Ten years ago, all eyes were on Metro Vancouver as the restaurant scene readied for its close-up during the Olympic Winter Games. The pre-Olympic boom insulated the city from the worst vagaries of the financial crisis in 2008. In the post-Olympic shakedown, five major trends (including one that oddly failed to launch) changed the way we eat. Of course, there were more, including the death of fine dining, the rise of social media and a long-overdue focus on how restaurant workers, women in particular, are treated. But these are some of the bigger trends specific to Vancouver.
Richmond’s Asian Cuisine
For foodies, the greatest legacy of the Olympic Winter Games was the Canada Line, a light-rapid transit route – but also a symbolic bridge – offering easier access to Richmond’s dim sum palaces, strip-mall noodle huts and barbecue dives. During the games, the international food media shone a spotlight on what many of us already knew – that Metro Vancouver is home to some of the best Chinese food outside of China. And over the past decade, the cultural divide separating this vast Asian enclave from the rest of the mainland has been slowly closing because of social media and organizations such as the Chinese Restaurant Awards, the new Feast Asian Dining Festival and Tourism Richmond. New migration patterns are changing Richmond’s restaurant makeup. Although the thriving Hong Kong Cantonese scene still dominates, there is now more regional diversity, including a ton of Sichuan. For every big Chinese chain restaurant that has opened (many of which are not obvious), smaller food-preneurs are blazing tasty trails in areas such as fusion pastry (L’Opera Patisserie, Little Fox Bakehouse), upscale wine dinners (Origo Club) and gourmet poke (Pokey Okey).
David Chang will open a Momofuku Noodle Bar in Vancouver House this year, and it will be fascinating to see how he tailors the menu to local tastes. The New York-based celebrity chef is hailed as the king of the hip-Asian crossover in the United States. But it’s a genre that is already firmly established in Vancouver. In fact, it’s been our greatest strength for the past decade – longer if you count Vij’s and Japanese izakayas. The most influential opening of 2010 was Bao Bei, the French-Chinese brasserie that later begat the iconoclastic Japanese-Italian Kissa Tanto. Other notables include PiDGin, Mak N Ming, Maenam, Ugly Dumpling, Do Chay and Miku (perhaps not so hip, but its aburi-style sushi has been more widely copied than any other signature dish in town). Stem brought locally inspired Japanese cuisine to the suburbs, while Masayoshi gave omakase a luxuriant gloss. Burdock & Co. demonstrated how seamlessly Asian flavours can be folded into our 100-mile diets. Chinatown BBQ, Mott 32, Heritage Asian Eatery, and Blossom all put their own modern spin on classic Chinese. There are countless others and more on the way. Crossover Asian isn’t just a trend in Vancouver – it’s a way of life.
Power in Numbers
Lack of affordability is the main factor that prevented Vancouver from becoming a truly great food city. It wasn’t just the astronomical rents, rising minimum wages or the cost of living and food. It was all those factors compounded by insanely high (often unexpected) property taxes that hurt independent operators. Some of the best restaurants that opened at the turn of the previous decade adapted and found economic efficiencies through expansion. In 2010, Nook was a casual neighbourhood restaurant that created a well-defined niche with pizza and pasta. Now it’s a small chain, with its fourth restaurant set to open in Lonsdale, plus Tavola and Oddfish in its stable. Pourhouse was another small sensation; now it’s one of five restaurants that belong to Kitchen Table Restaurants. Maenam, likewise, gave birth to four fast-casual Thai restaurants. Gooseneck Hospitality owns Wildebeest, two Bufalas, Lucky Taco and Bells and Whistles. Strength in numbers has become the model of success for Vancouver restaurants. But it poses the risk of homogeneity. We already have enough chain restaurants.
From Food Trucks to Ghost Restaurants
In 2010, Vancouver rolled out its new street food vendor pilot project. Has it really been 10 years? At one time, more than 70 vendors were on the streets. Now it’s closer to 40. The costs were prohibitive for startup operators. And except for a few successful ones who made the transition into bricks-and-mortar locations – including Yolks, Re-Up BBQ and Tacofino – the project never really worked as an incubator for new restaurateurs, as it has traditionally in other cities. Owing to the rise of DoorDash, UberEats and other food-delivery services, we are now seeing the growth of ghost restaurants that operate from commissaries without a storefront. Some call it the death knell for traditional restaurants (and it can pose extremely tough competition, with a big company such as Joseph Richard Group opening 100 ghost restaurants in one day). But it also offers new opportunities for enterprising chefs and a more level playing field than the bureaucratized truck system.
Vancouver has long been a hub for innovative plant-based food products. Light years before the Beyond Burger, there was Yves Veggie Dog. At the turn of the previous decade, its founder, Yves Potvin, began processing Gardein’s meat-free protein products in Richmond. Daiya, Vega, Earth’s Own – so many internationally successful vegan-food companies have their headquarters here. The restaurant scene has not kept pace and it’s confounding. Vancouver does have a few great vegetarian restaurants – Acorn, The Arbor, Virtuous Pie. Even the mediocre plant-based restaurants – Heirloom and MeeT, for instance – are hugely popular. And there is no shortage of cafés and casual spots for rice bowls. But the vast majority of restaurants, at the high end especially, still treat vegans as second-class citizens. They continue to do so at their peril.