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Marta Cafe and Pantry is a Little Bit of Paris in Victoria

Marta Cafe and Pantry is a Little Bit of Paris in Victoria

In the middle of Bay Street’s houses and hedged yards sits a little bit of Paris, in the form of Marta Cafe and Pantry. The cafe is on the only block between Blanshard Street and the hospital zoned for restaurant use.

While the location in this neighbourhood was perfect for owners Nikita Williams and Ellie Shortt, the space was far from inspiring. “It looked terrible,” says Nikita. “It was a Mexican restaurant and it was so ugly. The walls were red and there was a dead grapevine growing on the patio—it was a really hard sell.” Transforming Marta, named after Nikita’s grandmother, into the country-style French cafe it is now, was a whole-family effort.

“We did everything ourselves,” says Nikita. “Our husbands put in the flooring, they built the bar, tiled it, built the banquette, and we [Nikita and Ellie] painted everything”—all on a shoestring budget. The cafe’s farm-chic paintings were a gift from a longtime friend who happens to be a doctor at nearby Royal Jubilee Hospital. “We wouldn’t have had any money to put anything up on the walls,” says Nikita. “It would have been Ikea,” adds Ellie with a shudder. 

Nikita is a Red Seal chef and a former The London Chef general manager who also runs a wine bar with her husband in Brooklyn. Ellie is a certified nutritionist who trained in culinary arts in Paris after working for years in restaurants and as a broadcast journalist. With their combined talents, crafting a menu filled with their favourite things might have been the easiest part. 

Their egg Florentine is a beauty, delivered in ceramic crockery with two large slices of grilled French bread. Traditionally it includes sauteed spinach baked with eggs, but Marta’s version adds kale, along with shallots and fromage frais. “It’s a little teeny twist on a classic dish, but we’re working with really high-end ingredients,” says Ellie. 

Things like cheese from Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, which Ellie says comes from “really happy, pasture-raised cows,” and organic cream from Avalon. The produce is local and comes from Islands West, the eggs and meat come from the Fraser Valley’s Two Rivers, and cured meats are courtesy of Victoria’s The Whole Beast. Family-owned The Italian Bakery supplies their organic sourdough and Bubby Rose’s Bakery makes such a mean you-wouldn’t-know-it’s-gluten-free bun, they had to put it on the menu. 

“All these layers are the hidden secrets of Marta,” says Ellie. “It’s important to us to use grain-fed, gluten-free, organic—but we’re not overt about any of these choices. We try not to be in your face about it. Once people start peeling back the layers of Marta, they realize there’s so much more thought and intention that has gone into each item in a seamingly standard dish.”

On the menu? Buttery brioche, hardy smoked ham and salami sandwiches, and avocado and smashed pea tartine, but also big salads and local wine, beer and cider too. “I think good quality food from good quality sources is better for your body than any kind of buzzy, trendy whatever-is-of-the moment,” says Ellie. “We’re not saying: ‘Come get your superfoods!’ We think all foods are super, as long as they come from good sources.”

A rigorous “soft open” saw the co-owners navigating long line-ups and food shortages at the cafe daily. “We would come in at 6 a.m. and leave at 10 p.m., and at the end of the night looked like we had been run over,” says Nikita. After eight months of this, they finally found their feet.

Next for Marta will be hosting events after their 3 p.m. closing time. A friend of Nikita’s built them a longtable from reclaimed wood so they could clear out all the chairs and set up for farm-to-table feasts, which also help outfit the space for workshops and cocktail parties. “We have the capacity for a whole slew of different ways of using the room, but it’s been so full-on we haven’t had the energy or the time; that’s going to be our next step,” says Ellie.  

The pantry part of Marta isn’t to be overlooked either. This curated wall left of the service counter houses products from their favourite local vendors and artisans, and even a few items of their own. “Down the road, maybe phase three of Marta, will be developing our own product lines,” says Shortt. “There are certain stars”—(Ellie pronounces it stahs like Barbara Streisand)—“that have emerged from our menu.” Like their spiced tomato jam (Nikita loathes ketchup, refuses to have it in the building and was compelled to make an alternative), or their turmeric chai latte blend. 

“We’re not doing anything revolutionary,” says Nikita. “I just care that we’re consistently good. The lifespan of a restaurant is nothing—80 per cent make it to a year, five per cent make it to five years. I would much rather be that watering hole that’s been on the corner forever and isn’t the most avant-garde with food, but it’s where you go for a solid meal.”

Of her dedication to Marta, Nikita continues: “I open and close the cafe every day, and tomorrow I’m going to do it all again, but it’s not mundane at all. I’m happy to do it. It’s kind of all I’ve ever wanted, really.” 

Marta Cafe and Pantry is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Keep an eye on their website or Instagram for special events. 

Marta Cafe and Pantry
1600 Bay St, Victoria

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