Last week, I wrote about the domination of West Coast chain restaurant groups as Vancouver's biggest restaurant story of 2016. This week, we look at the major trends in other restaurants, some of which are indirectly related.
Esoteric and experimental
Small independent restaurants in Vancouver are becoming more adventurous in the kitchen. Is it a response to the commodification of corporate dining? Likely. Almost like rebellious teenagers, they're throwing down wart-skinned pork hocks (Royal Dinette) and whole fish with eyeballs and tails attached (Kissa Tanto) as gauntlets. They're marinating vegetables in blobby, kombucha scoby (Cacao) and fiendishly fermenting everything in-house, from sea urchin bottarga to raw bread (Latab). Ha, they seem to be saying, can't serve that in the burbs. Downtown diners are the lucky beneficiaries of this unspoken war.
Vancouver's out-of-control real estate prices are forcing food-preneurs to become more creative and think small – often with single-note menus and small stalls. Mensch. Jewish Delicatessen, which specializes in hand-sliced New York-style pastrami, grew a small storefront from shared kitchens and a series of pop-ups. Sweet Boy Cream Puffs went from peddle-bike street sales, financed by a Kickstarter campaign, to a short-term "creative food residency" in a tiny Chinatown space, subleased and curated by the owners of The Pie Shoppe. Even established chefs such as Angus An of Maenam expanded by scaling down with Fat Mao noodle shop in Chinatown and Freebird chicken rotisserie in New Westminster's River Market. The niche model isn't a bad one when you consider the success of Meat & Bread, which now has four locations, including one in Seattle. If you can't beat the chains, why not join them on a smaller scale?
Healthy fast food
Tractor is another local eatery that's had big success in small spaces by capitalizing on the healthy fast-food trend. The salad-and-rice-bowl niche is one that is growing through the likes of SMAK Fast Food, Field & Social and Freshii. Last month, The Acorn, Vancouver's most acclaimed vegetarian restaurant, opened a new casual sister restaurant called The Arbor. I see many more fresh veggie food purveyors in Vancouver's crystal ball.
Cactus Club, Joey and Earls aren't the only popular chain restaurants in Vancouver. Japanese ramen chains are swarming the city. Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, Marutama, The Ramen Butcher, Ramen Gojiro and Yah Yah Ya Ramen are all Tokyo-based multinationals. (The latter three opened downtown this year.) The Touhenboku Ramen on Denman Streets hails from Toronto, which is an interesting reversal, given how many of our local ramen shops and izakayas have previously opened there. Personally, I have a hard time keeping track of all the new ramen shops in Vancouver, but they all seem to be busy so we haven't reached peak ramen yet.
In a similar repetition of the Western chain-independent polarization, Japanese restaurants are becoming more narrowly focused – beyond sushi, of course. Our local rendition of the izakaya (cheap and cheap Japanese pubs) has long been more upscale, adventurous and wide-ranging than the Tokyo versions. But lately, we're seeing more specialization. Raisu, a new sister restaurant to Kingyo, Rajio and Suika, features bento boxes and teishoku set-tray meals. Kozakura, which replaced Notturno in Gastown, is a kappo-style restaurant, with more chef-customer interaction behind the bar and an ambitious drink menu for pairing with small dishes.
For a couple of years, I have been talking about the slow migration of upscale Chinese dining from Richmond to downtown Vancouver. This is the year it will explode. In January, Mott 32 opens in the new Trump Tower. For Chinese New Year, the owners of Oakridge Centre's Peninsula Seafood Restaurant will be launching Bandao, a much larger restaurant with 11 private rooms at Marine Gateway. Come fall, the new Parq Casino will feature an extremely high-end Chinese restaurant, along with a tea lounge and Singapore-style hawker's market. For me, these will be the most interesting developments to watch this year. The influence could be huge.