1471 Continental St., Vancouver
1481 Continental St., Vancouver
1428 Granville St., Vancouver
I wish there had been a Breton crêpe-and-cider house as sweet as Ça Marche Crêperie back when I lived about a block away from what is now Vancouver House. Heck, I wish there had been anything in that sad concrete stretch of no man’s land between the waterfront and Yaletown.
When I moved out, almost a decade ago, the Bjarke Ingels-designed tower hadn’t yet begun twisting its distinctive spiral above the Granville Bridge ramps. But the plans for a bustling community at ground level were already in place and I advised my ex to hang onto his condo until it was realized.
He, who was then still mourning his beloved, long-departed Carlos ‘n Bud’s (the lone local watering hole) had trouble envisioning a “Beach District” (as the neighbourhood has now been tweely coined) wedged into such a dark, awkward space. Sadly, I have no idea if he still lives in the area. But he’s Québécois and if he does, I’ll bet he just loves being able to amble over to Ça Marche for a slice of exquisitely seared foie gras with buckwheat blinis. Or maybe he doesn’t care and still dreams of smoked-chicken nachos. He’s an ex for good reason.
Whatever ill will you might harbour for Westbank Corp. and its tone-deaf installation of a $4.8-million spinning chandelier in an underpass where homeless people often sleep, the property developer has done an excellent job of curating a smart trio of independently owned restaurants alongside a grocery store, pharmacy, gym and private university campus at the base of its flashy residential tower.
There was supposed to be a fourth restaurant – a much ballyhooed outpost of David Chang’s Momofuku empire. The long delay has made most people assume that it’s never coming, but the deal’s not dead yet.
“We’re still having ongoing discussions,” says Emilie Lok, who works in Westbank’s commercial leasing team, adding that the success of the other restaurants gives her hope.
Autostrada Osteria Vancouver House
Autostrada was first past the starting line when it opened its third cheerful pasta joint at Vancouver House last spring, shortly before indoor dining was ordered closed. When doors reopened a few months later, it was the first place I went to celebrate.
Who wouldn’t want to dig into a comforting plate of tender meatballs – as soft as your mama makes, swaddled in an exquisitely balanced San Marzano sauce – when emerging from isolation in a world that still felt scary and uncertain?
Autostrada has nailed the friendly neighbourhood restaurant formula. It’s one that never disappoints in the kitchen, with quality ingredients and remarkable consistency. Over many visits to all of its locations, the only dish I didn’t love was the roast chicken, which wasn’t really roasted and barely browned when I tried it downtown, but still juicy and delicious.
The Vancouver House menu was originally going to be more elevated, but the pandemic wasn’t the right time to stray from the tried-and-true. There are a few new dishes, including hearty pappardelle with thick, luscious slices of braised guanciale, which is giving the beloved duck-anchovy ragu and vitello tonnato stiff competition for fan favourite.
The bar, as always, offers intriguing, value-priced wine discoveries. I’ll bet it had a few requests for pecorino – a crisp, straw-yellow, full-bodied white varietal from Abruzzo – which I wrote about after that spring dinner, puzzling many cheese-loving readers who e-mailed me to demand an explanation.
The bartender will likely open any bottle if you only want to try a couple of glasses. Want a substitute from the menu? No problem. And the servers don’t clench their teeth when you request a half-order of risotto.
Autostrada is just that kind of place – relaxed, warm, welcoming and immediately at home in Vancouver House. The restaurant was so popular, it was actually very hard to get a reservation … until Linh Café opened in September.
Of the three Vancouver House restaurants, Linh Café is (surprisingly) the biggest and showiest, with its soaring ceilings, white-marble bar and curvy banquettes all wrapped up in an Art Nouveau bow.
It also has the most heartwarming backstory. Chef-owner Tai Nguyen came to Canada from a small town in North Vietnam in 2001, not speaking a word of English, and began washing dishes at Jean-Yves Benoit’s L’Emotion, an upscale French restaurant in West Vancouver. He moved up and onward, honing his skills in many of the city’s finest French kitchens – Mistral, Chez Thierry, La Régalade and finally Café La Régalade, which he eventually bought and turned into Linh Café, in Kitsilano.
The original neighbourhood bistro served Vietnamese staples alongside French country classics and was perennially popular. “It was one of the most underrated restaurants in Vancouver,” Westbank’s Ms. Lok says, adding that many people in her office were besotted regulars, which is partly why they approached the family.
I wasn’t quite as enamoured when I reviewed the restaurant in 2015. The menu at the new location is much the same as the original (now closed and for sale). And I still think Mr. Nguyen’s rustic French dishes – hand-chopped steak tartare, richly reduced beef bourguignon; fudgy, herb-kissed country terrines wrapped in bacon – are better than his Vietnamese spring rolls (slightly greasy) and (blandish) stir-fried beef.
But now I’m married into the Régalade family (my husband, by the way, is no fan of nachos). It would be a conflict-of-interest to say much more than the place is packed (even on a Sunday night), customers still love it and It’s extremely uplifting to see a deserving family given a much larger platform when Westbank could very easily have filled this prime property with a chain.
Ça Marche Crêperie
The award for most original Vancouver House restaurant goes to Ça Marche Crêperie, a niche concept suavely squeezed into a narrow space with a tight focus on buckwheat crêpes and local cider.
Well, you can also order foie gras and caviar, but the galettes de sarrasin are the main draw – thin, bubbly and crispy-edged, wrapped around savoury fillings.
Purists will stick to the traditional jambon blanc (with a soft-yolk fried egg over a melted bed of tangy gruyere as its centrepiece). But owner Maxime Bettili, who infuses this ode to his Britanny-born mother with the same Gallic charm that his customers at Au Comptoir have come to love, adds a few North American twists to the repertoire.
The saucisse is rolled like an haute hot dog with pea shoots and pepper relish. The boeuf showcases tender tarragon brisket garnished with fried potatoes thinly sliced into coins. And the sweet crêpes, made with a white-flour batter, feature fun house-churned ice creams flavoured with croissants, orange zest and licorice candy.
French ciders are available by the bottle and served in traditional porcelain bowls. But Mr. Bettili reserves his taps for local varieties and treats them wine or craft beer, served by the glass, half-litre and litre, to encourage customers to try them.
The prices, ranging from $17 to $24 for savoury crepes, are a lot steeper than you’d find them in Brittany. And I don’t quite buy it when Ms. Lok says Ça Marche is an approachable hangout for the local university students. (I bet they’ll more likely gravitate to the very good sandwich bar at Fresh St. Market.)
But there’s no denying that this diverse collection of local restaurants has created a vibrant sense of community in an unlikely space.
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