With its bartender serving up old-school cocktails in vintage-look glassware under vaulted ceilings, East of Main doesn’t seem like a charity project.
Tucked into a heritage storefront in Chinatown, it’s just the kind of stylish yet laid-back haunt that’s drawing the nighttime crowds to this rapidly evolving ’hood. But what separates it from the other bars and restaurants around it is that East of Main has a mission to give back to the community, in a big way—not that you would even be aware of it while sipping a lovingly crafted cocktail or munching on some Mediterranean-inspired tapas. All profits go to the Project Limelight Society, a free performing-arts program for kids in the neighbourhood that has a studio upstairs. In fact, that’s this cool little room’s entire raison d’être.
The concept had its beginnings about 18 months ago, when Vancouver sisters Maureen Webb (a well-known casting director) and Donalda Weaver went on a trip to Europe after their mother’s death. It was a time to regroup and reassess what they wanted to do with their lives.
“We decided we wanted to work with kids and arts,” Webb recalls to the Georgia Straight over the phone. “And we knew East Van: we were raised there with not a lot of money with a single mother.”
After setting up the Project Limelight Society’s theatre program through the Strathcona Community Centre, the two renovated a former machine shop and herbalist store into the East Georgia space the café occupies now. The restaurant not only supports Project Limelight through its profits, children get a meal each time they come to the program.
“I wanted it to be a place where people could come in and feel comfortable—where a middle-aged woman could come in and have a glass of wine or a coffee and feel like it’s okay,” Webb explains, stressing that the restaurant is meant to feel like a neighbourhood hub, with its club-chair corner, central communal table, and five-seat bar. “And we wanted it to have shared food: our trip to Europe was the inspiration.”
And sure enough, on the night we visited, patrons of all ages were settled into East of Main’s low-slung grey-green banquettes, working at aesthetically pleasing plates of almond duqqa and Catalan flatbread, and chattering easily above an unobtrusive soundtrack that ranged from Gorillaz and the White Stripes to Fiona Apple.
Webb and Weaver have surrounded themselves with people who know the industry well. Chef Jenny Patsula, recently of Savory City catering, developed the Mediterranean-by-way-of-the-Middle-East menu. And Colin Turner, formerly of CinCin, has just been brought in as bar manager; it helps that he has a background in the arts (studying acting and directing at the Gastown Actors’ Studio), but he also knows how to shake up simply cool cocktails like the crisp Puritan (gin with orange bitters and yellow Chartreuse). Says Webb straightforwardly: “We wanted a kick-ass bar program.” Presumably, the huge origami-crane art installation that flutters high over the mixology zone adds extra inspiration.
The drinks are definitely a draw, especially if you like to sip like it’s 1929 at the Stork Club. But what really stands out on a first visit is how much the food departs from Vancouver’s typical casual evening menus, which are so often Asian-inspired or meat-obsessed.
You can usually judge a Mediterranean-style restaurant by its olives, and our starter plate did not disappoint, with its tart little oil-cured blackies with their hint of orange. The spice-and-nut-crusted labneh balls were even better, taking you from Beirut to Bodrum in every bite. The cool yogurt cream of the little spheres played off the minty lemon-pickled ribbons of zucchini and the spice of Aleppo pepper, all piled sculpturally atop a flatbread that you could rip pieces off and use to mix and mingle the competing flavours and textures. The flatbread, called coca, is an anchor on the tapas menu, rectangular and spongy and cut to share; the lemon-drizzled fontina-and-basil version was a perfect, sour offset to the bartender’s old-school tribute to the Dark and Stormy.
You also can’t go wrong with the charcuterie, a carnival of textures and flavours: think house-made pâté and plum mostarda—grainy mustard with caramelized onions—smoky Oyama sausage, cured salami, and olive tapenade. The Spanish torta (a traditional pie of eggs, potatoes, and cheese) is an authentic treat, though surprisingly, it’s served cold. Rarely seen in this town, it’s a good offset to the stronger tastes on the menu—say, the rich and spicy Moroccan kefta (meatballs) that come with a poached egg. The fingerling take on patatas bravas is less successful, huge and heavy with aioli. The desserts are impressive, though, especially the Grand Marnier chocolate mousse we had—a floaty little number in one of those antique-style little glasses.
The helpings are more generous than with your usual tapas around town, with East Van–friendly prices that run between $4 and $9; larger plates, like the charcuterie and an apricot-and-honey-infused goat stew we want to try next time, push into the $14-to-$17 range. At lunchtime, when the café morphs into a more family-friendly space, there’s a kids’ menu and the food veers more to creative-sandwich fare. There’s also a catering and party business on the side with an equally enticing array of Mediterranean flavours—a way of giving twice this holiday season.
As for the kids who participate in Project Limelight, they’re getting good eats here, but their program is also giving them positive experiences and applause: they just performed at the Strathcona Community Centre’s 40th-anniversary celebration in front of 500 people. Webb, who, with her sister, works hands-on with the program, can hardly contain her pride. “Despite their fears, they got up on-stage and did such an amazing job,” she says. “We feel incredibly lucky.”