Until recently, the Triple O's Double Double burger platter was your safest bet for a decent bite at Rogers Arena. You can still grab a burger, if that is what you crave. But now there are many more tasty options – lobster rolls, prime rib, even anchovies.
As part of its broader restructuring, the Vancouver Canucks have revitalized the food and beverage offerings at the 20-year-old arena. Last spring, the Aquilini Group acquired the Toptable Group, which includes the renowned Araxi, Blue Water Café, CinCin and West restaurants and cancelled its contract with the previous food-service provider.
Toptable's new president, Michael Doyle, who has also served as executive vice-president and general manager of Rogers Arena for the past three years, comes to the job with a proud history of spinning popcorn stands into prize-winning dining venues, having opened Toronto's Air Canada Centre and multiple sports bars within.
Mr. Doyle didn't have the luxury of starting from the ground up in Vancouver. The $10-million renovation, which included a complete gutting of the main kitchen and an 8,000-square-foot concourse expansion, began July 1 and had to be completed by Sept. 15 for the preseason hockey opening. The final addition, Bar Jones, will be unveiled next week.
The new executive chef, Robert Bartley, has a sterling fine-dining pedigree, having worked with Susur Lee, Chris McDonald and Lynn Crawford in Toronto. But he also knows how to make a darn good hot dog. Some of his new concession concepts were borrowed from the Air Canada Centre, where he was senior director of food and beverage at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for six years.
Don't hold against him the decision to bring Smoke's Poutinerie from Toronto on board. One bite of these outrageously ooey gooey hand-cut fries smothered in gravy, Quebec cheese curds and bacon and you'll be a convert too.
Smoke's is one of five new food concepts, available at eight stands on the 100 and 300 levels. I had an opportunity to sample them all during last week's knuckle-biting game against the Montreal Canadiens. They're hearty, hand-held and not the least bit healthy. But who wants to eat salad at a hockey game?
Steamers offers eight gourmet hot dogs built on Nathan's Famous big beef franks. There's the Glendon, topped with perogies, a tribute to former Canuck Stan Smyl's Alberta hometown, and more cheesy fries in the Poutine. I wasn't crazy about the Croque dog, garnished with Gruyere, Dijon, ham and strawberry jam. But the bacon-wrapped Bartley's Famous was definitely a winner.
Fans were really warming up to the massively stacked prime-rib sandwich on a soft onion bun at the Carve stand. For $13, it's an excellent deal. The crackling on the porcetta sandwich was dangerously sharp. But the idea of high-quality house-cooked roasts seems to be popular. You can expect more options soon, likely lamb.
Catch, a seafood concession, was offering only a lobster roll last week. Lightly seasoned with celery, onions and mayonnaise and served in a butter-toasted bun, it was my favourite of the night. Next week, the chef will introduce a smoked salmon roll. (He's slowly catching up with West Coast flavours and local providers, but for now, the food options definitely have an East Coast bent.)
Melt is all about cheese – grilled cheese sandwiches with various toppings, pizzas and nachos covered in a shiny béchamel-based sauce made from scratch.
Bar Jones, named after Jay Jones, a local cocktail impresario who was brought in as the new director of wine and beverage, is scheduled to open on Tuesday. With a 70-foot bar, it's believed to be the biggest in Vancouver. Decked in wood and tiles, it was looking sharp last week. It will be open to everyone and accessible through a street entrance on non-game nights. Although Mr. Doyle promises a large selection of craft beer and local wines on tap, he didn't have a list of names available. And you can bet there will still be lots of Labatt's, given that the brewery is a sponsor.
Thanks to the new provincial liquor laws, hawkers can now sell beer to fans in their seats, and hard liquor is available throughout the stadium. Mr. Jones plans to launch a concession-level cocktail program, but he's not there yet. For now, it's just standard highballs and sodas.
The new Loge Club, a group of mini-suites with its own restaurant and theatre-style seating, is swanky. But unless you're Shania Twain, who was there last week, you'll probably never see the exclusive sanctum.
Another One option for dining in style is at the revamped Centre Ice Grill, an upper-level restaurant open to all ticket holders. Delbert Cirfera, the new sous chef recently arrived from Puglia, Italy, has put housemade pasta on the menu. You can nibble on marinated anchovies and olives. Or go for the wholesome roast chicken dinner with stuffing and mashed potatoes. It's really good – as are Mr. Jones's cocktails.
For a rushed rollout, the changes are impressive. More is in the works, including co-ventures with local restaurants. (Watch for aburi-style sushi from Miku.)
You can't rebuild a team on food alone. And poutine won't bring back all the season-pass defections. But a good sandwich does go a long way to making those $100-plus tickets easier to swallow.