Name: Maxine’s Cafe & Bar
Location: 1325 Burrard St., Vancouver
Cuisine: Brunch, West Coast Brasserie
Prices: Brunch, $10 to $28; dinner $8 to $19 (small plates); $17 to $28 (large)
Additional Info: Brunch daily from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; happy hour and dinner Thurs. to Sun. (closes at 10 p.m.); no reservations; covered/heated patio; delivery (fromto.ca, ubereats.com, doordash.com); pickup (exploretock.com)
The one thing nobody tells you about being a restaurant critic is that you are also expected to be a part-time concierge.
Day after day, my phone and inbox ping with messages from friends, acquaintances and, quite often, strangers wanting to know (usually last minute) the best place to impress the boss, spoil a loved one or take the pork-abstaining gang out for dim sum.
I almost always oblige, no matter how tricky the request. This recent one was easy.
“Where should I take a couple of posh girlfriends for brunch today? They asked for something downtown and ‘neighbourly.’ HELP!!!!”
“Maxine’s Cafe & Bar,” I replied lickety-split.
Downtown? Check. This latest addition to the Wentworth Hospitality Group (Tableau, Homer St. Cafe) opened in April, initially for daytime takeout, on a leafy edge of the West End, which is arguably still downtown.
Posh enough for the Shaughnessy set? The bright, airy room, classically appointed with cane chairs, paned glass and a handsome central bar evokes modern brasseries in London and Paris.
Neighbourly? Ah, that was the clincher.
What is a neighbourhood restaurant anyway? It’s always been a nebulous concept and has become even harder to define with the world turned upside-down and so many of us working from home.
For now, let’s drop the idea of it being a place where everyone knows your name. As the pandemic recedes, everything is new again. Most restaurants are reopening with untrained staff and skeleton crews. The masks don’t help much either.
A good neighbourhood restaurant – new, old, high or low – should make everyone feel as if they’ve been wrapped in a warm blanket, sometimes even before stepping through the door.
When my husband called Maxine’s recently to see whether they would have room on the patio in the next 30 minutes or so (it’s walk-in only for the time being), I heard, from across the room, a woman chirping effusively through the phone. I couldn’t make out a single word, but she was obviously saying, “Come on over!”
Emilie was her name and she showered us in unpretentious, small-town-Québécois affection, without skipping a beat, the entire night.
When I later went for brunch, another sharp server named Jana became my friend’s best buddy.
This isn’t friendliness that can be faked. It’s genuine hospitality. And it usually comes from the top down – from ownership and management that hire wisely, treat staff fairly and provide adequate training and support so that they can do their jobs competently and pass that comfort onto customers.
General manager Alain Canuel (Tableau, PiDGin, Diva at the Met) is running Maxine’s like a well-oiled machine even though it’s brand new and understaffed, and the wheels are falling off the entire industry around him.
In my mind, a good neighbourhood restaurant should be small enough that it feels intimate, yet expansive enough that you could go several times a week – not because you love it that much (though you might), but because it serves multiple purposes and fits a variety of occasions.
Holes-in-the-wall are generally too narrow in scope. Hotel restaurants are often too stiff.
A neighbourhood restaurant should never make you feel like a tourist, even if you are one. And it doesn’t break the bank.
Maxine’s checks all the boxes.
The Euro-transportive design by Craig Stanghetta’s Ste. Marie Art + Design is more highly polished than many of his local projects. This is likely owing to budget. Wentworth is owned by Amacon Developments.
But it’s not the shine of the brass or the fine finish on the millwork that makes the greatest impression. It’s all the cozy corners that have been carved out and seamlessly blended – the square bar, the glass-paned private room, the elevated booth section, the covered patio with high tops and low banquettes all divided by wood-framed plexiglass – that make you want to curl up and stay a while.
Maxine’s replaces the cycle-centric Musette Caffè and was conceived as a more elaborate daytime brunch spot.
And in the extremely capable hands of corporate executive chef Bobby Milheron (formerly of West), it does put fresh spins on eggs and toast.
Smoked salmon eggs benedict is elevated on a round, tart-like pedestal of potato rosti with golden edges and a plush centre.
Dutch baby pancakes – when was the last time you saw Dutch baby on a menu? – are served savoury (fried eggs, shaved ham and mornay sauce) or sweet (poached pears, candied walnuts and Anglaise cream), rising majestically in cast-iron skillets with crisp, puffy rings around a thick, custardy base.
But Maxine’s quickly and organically expanded beyond brunch.
Happy hour is more than just a time-fill here because group beverage director JS Dupuis has created such a lovely wine (mostly small producers from France and B.C.) and cocktail list.
And when dinner service launched last month, much earlier than scheduled, it was because the neighbourhood demanded it.
The food isn’t too challenging, nor need it be. A good neighbourhood restaurant, especially in Vancouver, offers something for everyone and makes a compelling alternative to the chains.
At Maxine’s you can dine casually on a darkly caramelized smash burger and succulent, gluten-free fried chicken glazed in spicy honey.
Or you could splash out on chilled oysters, linguine vongole with a full pound of local Manila clams and rich albacore tuna crudo, lightly cold-smoked and drenched in olive oil.
Maxine’s isn’t perfect. That linguine was a tad overcooked. The menu could definitely use more vegan dishes. The choux pastry in the éclair was hard. And the wait times can be long, especially for weekend brunch.
But when everything else is firing on all cylinders – and especially during a pandemic – those small imperfections can be gently shrugged off.
I didn’t see anyone having a bad time. And the posh gals said their brunch was “INCREDIBLE.”
Mind you, I’d also recommend it for business breakfast meetings, casual cocktails, date nights, solo dining and more.
Maxine’s pretty much fits the bill for any occasion that calls for an elegantly relaxed setting, elevated comfort food, decent prices, pleasant outdoor seating, an intriguing drinks list and charming service.
And that’s what makes it a great neighbourhood restaurant.
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