Gastown Eating and Drinking Guide

November 1, 2010

“Just look at it,” says Paul Grunberg, surveying the 200 block of Carrall. It’s 10:30 on a late summer Friday night, and the nearby restaurants (including his own, L’Abattoir) are filled to capacity. “Isn’t it amazing?”

It is, actually. The grittiness of the neighbourhood is replaced by a parade of the moneyed and fashionable. Grunberg, 30, in grey flannels and white, open-collared dress shirt, stands proprietorially, arms crossed, greeting lawyers, designers, architects, and movie-industry types. Who would have thought this part of town would ever attract such a crowd? A first-time restaurateur (he has managerial stints at Chambar and Market at the Shangri-La to his credit), Grunberg seems to know everyone in this, the new nucleus of Vancouver cool—a title that for the past decade has belonged to Yaletown.

Inside the restaurant, sommelier Jake Skakun is selling out his reserve wine list and the servers are being run ragged by a second seating. Customers feast on albacore tuna confit and delicate custards of Dungeness crab. In the kitchen, chef Lee Cooper stands hunched over a piece of halibut, fastidiously arranging paper-thin radish coins with tweezers. At the bar is Shaun Layton, this magazine’s current Bartender of the Year, up to his neck in fresh chits after doling out Champagne and high-end tequila to a group of West Vancouver nabobs and their artificially amplified wives.

There’s a sudden commotion outside; the street scene dissolves into sirens and shouts. Two guys in their twenties lope toward Water Street with plainclothes police in pursuit. One of the chased—in baggy pants, untied sneakers, and Miami Dolphins jersey—can’t run to save his life. Three cruisers and a paddy wagon head them off at Maple Tree Square.

Up the block, Rodney Scharf, a manager at Boneta, is giving a statement to police as Boneta’s owner, Neil Ingram, looks on. Both wear furious, outraged expressions. Two more young men are in custody behind them, looking sullen and stoned. They’re surrounded by nervous-looking police who try to disperse a crowd of angry pedestrians and restaurant patrons, all witnesses to the four suspects savagely taking turns stomping a local business owner. Strobe-lit in red and blue, the victim’s stunned face is drenched in blood, his eyes incapable of focusing.

“They were after his backpack,” a well-dressed young man offers. He leans in to one of the perpetrators and hisses, “That’s right. I see you. I know your face now.” He might as well have said, “This is our neighbourhood now, not yours.”

Gastown isn’t without hourly reminders that it’s part of the Downtown Eastside. It is still full of alleys littered with needles, used condoms, and the detritus of shattered lives. But a pincer movement is slowly enveloping it, and restaurants—as so often in cases of urban renewal—are the advance guard. Gastown is the concentration point, and the encircling arms of gentrification are snaking through Railtown to the northeast and Chinatown to the southeast.

The assault began in June 2006 with the seemingly far-fetched Salt Tasting Room. Shepherded by Scott Hawthorn and the pioneering Sean Heather, Salt was a calculated risk taken with a studied eye on restaurant trends. Few know the neighbourhood more intimately than Sean Heather, the tidily bearded, no-nonsense owner of the Irish Heather Gastropub. “We knew both the good and bad, as well as the potential,” he recalls. At the time, more restaurants were closing than opening, but the Woodward’s development was coming and the nearby Koret lofts were bringing in new faces. Seeing a sustained spike in receipts at his pub, Heather figured the iron would never glow hotter.

Salt is located in Blood Alley, where stolen goods are fenced, rats scuttle, and drugs are bought, shot, and smoked. Four years ago, it was about as hopeless as Gastown got. When Heather shared his plans, he was told he was crazy: “The cops don’t even get out of their cars here!” He chuckles: “We knew it couldn’t get any worse.”

With a simple menu of cured meats and hard-to-find cheeses and a well-chosen wine list, Salt was something we’d been waiting for without knowing it. A marriage of polished concrete and ancient brick, the room was a beacon that pierced the dark. It offered passion, expertise, and cool. “I guess you have to be a bit of an adventurer to make this trek,” said a food writer from Toronto, when she made her way down Blood Alley. That’s exactly the idea. After eight months, Salt was already in the black and Gastown had become the next new thing: sexier than Yaletown, cheaper than Commercial Drive, hipper than Main. The patina of danger (real or imagined) amplified its attractiveness.

Chill Winston arrived in 2006 with its sprawling, people-watching patio on Maple Tree Square. Its unisex bathrooms and airy interior were tailored to fit the aesthetics of a new wave of condo- and loft-dwellers (even the name—London slang for marijuana—seemed to gel). Then Cobre opened, just up Powell: a sexy “New Latin” small-plates fracas co-owned by the inventive chef Stu Irving (formerly of Wild Rice). Next, at Abbott’s western entrance to Blood Alley, came Jules Bistro and, later, Revel Room: the former offering good, inexpensive French bistro fare in a room plucked straight from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, the latter staying open late, an after-work (or after-bar) place for a first (or final) pint, along with ladles of the almost therapeutic gumbo of Andouille sausage and shrimp (trade secret: the chef distributes chocolate cookies straight from the oven at last call). 

But the room that really signalled Gastown’s emergence was Boneta. The location, at Carrall and Cordova, had seen three restaurants fail in as many years, but by the time Boneta opened in the summer of 2007 its success was almost a foregone conclusion. The plan was to offer fine French food by Jeremie Bastien, a chef whose exacting talent had been inherited from his father Richard (one of Quebec’s most respected chef/restaurateurs). At the front of house were Mark Brand (ex-Chambar), Neil Ingram (ex-Lumière), and Andre McGillivray (ex-Le Crocodile)—a well-connected triumvirate. Word spread, and soon it wasn’t just local couples they were serving, but real estate tycoons, corporate whales, and movie stars like Robert Pattinson and Jessica Biel.

In its first year, Boneta, which cost a mere $89,000 to open (thanks to plenty of recycled materials and three sets of fastidious eyes hunting for deals), won numerous accolades. For Neil Ingram, freshly knighted by his peers as Sommelier of the Year, it was deeply gratifying. “Everyone has a mental map of their city,” he says, wearing thick-framed glasses and a neat goatee, “and if, just a few years ago, I said to someone that I was at Carrall and Cordova, they wouldn’t have had a clue where that was.” It was a black spot, “a Detroit, and that was totally unacceptable.” He vowed that if he ever opened a restaurant, it would be here. His partners concurred. “You have to take responsibility for where you live,” he says. “Gastown isn’t a weird slice of an alternate urban universe. It’s the beating heart of our city.”

The schwerpunkt pushed east. Bartending talents Sophie Taverner (ex-Cascade), Josh Pape (ex-Chambar), and Mark Brand of Boneta launched the Diamond, overlooking Maple Tree Square. The space (formerly Loft Six) typifies the local transformation. Seven years ago it played host to a vicious gang shootout. Today, not yet two years old, it’s the navel of the neighbourhood. On a Saturday night, it bowls deeply aromatic Asian-inspired soups, pops better gyozas than Robson’s Gyoza King, shakes and stirs excellent drinks, and feels as safe as a Wednesday night at West on South Granville. No other room embodies Gastown’s renaissance so well.

Across the square, Six Acres serves quality beer, buttered popcorn dusted with romano cheese, and locally made bratwurst. Pourhouse, just past the steam clock on Water, has a strong bar program and a munch card that offers modern twists on classic comfort foods. The Irish Heather moved across the street to a modern, Evoke-designed room, emerging from the chrysalis to find a queue out the door, and its Long Table dinners (wherein strangers sit at a long communal table for a hearty plate and a pint, for $15) have been known to sell out for more than a month at a stretch.

Sean Heather and Scott Hawthorn then opened tiny Judas Goat, next door to Salt. The cute, sherry-soaked bar wows with plates of minted pea salads lit with Pecorino, and gremolata-dusted pork belly scented with orange on onion purée. Suddenly, Blood Alley didn’t seem so gnarly anymore. At its eastern entrance, former Tapastree lieutenant Francis Regio runs Cork & Fin, where local oysters are splayed at a no-frills raw bar. Down the street, Chill Winston burrowed through its own basement to open Guilt & Co., an 89-seat, liquor primary offshoot with live music (and its own cave).

Not far away, on Cordova west of Cambie, the Greedy Pig offers roasted veal bone marrow with sea salted garlic confit and a cocktail list designed by Nick Devine. A block south on Hastings in the old Flack Building (across the street from the Lebanese-themed Nuba and the taco joint La Taqueria), co-owners Cord Jarvie (ex-La Brasserie) and Frankie Harrington (ex-Chambar) are readying their 1,380-square-foot Meat & Bread concept for foodies keen to try their roast-based sandwiches (especially the porchetta). If all goes according to plan, it should be open by the time this goes to print.

The Adelphia Group (Dover Arms, Celebrities, Caprice) has just midwifed a 150-seater called the Charles Bar at the foot of the Woodward’s development. The well-situated Peckinpah is under construction on the southwest corner of Maple Tree Square. Specializing in North Carolinian barbecue, it promises dry ribs, pulled pork, brisket, St. Louis ribs, smoked oysters, plenty of whisky, and a beer list designed by Barry Benson (the “B” in R&B Brewing Company). And then there’s Nicli Antica Pizzeria on East Cordova, which aims to be the first place in B.C. where you can sup on certified authentic “Vera Napoletana” pizza made with Caputo “00” flour. It, too, should be open about the time you read this.

If they build it, will you come? So far, the answer has been a resounding yes. Gastown’s customer base is growing as quickly as its dining landscape. One room’s operating partner, after a Thursday night service, said he “could give a fuck about the tourists or the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. Our bread and butter are graphic designers, web geeks, artists, writers, fashion retailers, musicians, and restaurant workers—the folks who work and live right here in Gastown.”

They are imports, of course: the foot soldiers of gentrification. With them have come new stores and galleries selling everything from high-priced art and the latest hairstyles to cutting-edge fashion and ultra-modern furniture. They might once have been spoiled for choice, but they sew the seeds of higher rents. Gastown apartments that were renting for $1,500 per month a few years ago are now going for well over $2,000. Looking to buy? Get in line. A 624-square-foot apartment in the Captain French at 41 Alexander bought in 2005 for a mere $280,000 sold this year for $397,500. Up the street at the Alexis (27 Alexander), a 963-square-foot loft that went for $367,500 in 2005 just sold for $579,000. For business owners, the boom has been especially telling; lease rates have more than doubled since 2005, from $16 to well over $30.

The boom is making Gastown’s future looks eerily similar to Yaletown’s recent past. Ten years ago, savvy young restaurateurs and shop owners elevated the depressed blocks where Mainland and Hamilton connect with Helmcken and Davie, and the competition is now fierce. Lease rates have risen so brutally that renewal negotiations have become personal gut-checks. Neil Wyles, one of Yaletown’s early adopters, says his rent has increased by over 100 percent since he opened Hamilton Street Grill in 1996. Even so, the $26 per square foot he pays today is dirt cheap in a neighbourhood where spaces regularly trade north of $40. Restaurants still open in Yaletown, but many quickly fail. The ballyhooed Charlie’s, for example, in a cursed Hamilton Street location (formerly Pinky’s, and LK Dining Lounge), didn’t last five months after it opened last March. The new condo-dwelling population’s fetish for chain restaurants has accelerated the downfall of independents. Yaletown now embraces the likes of Cactus Club, Earls, the Keg, and Milestones.

As the centre builds and prices rise, emerging talents are looking east—not to the hard-core stretch of Hastings (Carrall to Gore), but to the less intimidating flanks. The southern pincer cutting down Alexander has just added Terracotta Modern Chinese, a tapas house plating short-rib sliders on mantou buns, old-school chicken chow mein, and lychee-laced sweet-and-sour pork. Up the street at the once-tired Alibi Room, new owners Nigel Springthorpe and Raya Audet have created a stylish cathedral dedicated to craft beer aficionados who can also appreciate the good cooking of chef Greg Armstrong. Across the street, the Cobre crew have gone delightfully low-brow with Deacon’s Corner, a heart-attack diner serving everything your doctor warns you about.

On Powell, meanwhile, Mark Brand and Alex Usow have unleashed the 20-seat Sea Monstr Sushi. There, chef Keith Allison (ex-Dan) is joined by Shori Inomishi (ex-Kakurembou) and front man Daisuke Gomyo (ex-Guu). Further east, at Powell and Gore, is Big Lou’s, a new butcher shop and 1930s-style delicatessen developed by Allan Bosomworth and Karl Gregg, the “two chefs” behind the undersung Two Chefs And A Table just down the road.

The northern pincer started with Wild Rice on Pender in 2001; after a lull it continued with new openings like Acme Cafe on Hastings east of Abbott. Launched last spring by photographer Alan Hoffman and his wife Peggy (a veteran of Bishop’s), the bright, art-deco spot in the redeveloped Paris Block serves plump chicken pies, delicate feuillette pastries brimming with bacon and onion, meatloaf hoagies layered with Swiss, and monster apple pies.

A few doors east, Mark Brand and his partners have picked up Hastings’ emblematic Save-On-Meats building. They’re updating both the butcher shop and the restaurant (and keeping that priceless neon sign that glows pink with pigs and dollar sign); reopening is slated for spring. A block east on Carrall, south of Hastings, Calabash is making a Caribbean splash with former Provence Marinaside sous chef Cullin David doling out intensely flavoured jerks, fragrant curries, and nuanced stews.

In Chinatown, next to Bob Rennie’s revamped Wing Sang building, Sean Heather—still expanding—has the concrete-and-red-leather Everything Cafe brewing Oregon’s cult-fave coffee, Stumptown, and knocking out quality sandwiches. On Keefer between Columbia and Main, former db Bistro Moderne bar manager Danielle Tatarin has landed at the new Keefer Bar, a sleek, pricey room right out of Blade Runner that hosts every breed of sophisticate (its curb is regularly lined with everything from fixed-gear bicycles to Bentleys). A few doors east, another Chambar veteran, Tanis Ling, is the proud parent of Bao Bei (“little darling” in Shanghai vernacular), a popular Chinese “brasserie” plating equal measures of tradition and innovation. Former Araxi toque Joel Watanabe rules a kitchen that supplies killer dumplings and fried rice specials to cool cats of all stripes.

Backing up Chinatown’s rear is the minimally decked-out Campagnolo, this magazine’s Best New Restaurant in 2010. Co-owner Tim Pittman handles the door and former Chow chef J.C. Poirier stuffs fat ravioli with spinach and ricotta before dressing them in sweet corn and fresh leeks from Stoney Paradise Farms.

From here, restoration road leads south, then east. In one or two places, the pincers have closed the gap. Way out on East Hastings, Au Petit Chavignol and Les Amis du Fromage have been corkscrewing good bottles and plating all manner of fromage for two years now. The Waldorf Hotel is going “boutique,” with former Rob Feenie sous chef (and Food Network star) Ned Bell (lately of Kelowna’s Cabana Grille) overseeing its multiple venues, from a 120-seat Pan-American-themed café to a 60-seat Basque and Southern French dining room (they’ve kept the Polynesian bar).

The saddest blocks of East Hastings are now surrounded by all manner of new venues. In five years, will the entrenched SRO hotels and bedbug dens be rubbing shoulders with clever wine bars, vibrant Japanese izakayas, and proper French bistros? It’s entirely likely. And five years after that, will Gastown have gone through the same evolution we’ve seen in Yaletown? When Earls constructs a four-storey Babel at Main and Hastings, and a new faux Vietnamese room (courtesy the Glowbal Group) takes pho to the next level in a sexy new room overlooking Oppenheimer Park, we’ll know that the early adopters have moved on to the next new thing. VM

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