Vancouver restaurants: the next global trendsetters?
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Marching to our own casual beat
Budgets might help shape Vancouver’s restaurant scene, but so does our laid-back culture. “Everyone is going more towards casual food,” explained Dale MacKay, owner of ensemble restaurant and bar and ensemble Tap. “That’s partly related to finances and partly related to [the fact that] it’s a pretty casual city.”
Alan Hoffman, co-proprietor of Acme Cafe, said that Vancouverites don’t go in for old-school, white-tablecloth fine dining: they prefer places that are “a little bit more reasonably priced, maybe aimed at a younger crowd”.
On how diners brand restaurants as expensive without accounting for the cost of ingredients and operation:
“They see you’re full and they think you’re making millions. The majority of successful restaurants at dinner hour, if you’re lucky enough at the end of the year to make 10 percent, you’re really lucky. You’re lucky nowadays if you make two, three percent—which is a very small return considering the 90 hours I put in personally every week. I put in 90 hours personally, every week, still today.”
—Pino Posteraro, owner of Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca
“It’s fun to be in business in Vancouver. Clientele is very rewarding, just like every other city around the world, and we’ve done seven countries so far. They all think they are the best and they are the leader, when in fact we are all the same, with the same problems and the same customers, and very few people are leaders.”
—Laurent Devin, co-owner of Bistrot Bistro
Dozens of people interviewed commented on Vancouver’s unique affinity for chain restaurants such as Cactus Club Cafe, Earls, and Joey Restaurants.
“One thing in this city that’s always struck me as peculiar is how we’ve always been able to support and nurture so many big-box restaurants,” said Andreas Seppelt, co-owner of Les Faux Bourgeois. “If you go to Seattle or Portland, which we use as sort of a benchmark, you don’t see them at all unless you go out to the suburbs.”
“The larger chains are really what’s driving our city right now. The Cactuses are multiplying so fast, I don’t even know where the next location is,” said Mark Brand, who owns Save on Meats. “These places provide a great experience, to be honest, and they’re taking the direction up.” He added that he’s “going to get fried by all my other restaurateur friends” for saying that the chains represent Vancouver well.
A significant number of independent restaurateurs expressed how difficult it is to compete with the chains. “They do create a bar and they do create a standard for everyone else to live up to,” said John Crook, co-owner of the Flying Pig. Trevor Lee, coproprietor of Terracotta Modern Chinese, noted that “you really have to find a way to get creative and provide something that’s the same or better [than] those guys. That can be tough.”
“The quality, the service, and the rooms…and the price points that they’re at are fantastic,” said Bill Marsh, owner of Hub Restaurant and Lounge. He sees casual fine dining as Vancouver’s leading trend, since Earls and Joey Restaurants have now expanded to Toronto.
Cibo’s Taylor said that although the chains “do their job and there’s nothing wrong with it”, their popularity indicates that Vancouver diners aren’t very adventurous. “For a city that says it’s very foodie, to have these big chains be consistently the busiest restaurants in the city all year-round, I think that says it all in terms of how Vancouver is in its early stages” of culinary development.
Monk McQueens’ owner, Bob Lindsay, claimed that chains are limiting diners’ tastes. “You try to get a little innovative with something like squid, where you pan-fry it and put it on a plate, and they [customers] say, ‘Well, that’s not like the calamari I had at Cactus Club.’ Cactus Club and Joey’s are sort of the standard now. They’re training people how to dine out, and it’s not good.”
Jason Harris, executive chef at Beachside Forno, said that independent restaurants suffer because customers would rather go somewhere they’re familiar with. “We have so many…good restaurants that people aren’t willing to go out and give it a try. People maybe just need to step out of their comfort zone,” he said.
But as Emad Yacoub, president of the Glowbal Restaurant Group, pointed out: “Chain restaurants are only going to open if there’s a demand for it.” (Yacoub doesn’t consider his group a chain since each restaurant has a different culinary theme.) He asserted that even if you don’t personally like chains, you must acknowledge that they’re hitting the mark. “I have unbelievable respect for any restaurant that I walk into and they’re busy seven days a week….They’re doing something right to have their clients keep coming back.” In the case of these chains, “They’re giving customer service. Recognition. At a good price. And consistency. And chains understand comfort cooking.”
Jim Romer, owner and executive chef of Romer’s Burger Bar, noted that the chains are competitive because they “have all the high-end chefs from the one-off restaurants running them”. Mark Taylor, who owns Cru and Siena, said that he knows several chefs “who are very good people with integrity and fine restaurants” who have gone on to take jobs with the chain restaurants. “It’s from the top down. I don’t think there’s any great secret,” he said. “They’ve just done a really, really good job.”
Some credit food concept architect Rob Feenie for Cactus Club’s success.
Abhishek Roy, owner and chef of Atithi Indian Cusine, pointed to Rob Feenie’s influence at Cactus Club, where the food concept architect drives the menu. “You can see each plate has its own passion in it,” Roy said. “You get amazed.…They are using fingerling potatoes with their fish.”
For his part, Feenie attributed the success of the Cactus Club brand to “execution and consistency”. He noted that people have less money to spend these days and are looking for good value. Although he still thinks it would be nice if Vancouver had fine-dining restaurants like those in big American cities, he said that our culinary scene is unique for its abundance of casual restaurants done well. “I don’t think it takes away from anything. If anything else, I think it adds something to our culture,” he said.
Where our food scene is headed
Still, when the Straight asked chefs and restaurateurs where they would like to see Vancouver’s restaurant industry go in the next five or 10 years, many echoed the Keefer Bar’s Tatarin: “Less chain restaurants, more independent restaurants.”
“I actually think that we’re getting away from large restaurants, and I think that more neighbourhood restaurants will spring up,” said Glenn Cormier, food and beverage director at Dockside Restaurant. Tyrell Brandvold, chef at Chewies Steam and Oyster Bar in Kitsilano, said he’s already seeing more independent restaurants spreading about the city “where it’s not concentrations of the best restaurants in one area”.
Others echoed Scott Jaeger, co-owner of the Pear Tree, who wants to see “more individuality in restaurants”. Jaeger explained that restaurants tend to imitate others that have been successful in attracting trendy diners, in hopes of snagging a piece of that market. He’d rather see restaurateurs follow their hearts and launch new concepts.
Jonathan Snelgar, co-owner of Nelson the Seagull, already sees this happening as independent restaurants are “trying to carve out a little niche”. He pointed to the sandwich shop Meat & Bread as an example of places that “do a few things, but they do them excellently”.
Others noted Vancouver has gaps to fill in terms of ethnic specialties. Carlo Lorenzo Bottazzi, co-owner of the BiBo, said that local diners “know now what is missing and they want what is missing”.
There’s also room for new takes on traditional cooking. Kam To, owner of Red Ginger, said that in the future, “you might find a lot of fusion,” with Japanese restaurants using French sauces, for example. Hapa Izakaya’s Justin Ault predicted that more second-, third-, and fourth-generation Canadians will unleash new takes on Asian food, such as Vietnamese cuisine. And Ned Bell, executive chef at YEW Restaurant + Bar, said that we’ll see “more flavours blended” in Chinese cuisine; he’s working with Chinese chefs in the Four Seasons Hotel’s new dedicated Chinese kitchen to “make some really interesting, neat stuff”.
Boneta’s Neil Ingram believes that the rising cost of food and transportation surcharges will encourage chefs to get more creative with local ingredients. “You’ll see a trend toward doing more with less….A lot of things we used to take for granted are just not the case [viable options] anymore. I think people are looking more toward their own back yards.”
Jason Apple, co-owner of Gourmet Syndicate and co-owner/operator of the Roaming Dragon food truck, sees our street-food scene finding its own identity rather than imitating cities like Portland. Right now, he said, entrepreneurs are jumping on the street-food bandwagon, but only the strong will survive. “Not to compare myself or our business to Tupac or Biggie, but the street is a rough place,” he said, laughing. His company is helping brick-and-mortar restaurants launch mobile trucks, allowing them to do catering as well as street food, addressing challenges like weather and high operating costs.
In the future, Apple hopes to see “vendors who are deeply rooted in the community”. As our street scene develops, “the trend will shake out and it won’t be a trend: it will be a reality.”
“The future is very bright,” said Tojo’s owner-chef Hidekazu Tojo, who noted that restaurants have gone through a lot recently with the economic slowdown, HST, and increased parking-meter rates. “If [during the] last two years a restaurant survived, they can survive forever.”
Vancouver is “a young exciting city that’s going places, for sure”, said Cibo’s Taylor, noting that our food scene “improves every single year”.
Just think of where we’ll be in 10 more.
Follow Carolyn Ali on Twitter at twitter.com/carolynali.