Word spread fast on WeChat last week: Landmark Hot Pot, one of Vancouver’s oldest and most lauded Cantonese seafood restaurants, was opening a patio.
This was big news among Chinese food aficionados. Until very recently, most Chinese restaurants have not been taking advantage of the temporary expedited patio programs. And even now, with indoor dining prohibited in British Columbia until at least May 24, there are only about 20 Chinese restaurants out of hundreds across Metro Vancouver that offer outdoor dining.
On Friday night, we parked on Cambie Street and approached the restaurant, where the dark, street-facing windows were plastered in brown paper. It looked closed, permanently.
But then we rounded the corner, walked down the back alley and found ourselves in a sunny little oasis that was as picturesque as possible for a concrete parking lot overlooking residential garages and pulled together in a mere matter of days.
Six tables, fully set with heavy linen, bone china and portable butane burners, were separated from a few parked cars by wooden fencing covered in stretched tarp. Tall silk screens divided the tables into private nooks. High-backed chairs with padded seats had been carted out from the dining room.
The dark-suited servers, who nearly outnumbered customers, brought out a cauldron filled with rich oxtail broth and began filling our small side tables with platters of thinly sliced marbled beef, delicate tofu puffs, slippery bean curd sticks and bushy, green bundles of watercress and chrysanthemum.
A whole snapper (not live, but fresh and on special for $29.80) was exquisitely sliced into glistening, bite-sized portions, each with a uniform sliver of red skin down the side.
The fish bones, head and tail came on a separate plate, battered in flour, studded with garlic and fried to a perfect, golden crisp.
As we waited for the broth to boil, we dived into a heap of lightly fried Dungeness crab coated in a dry black-pepper crumble and juicy, crackly chicken wings dusted with sour-plum powder.
When the hot pot began bubbling, general manager Sydney Leung insisted on cooking our first round of snapper. Gently swishing each piece through the broth until the flesh curled and turned opalescent around the edges, he tamped them in a long-handled strainer and served us one by one.
The service was outstanding and even more attentive than you’d typically find inside the busy dining room. The food was amazing, as always. And save for a few gusts of wind that kept knocking over the patio’s large, cantilevered umbrellas (since replaced by sturdier white canopies), the setting was charming.
And yet, for many Chinese diners and the restaurant owners themselves, it still felt weird.
“Honestly, this is something I never thought I’d see,” Lee Man, a good friend, renowned epicurean and founding judge for the Chinese Restaurant Awards, explained at the time and elaborated a few days later.
“It was lovely. The service was exemplary. The food was pristine. But my mom wouldn’t like it.”
It’s a question that has been vexing me since last summer, when I watched Chinese restaurants hollow out and wither. Why were only 12 temporary patios – none attached to Chinese restaurants – applied for and approved in all of Richmond last summer?
Every restaurant owner and friend I asked gave me similar answers: Chinese people don’t like dining outside. It’s dirty. It’s dusty. Food is an experience that needs to be enjoyed with friends and family. Sitting in a car park is not an enjoyable experience with exhaust fumes floating in the air. We’d rather just get takeout and eat at home.
But what about Richmond Night Market? Or Hong Kong’s beloved dai pai dong and the thousands of street-stall vendors across China?
“That’s different,” Mr. Man now explains. “That’s casual dining. It’s cheap. It’s fast. It’s low-class. And it’s not considered hygienic. Even in Hong Kong, there are only a few dai pai dong left. They are slowly being shut down and moved indoors.”
And once you move indoors with proper table service and higher-end food, or migrate to Canada and improve your station in life, the idea of going back outside to dine would be weird.
“It would be like going backwards,” he says.
Although many people like to think of Chinese food as being cheap and cheerful, that’s not the case at the Cantonese seafood restaurants for which Vancouver is renowned.
“The food has to be pristine,” Mr. Man explains. “That’s a big deal for Chinese people. They don’t want pollutants or dust getting into the food.”
The communal style of family dining at these restaurants, already hard hit by group-size limits when indoor dining was allowed, is also quite different from most Western restaurants and doesn’t translate well to the outdoors.
“Chinese dinners are more elaborate,” says David Chung, owner of Richmond’s Jade Restaurant and president of the BC Asian Café Owners Association.
“We need bigger tables and more service. Patio tables are usually smaller, good for simple casual dinners with expensive drinks,” he adds, noting that low liquor sales at Chinese restaurants offer less incentive to invest in temporary structures.
There are also systemic barriers.
It wasn’t easy for Landmark Hot Pot to get its temporary patio permit. “We were rejected twice,” says Jason Li, one of the managers and owner’s son.
“Initially, the city wanted professional drawings. Every time we went back, they wanted more information. A lot of these restaurant owners don’t speak English very well. The application process is harder for them.”
Mr. Li says he and his father have been pleasantly surprised by how eagerly the outdoor patio, now extended to 10 tables, has been embraced by their regular customers.
“We never thought this would be a thing. But once we opened, the phones went off the hook. It’s allowed us to bring back half our staff and it’s helping.”
Chinese restaurants with patios in Metro Vancouver
Landmark Hotpot House
4023 Cambie St., Vancouver
The Dolar Shop
720-5300 No. 3 Rd., Richmond, 604-370-7077
6078 Silver Dr., Burnaby, 604 558 1606
8320 Alexandra Rd., Richmond
1661 Granville St., Vancouver
Quan Ju De
2808 Cambie St., Vancouver
CANTONESE DIM SUM & DINNER
Cindy’s Palace Seafood Restaurant
1796 Nanaimo St., Vancouver
Golden Seafood Restaurant
2425 Nanaimo St., Vancouver
Neptune Seafood Restaurant
100-8171 Ackroyd Rd., Richmond
New Mandarin Seafood Restaurant
4650 Gladstone St., Vancouver
Pink Pearl Chinese Restaurant
1132 E. Hastings St., Vancouver
Regal Mansion Cuisine Seafood Restaurant
201-555 W. 12th Ave., Vancouver
Tin Tin Seafood Harbour
3711 No. 3 Rd., Richmond
Miss Fu in Cheng Du
5105 Kingsway, Burnaby
The Fish Man
1170-8391 Alexandra Rd., Richmond
Baiyulan Shanghai Cuisine
129-4940 No. 3 Rd., Richmond
Old Bird (Modern, mixed cuisine)
3950 Main St., Vancouver
100-8291 Ackroyd Rd., Richmond
240-12240 Second Ave., Richmond
Uno Beef Noodle
8231 Ackroyd Rd., Richmond
Feel City BBQ
205-1668 West Broadway, Vancouver
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