Once upon a time, cafés were simple. They served coffee, tea and maybe a few stale doughnuts or soggy sandwiches. These days, Vancouver is going through a café renaissance. There were probably as many cafés that opened last year as full-service restaurants. And they don’t just pour coffee – they serve lifestyles in extravagant photo booths, ecological movements on reusuable plates, mini vacations to Tuscany, niche concepts and, increasingly, excellent food.
Laurence & Chico Café
833 Bute St., 604-688-8680
Alice in Wonderland meets an early incarnation of Lady Gaga at this fantastical concept café by local avant-garde fashion duo Laurence Li and Chico Wang. The counters are covered in green mermaid scales, rubber duckies drip from the bathroom ceiling and the tearoom is set around a fuzzy forest of Cookie Monster-like armchairs with unicorn-horned canopies, Cyclops eyeballs embedded in toadstool legs and tweed backs buttoned with rhinestone pearls.
Since opening in June, those fringed chairs have proliferated faster than a crop of magic mushrooms (originally there were four, now 14) and the staff members appear overwhelmed by the crowds. Reservations for the $49 afternoon tea must be made 24 hours in advance, one breathless server politely explained during the holiday rush, and weekend seats require “at least two weeks, maybe a month’s…” notice. (Opening hours will be extended this week and your best chances of snagging a table are from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. or 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.)
Many of the gold-flaked pastries and savoury bites are studded with Asian flavours: mini cucumber sandwiches spread with umeboshi cream; chocolate-glazed mousse cake layered with sticky-rice pudding. The diminutive snacks are relatively expensive ($4 to $6.95), sell out quickly (especially the macaron ice-cream sandwiches by La Glace) and don’t all taste particularly fresh. But the coffee beverages (using 49th Parallel’s Old School Espresso) are surprisingly good. And let’s be honest, the only reason you’re here is to share a photo on Instagram.
675 East Broadway, 778-806-3783, nadagrocery.com
You will, of course, have to bring your own containers if you want to grab lunch on the run at Nada, a new café inside the package-free grocery store where shoppers can buy a single egg, if they choose, or bulk-bin lentils by the gram. Co-owners Brianne Miller and Paula Amiama are so dedicated to the zero-waste philosophy that they don’t even provide paper napkins at the deli counter, where daily smoothies, energy balls, toasts, soups and salads are made from the store’s blemished produce and surplus foods approaching their best-before dates.
The flavours are exceedingly healthy. Avocado toast on sourdough has a whiff of nutritional yeast in the lemony carrots grated overtop. Spicy peanut soup is thick with all-natural peanut butter. A vegan eggnog and chocolate smoothie has the dark, funky finish of fully ripened bananas.
But they will gladly stuff your sandwich in a plastic freezer bag, without judgment, if that’s all you brought. Or offer a free ceramic mug donated by some kind-hearted soul if you really want a Bows & Arrows coffee to go. And in the end, all that earnestness does leave a good taste in the mouth.
Caffé La Tana
635 Commercial Dr., 604-428-5462, caffelatana.ca
I could blow a lot cash at this specialty Italian grocery store and café, newly opened next door to Pepino’s Spaghetti House. On the shelves and in the coolers up front, you’ll find premium anchovies, buffalo mozzarella flown in from Italy, orange-blossom marmalade, dry Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta, Spanish macron almonds, bagna cauda ceramic dishes and wooden paddles for making gnocchi by hand. The selection isn’t any better than Bosa Foods (and certainly much smaller), but it’s all so beautifully curated and displayed in this winsome room wrapped in white marble, checkerboard tile and dusty sage.
The fresh pasta display in the back, however, is the real reason to visit. Made daily, right behind the counter in a cloud of fine powder, the selection includes tiny agnolotti stuffed with veal and black pepper, soft tangles of bright-yellow fettucini, bowties pinched with ruffled edges and neatly folded cappelletti plump with mascarpone and squash.
You can buy the pasta to cook at home ($4 to $6 for 100 grams) or enjoy a light lunch in the tightly squeezed café.
Their There and Hundy Burgers
2042-B West Fourth Ave., 604-736-8828, theirthere.ca
The buttermilk-fried chicken at AnnaLena restaurant in Kitsilano is so juicy, crispy and wildly popular, chef-owner Mike Robbins often laments that he can’t take it off the menu. Fans now have another way to get their fix – stuffed into a squishy brioche bun slathered with jalapeno aioli at Their There, a new café from the same owners that opened last summer.
The fried-chicken sandwich is an excellent sandwich, as are the breakfast buns. There is also thick tomato soup (all tomato, no filler or fuss) and daily cronuts that are airy, crisp and light, yet at the same time drenched in rich, sugary syrup.
It’s a funny little space that almost looks unfinished with plywood walls closing off the upper section. But it’s very cozy, neighbourly and busy with customers of all ages tucked into cubicles or spread out at the central communal table. The menu is small. There are actually more drinks (including dolce de leche coffees, natural wine and craft beer) than food. But every bite smacks of full flavour and fun.
Just before Christmas, the café began opening in the evenings with a new burger concept called Hundy Burgers. It’s only available (for now) on Friday and Saturday nights.