Could Vancouver’s next hot restaurant neighbourhood be in the suburbs?

With downtown Vancouver rents too high for young chefs who want to open their own restaurant, the culinary landscape of the city is shifting
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> With files from Yolande Cole and Michelle Da Silva

When you think about restaurants in the suburbs, what springs to mind? Many Vancouverites would say strip malls, fast food, and chain restaurants. Or maybe hamburgers and pizza, laminated menus, paper placemats, and crayons for the kids.

Scott Jaeger knows the preconceptions he’s up against. On the line from the Pear Tree Restaurant in Burnaby, he said people often tell him his restaurant is too good for the burbs. “We get it all the time: this isn’t where we should be, we should be downtown,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “I understand why people say it. I think they say it in a good way. I think they’re trying to say, ‘You’re good enough to be downtown.’ ”

Jaeger, who owns the fine-dining establishment with his wife, Stephanie, is good enough to cook anywhere. Highly respected in the Vancouver food community, he represented Canada at the 2007 Bocuse d’Or world culinary competition in France. Yet 15 years ago, when they opened the Pear Tree, they chose to do so at 4120 East Hastings Street in North Burnaby.

“It was very much a business decision,” he told the Straight in a February interview. “We really liked Burnaby Heights. We fell in love with the community that was here. We were looking at Granville and Broadway [in Vancouver] at the same time.” But in Vancouver, he said, he and his wife would have had to take on two business partners to afford to open the business. In Burnaby, they could go it alone.

Rent and real-estate prices have always been an issue for fledging small-business owners. But with Vancouver’s skyrocketing property values, other young chefs who want to open their own place may follow in Jaeger’s footsteps. Could dining in Vancouver’s suburbs take on a new, hip reputation, much like Brooklyn has for New Yorkers?

When Straight staffers interviewed over 100 chefs and restaurateurs for our Golden Plate Awards issue in March, we asked them where they see our food scene heading in the next five to 10 years. Many answered that it was heading outside of downtown to more affordable Vancouver neighbourhoods. And some even suggested that the suburbs of Burnaby, New Westminster, Surrey, and even further afield could be the next frontier for young chefs who want to start their own businesses. Here’s what they said.

According to Sean Heather, an infusion of hip restaurants in the suburbs won’t happen overnight. “We’re going to exhaust everything before we move to the burbs,” he said. “That’s nothing against the burbs, but the natural attraction is to be downtown.”

However, the man behind Heather Hospitality Group can attest to the pull of affordable real estate. He opened the Irish Heather in Gastown 15 years ago and is now going on 10 eateries, bars, and pubs in this neighbourhood that has gentrified rapidly.

“The big attraction for me in Gastown, when I first came here, was that I was broke and could afford to go into Gastown,” he said. “People who don’t have a lot of money or resources behind them will always go where they’re forced to go. You’ll see people shifting. Chinatown is still decent value, but it won’t be long before that’s gone.…They’ll go where the rents are.”

David Hawksworth, owner and executive chef at Hawksworth Restaurant, also recognizes that young chef-entrepreneurs could cause a shift in Metro Vancouver’s culinary landscape. “Over the years all the cooks that have worked for us, and various other places, are going to branch out and start doing something east of Main Street and find places where they can afford to open,” he said. “We’re going to have some great restaurants in Burnaby or in Surrey. People are going to start looking for those locations where they can afford [to start a business].”

That’s because, as many of those interviewed noted, aspiring independent restaurant owners are being priced out of downtown. “Rents in Vancouver are becoming so extremely high. You can’t run a 2,000-square-foot restaurant anymore and have 40 or 50 seats and hope to survive. The economics just don’t work,” said Domenique Sabatino, who owns Water St. Café, a longstanding Gastown restaurant. He laments that big chain restaurants are increasingly dominating the downtown restaurant scene.

Angus An, chef and owner of Maenam restaurant in Kitsilano, has noticed this shift. “There’s already a lot of restaurants going to East Hastings or further east downtown because they can no longer afford rent downtown or on the East Side,” he said. “So hopefully there will be more neighbourhoods developing and more restaurants everywhere.”

An’s former Kitsilano neighbour, Robert Belcham, is one of those venturing into the Downtown Eastside. Belcham closed Refuel on West 4th Avenue in March and opened Fat Dragon Bar-B-Q in early April. The new restaurant is located at 566 Powell Street, an area where sightings of lululemon yoga pants are scarce. (For more on the politics of restaurants opening in the Downtown Eastside, see this space next week.) Along with partners, Belcham already owns Campagnolo, located a few blocks north of Main Street SkyTrain Station, and Campagnolo Roma, near East Hastings and Nanaimo.

According to Neil Wyles, owner and chef of Yaletown’s Hamilton Street Grill, it’s a positive thing that restaurants are opening in areas that haven’t previously been culinary hubs. “It’s nice to see neighbourhoods developing a little more outside of the downtown core,” he said. He pointed to the area around Main and King Edward, and Main and 13th or 14th, as well as the neighbourhood around Kingsway and Fraser, as new hot spots.

As Vancouver’s high housing prices push more people to move out of the city, there may be a new suburban demographic to serve. “A lot of people who have moved to the suburbs have experienced some urban living. They would like that downtown-Vancouver feeling, but they would like it down the street,” said Andrew Wong.

Wong has owned Wild Rice in Crosstown for 11 years. Last December, he opened a second location in New Westminster. Wong said that cheaper real estate wasn’t the reason he chose the suburbs. Rather, he said that he saw an opportunity: New Westminster simply didn’t have the type of modern Chinese cuisine that Wild Rice has to offer. At his sleek, water-view restaurant at River Market at Westminster Quay, he also offers the community casually sophisticated winemakers’ dinners and cooking classes, some targeted at vegetarians.

As for the Pear Tree’s Jaeger, he still sees a lot of opportunity for vibrant 40- to 50-seat bistros that serve great food in the suburbs, run by an owner-operator rather than a franchisee or chain. He noted that dining in one’s own neighbourhood goes well with the prevailing “eat-local mentality”. “Restaurants don’t have to all be downtown.…Why do you need to drive your car downtown? Why can’t a Coquitlam restaurant serve its own area and be supported?”

A restaurant “doesn’t need to be in Yaletown in order to have clientele”, he continued. “It could be in a development in Port Moody, where you have 4,000 residents captive because you’re their local.”

As more people get used to dining in the suburbs, Jaeger said, attitudes have changed.

“It’s evolved a lot,” he said, noting that he gets customers from all over Metro Vancouver, including downtown. “People have a more open mind about what it is to dine in Burnaby.”

Comments (6) Add New Comment
DavidH
I hope that high-end dining in the lower rent areas comes at a much lower cost for the consumer. You have to bear in mind that the company credit card rules in the downtown core ... which essentially means that price is no object. Not so in the 'burbs.
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election
greedy landlords have killed Vancouver....now a terrible place to do Business and a boring dead city
Vancouver will always be the backwater it is ... with the greediest landlords on earth
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mutatto
biz killer no. one is the government with sky high property taxation regime
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RK
Despite what many Vancouver-ites think, this story is a prime example proving that the world doesn't end at the Vancouver-Burnaby border.
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scathie
Burnawhere?!
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Vranak
Hi, I'm from White Rock, and I consider Vancouver to be a backward community. Too sophisticated for its own good. The restaurants are here are pretty great. That is all.
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