Alexandra Gill selects her favourite new restaurants in Metro Vancouver – and one from beyond. In an industry hobbled by labour shortages, rising food costs and crippling rents and property taxes, these establishments pushed the culinary scene forward with original concepts, tangible passion and, above all, excellent food.
1. Row Fourteen
Klippers Organics, 725 Mackenzie Rd., Cawston, B.C., 250-499-0758, rowfourteen.ca
Cooking with fire might be all the rage, but not everyone is capable of stoking salivation from flames. Derek Grey honed his extensive techniques at Savio Volpe before heading to Cawston, B.C., where he joins an exodus of hospitality talent that has been flooding the Okanagan. All three restaurants I reviewed in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys this year, including the stately Home Block at CedarCreek Estate Winery and Kelowna’s pioneering, plant-based Frankie We Salute You!, could easily have made this list. But because it is ostensibly a list celebrating the best new restaurants in Metro Vancouver, I made the tough call of singling out the one that left the most indelible impression. To put Row Fourteen in the top slot required no second thought. Of all the restaurant meals I consumed this year, this leisurely lunch burned brightest. Nestled in the lush Similkameen Valley, beyond all regular restaurant-supply delivery routes and nearly out of cell-phone range, Mr. Grey along with Annamarie and Kevin Klippenstein of Klippers Organics, have built a pitch-perfect farm restaurant and cidery that honours the orchards and fields surrounding it. Blazing at the back of a rustic dining room built from wooden beams and picture windows, a custom-designed hearth that transforms every morsel of produce and protein it kisses into charred, smoky, drool-worthy gold. There are ash-baked carrots drizzled with sticky-apple molasses, juicy dry-aged burgers smeared with coal-roasted beets and wild mushroom tartines set in glossy pools of brown butter. Each ingredient shines with simplicity, the appropriate touch of fire and magnifying layers in the subtle forms of crushed nuts, infused oils and caramelized whey. It is all washed down with rare local wines and intriguing house-made ciders, creating an experience fully of the place. Now closed for winter, Row Fourteen is a casual destination restaurant, but one worthy of the scenic trip for serious foodies.
2. Como Taperia
201 E. 7th Ave., Vancouver, 604-879-3100, comotaperia.com
It’s not easy to inject new vitality into a concept as timeworn as Spanish tapas. Or build a buzz-worthy kitchen when nearly half the snack menu is devoted to conservas served from peel-back tins. But this is exactly what a trio of Spanish-obsessed industry veterans (Shaun Layton, Frankie Harrington and Justin Witcher) have accomplished at this vivacious bar in Mount Pleasant. In addition to premium tinned seafood, the small plate standouts includes juicy chorizo (made locally to precise specifications), spicy morcilla sliders on squid-ink buns, pan-fried chicken livers, golden croquettes and runny egg tortillas. It’s perfect for sharing around high-top tables and communal counters while soaking up the energetic ambience. For sipping, there are excellent cocktails, vermouth or sherry on tap and fountain-poured txakoli. It’s crowded and cheerful, polished yet comforting and usually filled with Spaniards, which proves that they’ve nailed it.
1109 Hamilton St., Vancouver, 604-362-5443, elisasteak.com
For a restaurant that purports to be a modern reinterpretation of the classic steakhouse with “feminine” details, Elisa looks an awful lot like an alpha male strutting his stuff. It is not the most welcoming restaurant in the Toptable Group. The service can be stiff, the tables are tight, the long runway of a dining room lacks intimacy and feels cold – even with the showcase Grillworks Infierno wood-fired grill burning brightly in the open kitchen. The Italian-leaning menu offers so much choice – especially in its staggering selection of steaks and trophy-filled wine cellar – it is almost unwieldy. And yet, all of this braggadocio is also what makes Elisa so impressive. Every big city needs a few grand, buzzy, splurge-worthy stages where people can go to see and be seen. This is the most stylish of its sort in Vancouver.
4. Blossom Dim Sum & Grill
808 Bute St., Vancouver, 236-865-8166, blossomdimsumandgrill.com
Metro Vancouver is well known internationally for having the best Chinese food in North America. Yet so much of it is intimidating and hard to navigate for the average non-Asian diner. Blossom brings excellent dim sum and innovative fusion cuisine to the masses in delightful new forms – sui mai ravioli, bison puffs, red-bean rose buns – that never taste dumbed down. More affordable than Mott 32 and less cool than Bao Bei, it’s almost like a Chinese Cactus Club. With its excellent wine program, attention to sustainable food sourcing, casual-premium vibe and tight co-operation between the Asian and Western sides of its kitchen, Blossom feels very much a product of Vancouver. If only the service was a little less clunky.
5. Mumbai Local
1148 Davie St., Vancouver, 604-423-3281, mumbailocal.ca
This dynamite Indian restaurant should have placed high on last year’s list, but I was late to review it, so am now making amends. Setting itself apart from Vancouver’s largely monotonous sea of Punjabi cuisine, Mumbai Local specializes in the street foods of its eponymously named city. There is snack-sized chaat daintily plated in a style more commonly reserved for afternoon tea and mouth-watering soft-bun sliders filled with chickpea-battered potato patties or brightly seasoned goat. For lunch, there are tiffin boxes filled with a daily changing array of rarely seen regional curries. At dinner, traditional stews are given a more contemporary spin. There are lots of choices for vegetarians, sensational grilled dishes and festive specials for religious holidays. With friendly service and great cocktails, it’s a casual favourite perfectly suited to the West End.
6. Big Day BBQ
Big Day BBQ isn’t a restaurant, at least not in the traditional sense. It doesn’t have a tin roof over its head (it’s a barbecue pit on wheels) or a permanent roadside shack to call home (although the new NFL tailgate series every Sunday at The American gives it some semblance of regularity). What it does offer is a true taste of Southern barbecue the way it’s meant to be eaten: hot, juicy and straight out of the smoker (with proper resting for certain cuts when required) on a first-come, first-serve basis. The platters are heaped high with silken pulled pork, jiggly bark-blackened brisket and meaty Memphis-style ribs. They come with terrific pickles, salads and pies. And it’s all doled out with such big-hearted hospitality that you won’t even mind waiting in line.
7. Ubuntu Canteen
4194 Fraser St., Vancouver, 604-336-9097, ubuntucanteen.ca
David Gunawan, one of Vancouver’s most celebrated chefs, says he “gave up his career” to open this family friendly, collectively run space that is more community centre than restaurant. But in a city where the traditional restaurant model is becoming unsustainable for independent operators, this unconventional concept might prove more impactful than any of his previous awards. In addition to long-table suppers, movie nights, artisan markets and spiritual lectures, Ubuntu’s excellent pastry chef, Myra Maston, has pioneered Vancouver’s first sourdough subscription. Dynamic lunch, brunch and dinner menus are built around whatever fresh ingredients – from fat heirloom hogs to tiny sweet turnips – are provided by a close-knit circle of holistically minded farmers. The wholesome intentions are burnished with refined techniques and astonishing flavours.
8. Livia Bakery
1339 Commercial Dr., Vancouver, 604-423-3869, liviasweets.com
Livia is more than just a bakery. It’s a counter-service café where you can order spaghetti carbonara and dark-roast coffee for breakfast. It’s a welcoming spot for aperitivo-hour cocktails and charcuterie plates. It’s a natural wine and house-made pasta bar three nights a week. It celebrates beauty (the tiled interior is highly Instagrammable), simplicity (all Italian-leaning dishes contain five great ingredients or fewer) and community collaborations (drinks by Trans Am, for instance). At the centre of all this, however, Claire Livia Lassam’s sourdough country loaves – thickly blistered, golden-ring crusted and made with a four-year-old starter named Gaia – remain its heart and soul.
1725 Davie St., Vancouver, 604-336-9774, arikerestaurant.ca
Vancouver’s only Nigerian restaurant might be totally on trend with the rise of Afrobeats and West African cooking in North America, but it still feels fresh and original. Chef and co-owner Sam Olayinka adds fine-dining finesse to classic staples such as spicy jollof rice, charred suya-beef skewers and fried pof pof doughnuts. But his modern creations – including beautifully plated goat dumplings and supremely flavourful oxtail flatbread – should not be missed. The humble basement hideaway gets a lift from consummately professional service and elegant craft cocktails.
10. Do Chay Saigon Vegetarian
1392 Kingsway, Vancouver, 604-225-8349, dochay.ca
If Vancouverites were to vote on a single dish that most pleased their palates this year, Do Chay’s coconut rice cakes would be the hands-down winner. Creamy yet crisp with a golden cast-iron sear, fragrantly herbaceous and (not least of all) vegan, these savoury cakes were raved about by everyone who ate them. That this highly inventive, wholly vegetarian and largely gluten-free Vietnamese kitchen can make its dishes taste authentic without fish sauce, oyster sauce or fermented shrimp paste is remarkable in itself. That they’ve managed to carve out such a modern space with cross-generational appeal on the far reaches of Kingsway is deserving of loud applause.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story referred to the Okanagan, instead of the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys.
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