Lamenting the loss of neighbourhood touchstones on a regular basis has unfortunately become part and parcel with living in Vancouver. That's why the story of one eatery swimming against this current of redevelopment offers a spot of encouragement.
Due to redevelopment, owner Angela Maida had to shut down her seven-year-old Cambie Village restaurant Pronto, and its neighbouring bar Prontino, at 3473 Cambie Street on March 3.
Thankfully, it wasn't yet another permanent closure to bemoan. She already had a plan in the works to open a second location, which she wound up transferring all her staff to. How fortuitous.
Quietly, Centro opened in the West End at 1037 Denman Street on April 6 and is still in soft-opening mode. In an interview at the premises (formerly inhabited by Hub), Maida says many small tweaks are yet to come for everything from minor décor details to operating logistics.
Many forthcoming changes will include adaptations as they become familiar with the needs of the neighbourhood. At Pronto, for example, she said they would often get people picking up pasta for families on way home from work.
"People kinda taught us what kind of restaurant we needed to be," she said. And so it will be with Centro.
She chose the approximately 1,700-square-foot space, with seating for 59 patrons and an additional eight patio seats, after an extensive search throughout Vancouver. She was looking for a pre-existing restaurant to diminish wait time to receive permit from the city, and also for something that may be a unicorn in the city: a building that isn't likely to be demolished.
While Pronto was 1940s-inspired, Centro flashes forward a few decades. Stepping into the space is akin to setting foot in a style-savvy living room immaculately preserved from the 1970s—minus the bead curtains, macramé wallhangings, and mowable shag carpets.
Maida explains that as the building was built in 1971 as a Bank of British Columbia branch, she and designer Scott Cohen decided to "respect the bones of the building" which reflected the brutalist architecture of the time.
Amid the departures of decades-old businesses such as the Dover Arms Pub, Denman Fitness, and West Valley Market, the retro theme reasserts the presence of the past in a city rapidly erasing its history.
"So much has been taken from this community recently," she noted. "It's nice to be able to come in and dress up a building and offer something to the community."
Clerestory windows that had been boarded up have been reopened. The ambient lighting illuminates the coffered ceiling, from which two mobiles of geometric forms are suspended and draw eyes upward as well.
In fact, the entire room is awash in curves and rectangular forms, coloured in gradients of muted, earthy tones. A variety of seating arrangements offer dynamism to the layout. For instance, a bank of two-seater booths, housed beneath flowing arches, separates the main dining area from the bar but still permits sightlines.
A coffee bar set against the back wall, she says, was positioned to break the room up and activate that space.
"It's about creating theatre in the room because otherwise a room is just square," she says.
The name Centro (pronounced chèn-tro) comes from something Maida learned on her many travels in Italy. She explains that while driving, she would always be on the lookout for the black-and-white bullseye-like sign in Italian villages that denoted the city centre, or centro. Since her new location was downtown, she thought it would be appropriate.
It's more apt than she may have anticipated. The spot is sandwiched between the flourishing Asian noodle district near Robson Street and the cluster of Middle Eastern and southern European eateries on the way to English Bay. Positioned at the culinary nexus between those two worlds, Italian pasta could not be more fitting.
As at Pronto, simplicity will rule the roost for Centro's menu, which similarly features pasta with an ever-changing array of specials (which she says "keeps the kitchen engaged"). As Maida puts it, it's basically Pronto's menu with a twist.
The majority of their pasta (ranging from $18 to $24) is made by hand, including for their tagliatelle pomodoro, potato gnocchi with creamy pesto, casarecce bolognese, and mafalde boscaiola.
Other mains include grilled luganica fennel sausage, served with pomodoro and rosemary potatoes ($22), and marinated grilled lamb loin chops, served with charred corn, roasted red pepper, and mint salsa ($24).
As Maida wanted more small plates for nibbling on at the cocktail bar, antipasti (ranging from $6 to $25) range from sautéed kale with chili flakes to meatballs alla nonna. There's also charred octopus, with cannellini beans; wild boar pancetta-wrapped prawns; or Tuscan-influenced fritto misto, or mixed seafood.
Cocktails introduced as specials at Prontino have been adopted for Centro's bar, and they've retained their program of local and imported gin. Also available are negronis, martinis, vermouth ("to open your appetite"), and amari (which Maida says is for after meals as a digestive). She said their wine program is Italian focussed but will have a few B.C. wine selections as well.
As Maida says she's not a really a fanfare-type of person, there won't be a grand opening but they'll continue to develop things in preparation for the summer season, which brings the throngs of tourists, sunseekers, and eventgoers.
Maida hails from a traditional Italian family from Winnipeg, who she describes as "hardcore immigrants" from Italy in the 1950s (her father is from Calabria). Consequently, she said she grew up "mortified" by things like goats in their basement while her father made his own olives, sausages, and lupini beans. Like many offspring of immigrants, appreciation came with adulthood.
"We were kind of a different family….Things were pretty ethnic in my house, which as a young person in a neighbourhood where everybody's last name was Mc- and Mac-, it was a little embarrassing but then as I grew older those were the things I loved."
Luckily for Vancouver diners, Maida translated that regard for her past into ventures that balance classic and retro elements with a keen eye on the future.