What makes a great neighbourhood restaurant (as opposed to a destination restaurant or temple of cuisine for which you would go out of your way)?
The restaurant has to be close to home, at least for the locals who frequent it regularly. Should the restaurant become a destination for outsiders, it still feels essential to the soul of the area and has loyal customers who convey a sense of ownership. It has to be warm and welcoming with a convivial atmosphere, offer high-quality food and good value.
Nook is one of those great neighbourhood restaurants. Almost from the minute it opened 4½ years ago, the tiny West End pizza and pasta joint had lines out the door. The congestion eased up slightly when the owners turned their adjacent Tapastree restaurant into the Italian-themed Tavola (albeit to the deep dismay of Tapastree’s long-time regulars). And now they have accomplished the Herculean feat of transporting a similar magic to Kitsilano.
On a busy stretch of Yew Street one block up from the beach, Nook Kitsilano benefits from being in a cluster of restaurants while clearly distinct from the others (which include a sushi joint, a smokehouse, a Cajun oyster bar and an izakaya).
You may remember Rossini’s, a great jazz bar (although never a great restaurant), where dancing patrons spilled out onto the sidewalk every Saturday afternoon for nearly 20 years. The Nook crew took over the building and renovated from the ground up.
At 60 seats, the new Nook is twice the size of the original, yet feels just as cozy. It looks a lot like the other, appointed in glossy teak, large mirrors, polished concrete and bright red accents. But the bar is much longer, the front windows open wide in the summer and the space is divided into two rooms.
The first room boasts a takeaway counter (which they don’t have on Denman Street). It also accommodates larger tables and families in need of highchairs and space to sprawl, which is probably essential to its success in this neighbourhood.
“Kitsilano is a whole different beast,” co-owner Brad Rourke says. “People here seem to travel in bigger groups.” (His partners are Mike Jeffs, Nicole Welsh and James Maxwell in the new location.)
A great neighbourhood restaurant is a place where everyone knows your name, even when you don’t expect it. That’s what happened to the friend who suggested I check out the new Nook. The first time he visited, the bartender and servers all introduced themselves by name. The second time he went, he didn’t remember their names but they knew his. Now he’s there almost once a week.
Nobody recognized me, but our server looked familiar. “Did you work at the Denman location,” I asked. “No, but I was at the bar so much they asked me to work here,” she said. Talk about customer ownership.
Sherry was an excellent server, by the way. She knew the menu inside out, made fantastic wine recommendations and did not rush us when the lines started forming. She was genuinely friendly. She obviously loves her job. And that warm, engaged service is a big part of the reason there is almost always a lineup at both locations (after 7 p.m.), even though the owners have never done any advertising or public relations.
Well, that and the tunes. Who doesn’t love a mix of cheesy 1980s one-hit wonders and classic rock?
HIGH QUALITY FOOD
The menu is almost the same. It’s a simple selection of top-notch antipasto, fire-roasted pizza and handmade pasta.
The pizzas are not Neapolitan style, but they have thin crust, bubbly air pockets, golden spotting, a light yeasty chew and traditional toppings. Think buratta, rapini, garlic, sausage and pancetta.
With a larger kitchen, the new restaurant can offer a few additional appetizers, including a vegetable platter. The meatballs, moist and bathed in a bright, freshly crushed tomato sauce, are as delicious as always.
The only real difference is that the crostini here are prepared in the kitchen, not at the bar. Which made me wonder why our toasted Calabrese bread under a creamy layer of whipped ricotta, honey and hazelnuts was cold. That was the only disappointment.
The prices are not the cheapest around. But the high-quality ingredients and freshness of flavour are worthwhile. When two can dine well for less than $80, including tip and a bottle of wine, that’s good value for Vancouver.
The wine program is one of the best in town. although not extensive, the list is extremely well edited and full of unusual gems with very low markups. If you like Brunello, try their Crognolo. It’s a juicy, tannic, full-bodied steal for $58.
The new Nook will be expanding into lunch service come spring. As for other locations, Mr. Rourke says he would not rule out the possibility. “This was like going to another city for us, and so far so good. I think we’ve got a good brand, but we’ll never be a chain.”
Let’s hope not.
No stars: Not recommended.
*Good, but will not blow a lot of minds
**Very good, with some standout qualities
***Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
****Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution