I love Vancouver.
It’s green, it’s gorgeous, it’s lush, and it’s also the birthplace of lushes, like me for instance. And if that isn’t enough to convince you to go there, it’s got some pretty kick-ass restaurants, too. Lately, it seems like everyone I know is asking me for a list of recommendations for Vancouver, so I figured instead of writing yet another must-eat list for yet another friend headed north, I’d just blog about it. Because then, the next time I’m asked, I get to say, “Why don’t you check out my blog?” And I haven’t quite mastered saying that yet without sounding like a complete and total douche. Practice makes perfect!
So here’s my top ten list of places to frequent while visiting beautiful Vancouver, BC:
#10: Japadog www.japadog.com
Okay, fine, Japadog isn’t exactly a restaurant. But a trip to Vancouver isn’t complete without a little stop for some street meat, and Japadog has the best in town. There are several stands scattered all over the city, the most popular being the one on Burrard and Smithe, just outside the celebrity-frequented Sutton Place Hotel. Don’t let the menu scare you off– yes, things like julienned seaweed and bonito flake don’t usually go hand in hand with a hot dog, but trust me: these things are like little hot dog crack pipes. My favorite is the terimayo, a grilled smokie on a super soft bun topped with teriyaki sauce, miso mayonnaise, and crispy seaweed. The line is usually long, and it seems even longer when you have to stand in the rain, but it’s worth it. Plus, you can look at all the pictures of celebrities enjoying Japadog taped to the side of the cart, like Zac Efron and Steven Seagal! Or ignore those pictures, that works too.
#9: Jules Bistro www.julesbistro.ca
Jules Bistro is one of the very best French restaurants in Vancouver, in my opinion. Sure, you can go to Le Crocodile or Lumiere and burn a couple hundies, but what’s the point when you can spend less than half that and still have an authentic, fabulously delicious French dinner? Jules has an excellent prix fixe menu of three courses for $26 (salad or the always excellent soup of the day, steak or salmon or mussels with frites, and a delish chocolate mousse for dessert), or order off the menu and have a great lobster and tiger prawn bisque, or the caramelized onion, bacon, and blue cheese tart, or an excellent beef tenderloin with bordelaise sauce. It’s all good, and you can’t go wrong. Bonus points for the Quebecuois waitresses with their cooler-than-you black outfits and laissez faire attitude that make everything somehow taste even more authentic. Who doesn’t want their french onion soup with a little side of ‘tude? I know I do!
I’m sneaking two in here at once, but for good reason: Salt and Judas Goat are owned by the same people, and they sit right next to each other in Gastown’s Blood Alley. I promise you, Blood Alley sounds a lot worse than it is, and actually got its name because of the butcher shops located on that street back in the day. Or because of the public hangings. Or gruesome murders. Really, it all depends on who you ask, but either way, it’s becoming the secret hub to those in-the-know on the restaurant scene. Salt came first, a convivial room full of communal tables, hardwood, and a chalkboard marked with the fresh and tasty delectables of the day. But maybe don’t go to Salt starving– it’s more of a cured meats and artisanal cheeses type of place with plenty of fabulous wines by the glass to choose from. But the meats and cheeses you’ll be eating ain’t no ordinary charcuterie. We’re talking beautifully smoked sausage from the butchers at Oyama on Vancouver’s famed Granville Island, cheeses from Moonstruck Organic on Salt Spring Island, and really well thought out condiments to go along with it all. But if that’s not enough, my best advice is to put your name in for a table at the tapas restaurant Judas Goat next door (it’s tiny, and there’s always a wait), kill some time with some meat and cheese and wine at Salt, and then head back next door for some braised lamb collar or some maple sugar sablefish. Mmmm… murder!
#7: Il Giardino restaurant_ilgiardino.cfm
Il Giardino is an old fave of mine, always reliable, and always a lot of fun. I can’t tell you how many wine-soaked evenings were spent here with my group of very loud, very raucous friends, eating and drinking on their beautiful patio for hours on end. Despite our sometimes questionable behavior, the service at Il Giardino is always gracious, knowledgeable, and top-notch. The food is rustic and robust Italian, with stand-by’s like a great goat cheese souffle appetizer, roma tomato salad, prawn wrapped in crispy potato with a balsamic glaze, cannelloni with game meat, and my favorite, a luscious sweet and salty roasted quail. (I always, always order the quail if they have it. There’s something about sucking the meat off little birds I just can’t get enough of. And it sure is lady-like.) The best thing is, if you can’t decide, all of those yummy pastas can be ordered in an appetizer portion if you wish, or as a side dish to your main course. Magnifico!
#6: Rodney’s Oyster House www.rohvan.com
Rodney’s is yet another haunt my posse and I have frequented until the wee hours (there’s a theme here, I know). But truly, no visit to the ‘Couv would be complete without a meal at Rodney’s. It’s comfy and familiar and usually packed to the rafters with regulars downing oysters and beer at the bar while the staff, handsome strapping boys wearing t-shirts with “Eat Me Raw” on the front, just keep on shucking. There’s plenty of fresh, just-flown-in oysters from both coasts to choose from, and a great menu of other things too, like the scallops galette (scallops dredged in shredded potato, fried, and served with plum sauce), haida candy (salmon cured in peppercorns and maple syrup), awesome clam chowder, and even a nice sirloin steak. My favorites are the pan fried oysters, succulent, fat, crispy little babies served with the most perfect tartar sauce, best washed down with a crisp Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, filled to the very top of the glass Rodney’s-style so you have to slurp it like a common hobo. Take note of happy hour, known here as “Low Tide”, from 3pm-6pm where deals can be had on all that fried and crispy goodness.
#5: Nook www.nookrestaurant.ca
Nook is a newbie restaurant in Vancouver’s west end, tucked away into a tiny space on Denman St. and Robson St. They don’t take reservations, but all the good places don’t, so just shut up, grab a glass of prosecco from the bar, and wait it out. It’s worth it. The food is simple and fun, just like the atmosphere, and overeating is encouraged by the sweet and friendly servers urging you to try both the pizzas and the pastas… And with the smells wafting out of the semi-open kitchen, you’re going to eat as much as you bloody well can. Start with the crostini (my favorite is the chicken liver), some of their amazing meatballs, and maybe the escarole salad, and then tuck into the orecchiette with sausage and rapini, the spaghetti bolognese, and a couple of pizzas– the prosciutto with arugula and roasted garlic is insanely satisfying, as is the ricotta with roasted tomato. And wash it all down with a nice bottle of Dolcetto, please. For me.
#4: Bin941 www.bin941.com
Chef/owner Gord Martin opened up “the bins” (there’s two) in the late 90’s, and they’ve been pretty much packed solid ever since. Each restaurant has it’s own menu, but the one downtown on Davie and Burrard is my favorite. It’s yet another restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, and they’ll tell you when you get there that it’ll be a two hour wait, but it never really is. Head to the very back to the teeny tiny bar where they’ll serve you some cocktails while you wait and, if you’re lucky, a delicious amuse bouche from the kitchen just to remind you why you’re waiting in the first place. Quarters are tight, so be prepared to get to know your neighbor once you are seated, and keep your talk about last night’s conquests to yourself (or, if you’re my friends, simply don’t give a shit and overshare to your heart’s content). Order the navajo fry bread with goat cheese salsa, the beautiful spinach salad with baby beets and saganaki (that’s fried cheese with a squirt of lemon), the cinnamon and chili-rubbed flank steak with black pepper pomme frites, the wild mushroom and truffle risotto, and for God’s sake, the duck breast with fingerling potato hash, truffle oil, green beans, and cranberry-port jus. I live for that duck.
#3: Campagnolo www.campagnolorestaurant.ca
Get ready for another rustic Italian feast. Campagnolo is owned by the same guys behind the very popular Fuel restaurant in Kitsilano, but Campagnolo, in my opinion, is better. It’s in a shady part of Gastown, but don’t let that deter you. The food is excellent, and you’re not going to get a meal like it for that price anywhere else in town. Your best bet is to let the chef decide for you, and for $45, you’re going to eat like a king and stagger out of there with one helluva food baby. The most addictive thing on the menu is the crispi ceci, deep fried chickpeas with mint and chili that are like popcorn from heaven. But they also do incredible pastas like duck ravioli with celery puree, a pork ragu tagliatelle, and a simple and really beautiful spaghetti pomodoro with fresh tomatoes and basil. The pizzas are thin-crust and delicious, too, as is their red wine-braised beef with polenta. There’s also lasagna night every Thursday, with a big plate of the stuff, salad, and bread for only $20, and $14 pizza and beer every night after 9:30. There’s a reason a place gets voted best restaurant in town, and you owe it to yourself to find out.
#2: La Quercia www.laquercia.ca
La Quercia is in a quiet part of Kitsilano, at the corner of Alma and West 4th. The restaurant itself is pretty quiet and reserved, too, and it’s small, so make a reservation. But man, oh man, is it good. This place is serious about Italian cooking, and the chefs mean business. Don’t even look at the menu– get the $43 five-course menu or, better yet, splurge on the $59 nine-course menu and sit back and relax. The food here is so meticulously prepared, so deliciously simple but refined, each course seems to be in competition to top the last. Rich veal tonnato, burrata cheese and prosciutto sprinkled with salt, gnocchi made minutes before and served in the most spectacular rabbit ragu… You’re going to flip your lid. And maybe spend the night in a food coma rolling around on your bedroom floor cursing the chef gods at La Quercia for making you behave like a gluttonous food whore. But it’s worth it. So, so worth it.
#1: Boneta www.boneta.ca
Boneta gets my top spot because a. I’m loyal and I’m there all the time, b. it’s always fantastic, and c. they give me free champagne every time I walk in the door. Situated in Gastown in a big, cavernous warehouse-like space, its menu is proudly displayed via a projector up on the wall above the open kitchen. It’s always changing, which is fun when you go there as often as I do, and the food never, ever disappoints. They do have some standards that never leave the menu, thankfully, like the smoked bison carpaccio with arugula, parmesan, and gorgeous little hard-boiled quail eggs, or the addictive poutine- crispy french fries dressed with cheese curds and drenched in veal gravy. Start with their “daily baked bread”, perfect loaves of warm and soft bread sprinkled with salt and served with lotsa butter. Try to contain yourself so you have room for their mains, which can be duck served two ways- roasted breast, and some in-house made sauteed duck sausage, or a really amazing piece of steelhead trout with a thyme sour cream pasta. Dessert’s out of control, too: sticky toffee pudding, or a chocolate mousse with corn (!) ice cream, or a plate of house-made petit-fours with some of the best salted caramels I’ve ever had, complete with cute lil’ white wrapper. Be sure to sample some of their amazing wines on their ever-changing list, compiled by Neil Ingram, sommelier extraordinaire, who has one of the best mustaches I’ve ever seen. Rumor has it Boneta’s moving to a new space in Blood Alley, so check their website for details. “Boneta Loves You” is scrawled on their menu, and all I gotta say is, the feeling’s mutual.
So there you have it. My favorite city and my favorite places. I hope you adore them as much as I do.