our customers really feel and taste how important great quality is to us.”
TM: In your opinion, what has changed in the Victoria dining scene in the last 10 years?
JW: “People in Victoria are so knowledgeable and so aware of making sure they know what they’re eating. They want to know what the ingredients are and where they come from – and so do we. Being a part of the local food movement and seeing how people are responding to it is really cool.”
TM: What do you picture the next 10 years looking like for the Victoria food scene?
JW: “The food truck movement is exploding and I think that it’ll only grow. Victoria is a walking city, so it would make sense for food trucks to be everywhere soon.”
TM: If The Guild were a person, how would you describe it’s personality?
JW: “Oh man…that’s a tough one. OK here it goes:
The Guild would be a really dapper guy, always chivalrous and makes everyone feel at ease. He knows a ton about food and drink, can order a scotch like a connoisseur but can also bro down with a beer. He’s tons of fun, but knows when it’s time to call a cab. A gentleman through and through.”