- Steel Toad Brewpub and Dining Hall
- 97 East 2nd Ave., Vancouver
- Pub menu $4 to $18; bistro menu $8 to $25
- Rating System
- Additional Info
- Open daily, 11 a.m. to midnight (1 a.m. Fri. and Sat.) Reservations available.
If I were the owner of a shiny new condominium in False Creek's Olympic Village, I'd be peeved about the lack of dining diversity. Does one dense neighbourhood really need three enormous beer halls?
Having been underwhelmed by Tap & Barrel and Craft Beer Market, I wasn't expecting to be impressed by the Steel Toad Brewpub & Dining Hall. But that's the joy of this job – the delightful surprises.
First, Steel Toad is gorgeous, housed in the iconic red Opsal Steel building, originally a manufacturing site for the Columbia Block and Tool Co. The century-old heritage site had to be completely disassembled in order to build a parking garage underneath for the adjacent 24-storey tower. Salvageable timber beams were individually tagged, catalogued and stored off-site, where they were cleaned with soda and walnut-shell blastings.
Look up. You can see the difference between the new, natural wood laced with older, darker girders and beams on the roof, which had been gutted with holes and sagged with rot.
It's not just the soaring ceilings, tall windows and shiny brewery tanks (well, the tanks do make a huge difference). It's all the little details right down to the Dyson bathroom taps with built-in hand dryers that make Steel Toad special.
Although the main hall seats 300, the cavernous room feels intimate. Across the span of one floor, there are tall bar stools and high-top tables, mid-height tables, regular dining tables and low-slung lounge seating. This means you don't have to look your neighbour straight in the eye, and you can also see over his or her head with a clear view of the musicians. (Did I mention there was free live nightly entertainment?) The wood, granite and leather are all finished in monotone grey, which adds to the room's elegance.
The elegance comes with exceptionally friendly, capable service. Whoever is responsible for the staff hiring and training is doing an excellent job. I can't tell you how pleasant it is to be greeted with a genuine smile instead a batting of false eyelashes. Save for one snarky bartender ("Whoa, you're really making me work for that $5 beer!"), Steel Toad appears to be a refreshingly earnest, hipster-free zone.
Speaking of beer, Steel Toad makes its own – another crucial difference. Head brewer Chris Charron, also a certified cicerone, oversees a continuously rotating collection of traditional European and American styles served on 10 taps, including two real-ale cask engines.
Dilettantes will love the tasting packs, with four samples served in stylish picnic baskets. Connoisseurs, especially the local #FUSS types, will appreciate clearly marked custom glassware that fesses up to proper serving sizes.
But some foodies might wonder why Mr. Charron, Jessica Sharpe (the in-house cicerone who manages an impressive guest keg and bottle list) and chef Robbie Robinson aren't collaborating more on matching plates to drink. When the food and drink are this good, they deserve suggested pairings.
Mr. Robinson is a classically trained chef who has worked at West (under David Hawksworth), Le Crocodile (under Michel Jacob) and Claridge's in London (under Gordon Ramsay).
The first time I visited, I ordered from the bistro menu and everything was excellent. The cauliflower-and-whiskey soup, so voluptuously creamy and hairy-chested in flavour, was topped with delicate morsels of fire-smoked sablefish that deserve an entrée of its own.
The quail and foie gras pithivier was a flaky golden, silky pastry shell stuffed with tender quail, firm foie gras and buttery spinach. I appreciated the use of liver in all its gamey, slightly dry glory. But as with several dishes on the menu – including an otherwise lovely twirled veal breast and gently fried sweetbreads – it could have used a bit more juicy gravy.
Happy hour bar snacks are okay. Beer-salted fries are a bit starchy, the house-made pretzel isn't quite dense enough (more bagel than pretzel) and the pulled-pork Korean fritters are slightly bland.
But the pizza – thin-crusted and droopy, blasted in a gas-fired Forno Bravo oven – is excellent. Smoked pancetta and gorgonzola is a particularly gutsy combo. And the shepherd's pie – a rib-sticking lamb stew studded with smoky lardons, buttered mash balls and crispy shallot strings – is a standout.
Mr. Robinson is a serious chef. He should stick to serious gastropub fare and pile on the richness. This is what Vancouver is lacking and this is where he could really make his mark.
Steel Toad is already different and better than the rest. Why not make it the very best it can be?
No stars: Not recommended.
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any.
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution