Is the Vancouver restaurant bubble bursting? This was a slow year for new openings. Anecdotally, I hear of restaurants sharing staff, shortening shifts and reducing their hours. The labour shortage, especially for cooks, is getting desperate.
This year's Top 10 list of new restaurants is dominated by enterprises that are owned by multiunit groups rather than independents. But it also includes innovative concepts such as an all-day café and a chef-driven fast-food counter. Alongside the showy hotel restaurants, there is a mom-and-pop Michelin-style restaurant and eateries specializing in such underserved niches as seafood, regional Mexican and Québécois.
The independent chef-driven restaurant is by no means dead in Vancouver, but I do worry about its future. Long live the pop-up.
10. Hook Sea Bar
1210 Denman St., 604-620-4668, hookseabar.com
There are lots of reasons to love Hook Sea Bar: stunning views of English Bay, a Cape Cod-style dining room bathed with natural light, buck-a-shuck happy hour, cocktails on tap, friendly staff. Even more astonishing, this huge 200-seat eatery surrounded by chain restaurants is actually independent, owned by Michael Gayman. Executive chef Kayla Dhaliwall does a tremendous job of catering to the masses with cheffy fare. The menu offers something for everyone, including a raw bar with aburi sushi rolls and colourful crudos. Do try the West Coast chowder, made à la minute. Or steamed mussels and clams moored in a thick, meaty swamp of michelada broth built from butter, lobster-shell stock and roasted bone marrow. The crackling southern fried chicken is also pretty awesome.
Read the full review: Hook Sea Bar features a menu befitting a city by the ocean
9. Heritage Asian Eatery
1108 W. Pender St., 778-737-1108, eatheritage.ca
Quick-service casual is the fastest-growing dining segment in North America and we're bound to see much more of it. Fear not, the future isn't entirely grim. Felix Zhou's downtown Heritage Asian Eatery is a shining model of a chef-driven, counter-service concept that doesn't sacrifice integrity for speedy efficiency. Appointed in polished concrete and bare wood, the stark aesthetic bears little reflection on the intense skill, time and soul poured into the kitchen's voluptuous takes on classic Asian comfort foods. Fluffy blocks of sweetly aromatic pork belly, for example, are cured for three days, slowly braised until the fat is rendered marshmallowy-soft and glazed with reduced bone stock. Try them stuffed into squishy baos, atop vibrant rice bowls or rolled into massive brunch spreads replete with lemony Hollandaise, shredded duck leg, green-onion pancakes and shatteringly crisp potato rosti. This is fast food skewed fine.
Read the full review: Fine dining meets casual counter service at Heritage Asian Eatery
8. Mott 32
For those who judge a restaurant by its management lease, Mott 32 in the Trump Tower Vancouver is the new restaurant least likely to win any popularity contests. But for those who of us who must assess a restaurant on its own merits, this modern-Chinese import from Hong Kong impresses. Although the communal bathrooms can be wretched, the industrial-chic dining room with its gilded chinoiserie and birdcage booths is extremely cool. Service ranges from suave to stroppy. Insider tip: Order wine (preferably a rare vintage in a six-litre Methuselah); the sommeliers will take very good care of you. Skip dinner and go for daytime dim sum; it's one of the best around. Forget the ostentatious baubles filled with truffles. It's the hand-pounded rice rolls steamed to a glistening sheen, the translucent-skinned crystal dumplings, the sweetly puffed buns and the frilly-edged jellyfish in balsamic that astound. Also, the juicy applewood-roasted Peking ducks lacquered to a crackling gloss and served with gossamer crepes are unparalleled
Read the full review: With Mott 32's $300 dinner, you win some and you lose some
1480 W. 11th Ave., 604-736-5711, vijsrangoli.ca
When the much-loved Vij's relocated from South Granville to spacious new quarters on Cambie Street, nobody mourned the cheek-by-jowl jostling of its infamous outdoor queues. Many long-time fans of the contemporary Indian hot spot did, however, lament a convivial sense of intimacy that had been lost in the transition. This year's Rangoli reboot, which moved the casual eatery into the departed Vij's space, feels like a welcome return to the company's more modest beginnings. The new digs are lit up in a twinkling glow and enlivened by a snug cocktail bar featuring two happy hours and flaming craft cocktails. A larger menu offers old favourites and new snacks, including sensational samosas stuffed with creamy curries and a hotly spiced twist on single-serve lamb popsicles. About half the menu is vegan and all of it can be ordered for home delivery.
Read the full review: Rangoli marks a return to modest beginnings
1889 West 1st Ave., 604-564-6330, oddfishrestaurant.com
For a city anchored on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver is curiously lacking in simply prepared seafood of the non-Asian variety. Oddfish fills the deep chasm between cheap fish and chips and top-tier fancy with a singular devotion to fresh, Mediterranean-inspired fruits of the sea. Channelling the cheerful neighbourhood vibe of its sibling restaurants, Nook and Tavola, the Kitsilano cubbyhole is tightly squeezed around a lively bar and open kitchen. The daily-changing chalkboard catch is charred, seared or steamed on a sizzling plancha grill and lightly treated with squeezes of lemon, fistfuls of herbs and glugs of good olive oil. Whole seabass and the huge "hot mess" platter are must-try mainstays. Idiosyncratic wines, homey desserts and exceptionally friendly service will have you falling hook, line and sinker for this essential, yet extraordinary dining experience.
Read the full review: Oddfish Restaurant serves up a fresh and delicious seafood experience
5. Mak N Ming
1629 Yew St., 604-737-1155, maknming.com
It takes audacity to open a 26-seat temple to Michelin-style fine dining on Vancouver's rowdiest, beachside beer-patio stroll. To make it work requires even greater talent, which husband-and-wife partners Makoto Ono and Amanda Cheng have in spades. A laser-focused duo of seasonal tasting menus (one, a six-course chef's dégustation; the other, a three-course demi) seemed smartly suited to the tiny modernist room cast in raw concrete, warm wood and stretched leather. And the menus offered a sharp canvas for Mr. Ono's graceful distillations of Japanese and French cuisines. His small bites plated with the precision of a jeweller setting gemstones – diminutive éclairs spread with salted cod and snappy salmon roe, tamago-style egg crepes draped in silky sabayon – often send shudders up the spine. Generously supported by Roger Maniwa's nervy wine and sake pairings and Ms. Cheng's more luxuriant dessert courses, Mak N Ming earned rave reviews, including mine. But this tight two-menu template also requires unwavering consistency (there is no room for a big slab of dried-out pork as a main course) or excuse for repetition (seven months later, the same Humboldt squid and rutabaga appetizer is being served). The demi menu, unfortunately, is already beginning to taste like a throwaway.
Read the full review: With a notable clarity of vision, Mak N Ming is truly love at first bite
1038 Canada Place in the Fairmont Pacific Rim, 604-695-5500, botanistrestaurant.com
The Botanist burst into bloom last spring as an ambitious hybrid (bar, champagne lounge and all-day restaurant) that replaced Oru on the hotel's second floor. A verdant oasis floating above the weekend madness that regularly rocks the main lobby lounge, it required heavy tilling. The acoustics were horrible and the pretty-in-pink retro-eighties décor was as much adored as despised. But Hector Laguna's Mediterranean-inspired cooking shined bright. Sprung virtually unknown from Hawksworth Restaurant, the Mexican-born chef has quickly asserted himself as a big talent. Eschewing sous vide boil-in-a-bag, his pan-seared meats ripple with supple tenderness and brawny texture. Pastas are pregnant with egg yolk. Delicate deconstructions (burrata sorbet and smoked egg-yolk ringed by white Parmesan foam over hand-cut beef tartare) thunder with calibrated jolts of herbed oils and spicy vinaigrettes.
Read the full review: Botanist is a verdant oasis that delivers a luxuriant dining experience
3. Bows & Arrows
4194 Fraser St., 604-620-7657, bowsxarrows.ca
How can you tell the restaurant industry is in the midst of massive disruption? When a small, all-day neighbourhood-café-cum-cocktail-bar in residential Riley Park serves intricately detailed dinners fashioned from great ingredients for prices on par with a deluxe pizza at Domino's. Owned by the Victoria-based coffee-roasting company, Bows & Arrows is an innovative mixed model that could be a harbinger of things to come. By day, the sunny, Scandinavian-styled café is a cheerful spot to sidle up to the long communal table with a foamy latte and glossy honey bun. At night, the craft cocktails start shaking, the natural wines are uncorked and chef Kris Barnholden (assisted by baker Athena Kyriakides) rolls out delightful small plates for which most elements are fermented, smoked, pickled and cured in-house. On the summer menu, there was silky oil-poached conserva punctuated with sour eggplants, luscious melon salads with marbled coppa and creamy fior di latte, freshly foraged lobster mushrooms and succulent lamb ribs, darkly smoked and daintily veiled in Queen Anne's lace. After being forced to close his own restaurant last year, Mr. Barnholden's triumph here, however, is likely bittersweet.
Read the full review: Bows & Arrows takes an innovative approach to the neighbourhood eatery
1009 Hamilton St., Vancouver, 604-689-8523,
Riding a wave of modern-regional Mexican cooking breaking across the United States, Fayuca crashed into Yaletown from the west coast of Northern Baja. With bold cooking and daring ingredients, this breezy (never cheesy) beach hut seduced our gaze away from loaded nachos and supersize tacos. For me, it was a severed sablefish head that stared me down and took my breath away with fatty flakes of slippery, smoky collar meat. Co-owned by Mexican chef Jair Tellez and Nuba's Ernesto Gomez, the kitchen is confidently helmed by head chef Martin Vargas. Raw clams splashed with carrot-lime aguachile segue to softly pliant beef tongue in spicy mole and hulking slabs of crisply charred lamb-belly barbacoa. The palm-thatched dining room has transitioned from summer to winter without looking like a lost tourist. And it's packed every night. I can't think of any other Vancouver restaurant that has pushed past its genre's hoary stereotypes with such swift speed and adventurous conviction.
Read the full review: Craving Mexican cuisine? Fayuca offers everything but the ordinary
1. St. Lawrence
269 Powell St., Vancouver 604-620-3800, stlawrencerestaurant.com
On a desolate corner of Railtown, St. Lawrence opens a doorway to faraway worlds that transcend time and trends. The dimly lit dining room, with its brocade curtains and royal-blue walls covered in gilded fleurs-de-lis, evokes a cozy country home in regional Quebec. Perhaps Saint-Jérôme in the 1980s, where chef-owner Jean-Christophe Poirier grew up and still holds dear to his heart. Parisian pop music, a long list of cognacs and soigné servers suggest something more cosmopolitan.
A menu of mixed anachronisms doesn't offer any easy explanations, but there is no obvious connection to Ask For Luigi, the nearby Italian restaurant for which the chef is best known. A handful of Québécois and brasserie specialties ring familiar – venison tortière, mushroom vol-au-vent, grilled hanger steak. But their magnificently glossy, spoon-coating sauces, reinforced with great lashes of cream, butter and slowly roasted bone stocks, elevate these common dishes into a more serious realm. (Not too serious, mind you. Some are garnished with little Montreal Canadiens flags or served in maple-syrup cans.)
But have a look at the daily specials: cailles en sarcophage, deboned quail wrapped in puff pastry, stuffed with sweetbreads and served with peeled grapes; majestically tall pâté en croûte with decorative chimney caps and intricately garnished inlays; a ling-cod fillet enclosed in a molded-pastry second skin with bulging eyes, scales and fin.
This is cuisine classique, handed down from La Belle Époque by Auguste Escoffier and rarely ever seen this side of the Atlantic, let alone Vancouver. There are only two restaurants in all of New York – La Grenouille and Le Coucou – where the opulent high style still survives.
Excessively rich, intensely fastidious, insanely delicious – St. Lawrence isn't just an anomaly in this city, it belongs to a universe unto itself.
Read the four-star review: Cozy Québécois eatery St. Lawrence brings rich French specialties to Vancouver
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