Review: Water St. Cafe Has Barely Changed in Two Decades—and That’s a Good Thing
Twenty-four years after reviewing the Water St. Cafe, critic Jim Sutherland returns.
August 10, 2017
I’m a long ago Vancouver magazine stalwart who back in 1993 wrote a largely positive review of Gastown’s Water St. Cafe. Liked the room, vacillated over the food, lamented the wine list. Now, almost 25 years later, I’ve been sent back. Magazines, always so up to the minute.
Then again, the place has not required instant updates. Rather incredibly in this city of glass, the same Domenique Sabatino who in 1988 converted it from Brasserie de L’Horloge still presides over the room, which has changed but little. And thank goodness, too, as it’s a beauty and always will be, even if I’d make the case for something other than silk plants above the doorways.
There will be no vacillating over the food this time, either. On occasional visits over the years, I felt the place was rolling up a magnetic hill, seemingly worsening because everything around it was bettering. Then, a few years ago, the kitchen seemed to kick it up several notches. The menu remained a time capsule of casual French and northern Italian with West Coast influences, but the pastas were better and the vegetables, in particular, less boilerplate and more delicious. Sabatino confirms this was no illusion but a real thing, sparked by the arrival in 2013 of chef Kevin Shawcross (since departed for Barbados) combined with the proprietor’s decision to move a little upscale.
Successor Zachary Steele (ex of now-closed Baccano Restaurant) has been there only a few months, and there’s a sense that he’d love to push things a little further, but whether he does or doesn’t, few will be disappointed by their kale and farro salad, gnocchi with mushrooms, truffle butter and chèvre, or rack of lamb with sun-dried tomato, apricot-pistachio nut fregola, mint gremolata and cumin emulsion. Instead, letdowns will be reserved for a wine list that seems rather suburban, and taps that extend only to two pedestrian Granville Island brews.
In conclusion, let’s call this update highly positive, with a couple of reservations—which, by the way, you’re going to need on most summer evenings, as the patio’s a treat and, across the street, there’s a certain steam clock, which has also proved to be timeless, or something like that.
Jim Sutherland’s 1993 Review:
In 1973, when this writer first blew off the Prairies and into Vancouver, he headed immediately to Gastown, where he was sorely disappointed. By then, all that was left of the brief bohemian moment just passed were a few chemically dependent guitar strummers and the hooked fishers and fallen loggers to whom the neighborhood had belonged in the first place. He abused the requisite complement of substances himself, then, before too many weeks had passed, drifted away to locales more conducive to his long-term survival.
When he next returned in the late ’70s, it was as a more worldly and ambitious young adult—and it was to a more worldly and ambitious Gastown. One bright Saturday, with visiting relatives in tow, he landed for lunch at a spot called Brasserie l’horloge. A sister-in-law, stymied by the unfamiliar menu, ordered the one bit of comfort food she saw there, the scallops, which she took to be a way of preparing potatoes. Days later, he departed Vancouver again, carrying with him the mental note that the charms of Triple O sauce were not to be discounted when in the company of family from the Prairies.
A full decade passed before he returned to Vancouver, and this time Gastown exercised but the faintest pull. The tourists. The “charm.” You know the story. Nevertheless, on occasion he found himself there and, over time, he grew, despite himself, to like it—the way its rough edges were being smoothed, its hard ones softened. For example, where the Brasserie l’ horloge had once been, now stood the Water St. Cafe.
The conversion from brasserie to café took place in May 1988. New owner Domenique Sabatino had served stints at El Porto, Il Giardino and Earl’s. Together with his chef, Michael Norman (now general manager), he envisioned a casually elegant café in the French style. Very early on—in the Vancouver style—it metamorphosed more towards northern Italy, especially under current chef Greg Van Hierden, formerly of Fiasco and Settebello.
Case in point, the current menu includes starters such as calamari (best at early sittings, before warming trays come into play), carpaccio, an antipasto, roasted elephant garlic, chicken enchilada (recommended) and baked goat’s cheese on mixed greens. There are a dozen or so pastas in the $10 range, a couple of hot salads, and eight or 10 (depending on the season and whether you’re there for lunch or dinner) meat, poultry and fish dishes. Meals are served with excellent bread and focaccia baked on the premises. Popular favorites since the day the restaurant opened are a crab, corn and sweet potato chowder; a spaghetti dish with sun-dried tomatoes in a white wine cream and another with capers, black olives and anchovies; crab cakes, and the two hot salads, one with prawns and papaya, the other with hot salmon in sweet soya. These last, the hot salads and the crab cakes, may be the best bets on the menu. Because lunch and dinner menus are not only very similar but also similarly priced, your $40 to $60 bill (without wine) may seem a bit high at lunch and a bit low at dinner when compared to similar spots.
A few things to be aware of: the wine list is limited and not particularly inspired. Some of the more adventurous pastas meet, but rarely exceed the higher expectations that accompany them. And meat and fish dishes have been known to arrive overdone, especially during busy times—when the usually chipper service may also flag a bit.
This last, perhaps, is the price of popularity. If you assumed that the Water St. Cafe was primarily the domain of tourists you’d be wrong. Even in summer visitors account for only about 40 percent of the trade; this time of year, much less. Regulars sew up the first lunch sitting when reservations are virtually mandatory.
You would be right, however, if you guessed that lots of those people, regulars and tourists alike, are drawn by the setting. The room inside the 1911 building’s big windows is bright and cheerful. (Equally pleasant are the private dining rooms upstairs.) It may be true that the muted wallpaper and slightly off paint scheme dating from the 1988 redo provide archival proof of how much better we do the country thing in this decade. On the other hand, the mellowing effect of six years of wear lends an air of honest permanence that other newer restaurants spend enormous sums trying to duplicate.
Outside the windows, meanwhile (and here the writer is aware that he is about to plagiarize a tourism brochure), the view is reminiscent of old Europe. The cobblestoned streets are lined with oaks and gingkoes, currently in full autumn blaze. Across the way, a sliver of sea and mountains peek through a curtain of old brick buildings. And, of course, there is the horloge. Every 15 minutes, when Gastown’s famous steam clock blows, you can look up from your linguine and see people snapping and videoing. If you are lucky, you will see someone doing both at the same time. If you are really lucky, it will not be your sister-in-law.