Local's Guide: Vancouver

In my 42 years, I’ve had the surreal privilege of watching my home town of Vancouver mushroom from an Anglo-hippie hangover of empire to one of the most vibrant and liveable cities on the planet.

With its core hemmed in by water, city planners were forced to look up rather than out, the result being today’s striking metropolis of soaring steel and glass set against the dramatic backdrop of the Coast Mountains. 

The Pacific outpost has blossomed most deliciously through cuisine, recently emerging as one of the world’s most exciting foodie cities. As a food writer and restaurant critic, I’ve witnessed a new generation of chefs and restaurateurs take the reins in the past decade, and rather than looking to cities such as New York City or Paris for culinary cues (as their forebears did), they’ve focused, instead, on the vast bounty of their own backyard. With great farms and foraging opportunities close at hand, a protein-rich ocean right on their doorstep and viticulture booming in the nearby Okanagan Valley, they’ve been empowered with nearly every tool they could ask for, not to mention legions of diners keen to lap it all up.

This is best evidenced in Gastown, the city’s oldest area, which languished for much of the 20th century. At the north-east end of Downtown, it was mostly avoided on account of its grittiness until the mi-2000s. But now it’s home to dozens of popular restaurants, plus Vancouver’s most impressive cafes.

The best way to tackle the area is to begin with a proper cup of coffee and some people-watching at Revolver, where the baristas are precise and the customers take ownership of the sidewalk.

But the most representative taste of the revitalised district can perhaps be had at the award-winning L’Abattoir, which has been propelling the new wave with its polished coastal cuisine since 2010. The artfully arranged plates are inventive but never precious. Think fennel-flecked grilled octopus with squid-ink crumbs and Pacific halibut poached in chicken fat with English peas, guanciale (an Italian cured meat) and beans.

Nearby you’ll find Wildebeest, an equally excellent eatery that has tapped into the way most Vancouverites prefer to dine: exceptionally well, but without formality. As the meaty name suggests, the kitchen is carnivore oriented, serving everything from roasted bone marrow and horse tartare to veal sweetbreads and Cornish game hen. The restaurant’s poutine dish is one of its best and sees French fries swimming in a hot mushroom and chicken gravy studded with melting cheese curds.

For those less meat-loving diners, I always recommend The Acorn, located in the discerningly hip neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant. This sophisticated but wholly unpretentious restaurant with a plant-focused menu is worth the 15-minute cab ride from Gastown. For vegetarian visitors, depending on where they come from, The Acorn might even be worth the airfare.

Right next to Gastown is bustling Chinatown, which I call home. Chinese immigration has played an important role in the development of Vancouver since the gold rushes of the 1850s and continues to shape its culture and character today (there are more than 400,000 ethnic Chinese in the Greater Vancouver Regional District - making up almost 20 per cent of the population).

One of Chinatown’s best restaurants - also one of the most celebrated in Canada - is Bao Bei. Sexy, timeless and svelte, the beautifully designed room is the area’s coolest establishment. Its blend of Shanghainese and French food is less gimmicky fusion than original genius: try the steamed mantou buns with pork belly and sugared peanuts, or the delicate petit cadeaux pork and prawn wontons in hot consommé. Plenty of thought has been put into the wine list as well.

A few doors down is The Keefer Bar, a dimly lit Chinese apothecary-inspired cocktail joint that serves up elixir-like drinks, such as the Northern Exposure - a smoky blend of maplewood-mellowed rye whisky and lapsang tea sweetened with maple syrup, pineapple and lemon.

Like Bao Bei, The Keefer exemplifies Vancouver’s connections to Asia. To get a feel for it, I always suggest visitors take some time to explore the adjacent city of Richmond, labelled the most Asian city in North America, with hundreds of authentic restaurants to prove it.

Back in Vancouver proper, a visit to the vast Granville Island is a good place for anyone wishing to decipher the city. The countless food vendors at the Granville Island Public Market show off the best produce from British Columbia and around the world, plus handmade arts and crafts. Fishing vessels moor right next door in False Creek so you’ll find chefs and locals snatching up freshly caught salmon, halibut, crab and more.

If crowds aren’t your thing, head to the city’s west side for the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, where a 26-metre blue whale skeleton is suspended from the ceiling and there is aisle-upon-aisle of taxidermied treasures, plus more than 20,000 fossils. It’s my personal favourite retreat; a calm respite from the bustle of Downtown. In the navel of the city, you’ll find the imposing Vancouver Art Gallery. Its neoclassical shell is home to more than 10,000 works. Local artists such as Emily Carr and Jeff Wall are well represented in the permanent collection, but the exhibits that come and go often do so on a grand scale. It’s also a gathering place for the citizenry to protest or celebrate. On any given day, its grounds could play host to impromptu demonstrations against whatever presently irks those assembled.

If you require reinvigoration, slip into the Rosewood Hotel Georgia across the street. Not only does it make for a fine place to stay, but underneath lies Prohibition, a high-end bar staffed by first-rate professionals who craft some of the city’s best cocktails.

The old, ivy-draped Sylvia Hotel is a romantic pile located across the street from the beach on English Bay. It has kept watch over the stunning ocean sunsets since 1912, so it’s something of a local darling. For a much sleeker place to sleep, aim for the modern, cool Loden Hotel - an ideal base from which to explore, given its central Coal Harbour address.

Meet your Guide

Vancouver-born Morrison was a 20- year veteran of the food and restaurant trade before he became a food writer and restaurant critic. In 2008, he and his wife Michelle Sproule launched Scout Magazine, which has since become the city’s leading food and culture resource. He is a graduate of South Africa’s University of Cape Town (modern history, classics), the editor of the award-winning Vancouver Cooks cookbook (2010), and co-author and editor of best-selling The SoBo Cookbook (2014). He is the senior judge at the Vancouver Gold Medal Plates cooking competition, the national referee and head BC judge at the Canadian Culinary Championships, and an advisor to the Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants guide and enRoute magazine’s annual Best New Restaurants in Canada issue. Morrison is also the proud father of two boys with exemplary table manners.

Words by Andrew Morrison - Published in Voyeur June 2015
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 2.3 million
Time Zone GMT -8 hours
Languages English, French
Currency Canadian dollar ($CAD)
Electricity 120v - 60Hz
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