When a notable chef in town announces plans to open a new restaurant, it’s a food lover’s natural instinct to get excited. Now imagine how Vancouver’s gastronomically obsessed felt when word got out that four of the city’s top chefs were coming together to collaborate on a culinary concept—“overwhelmed” might be an understatement.
Popina Canteen is the culmination of four-and-a-half years of location scouting, brainstorming, research, and menu development by local chefs Angus An (Maenam, Fat Mao, Sen Pad Thai), Robert Belcham (Campagnolo, Monarch Burger), Hamid Salimian (culinary consultant for Earls, instructor in Vancouver Community College’s culinary-arts program), and Joël Watanabe (Kissa Tanto, Bao Bei).
Their long-awaited project doesn’t even have an address on Google Maps (yet) because it’s located in the middle of a former parking lot on the northwest side of the Granville Island Public Market. Characterized by its unique exterior made from repurposed shipping containers (which formerly belonged to the now defunct outdoor market business Hawkers Wharf), the healthy-fast-food eatery also boasts one of the best patios in Metro Vancouver.
But this highly coveted spot with beautiful, unobstructed views of False Creek wasn’t even an option in Popina’s early stages of planning. It wasn’t until the all-star team applied to the Granville Island office of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) for a spot at the market over a year ago that this unprecedented and unconventional locale became a possibility.
The window-service counter with an outdoor seating area fits in perfectly with the initiatives of CMHC’s Granville Island 2040 plan: expand the public market to create space for new food stalls, and offer sustainable food, local food, and innovative culinary arts and programming.
“They were trying to build different things all over the island to better utilize underutilized spaces and to bring more vibrancy back to the island,” Belcham told the Straight in an interview alongside his three business partners outside Popina. “They’re trying to bring the locals back to the island. We were the perfect cog for the wheel, to kick-start all of that.”
So what does the name Popina mean? It’s defined as an ancient Roman wine bar that served simple meals and alcohol to lower classes of Roman society. “It was a tavern for you to get food and wine. Debauchery would happen, and it was the first sort of idea of a restaurant for the people,” explained Belcham. “We want to bring really great food to the masses. That was the whole idea, and that’s what this is all about.”
In case you’re wondering, debauchery is not going to happen at Popina. But you will find tasty bites and satisfying beverages.
Those who walk up to the bold-coloured structure (its branding was done by popular local agency Glasfurd & Walker) will see a light-pink menu off to the side, which showcases everything from lobster rolls to crispy-chicken sandwiches, gourmet salads to fresh seafood trays, and avocado toast to puffcream—a signature treat of soft-serve ice cream in a cream puff, with rotating flavours and toppings. There are two windows to order from: one for hot foods, the other for the dessert and grab-and-go items.
“When you look at Granville Island as an iconic place in Vancouver, there aren’t a lot of iconic food moments,” said An. “We wanted to link up with places like San Francisco, like when you go to Fisherman’s Wharf you get the steamed crab and lobster.” The chefs emphasize that Popina is a fast-food concept, minus all the crap that usually comes hand in hand with this type of dining establishment.
“It is fast food with integrity, that’s what it is,” explained Salimian. “When you look at the salads, it’s not what any other fast food [spot] is serving. You put the salad in a white china bowl, you’ll find it at a restaurant. It just happens to be in a takeout container that is compostable here.”
Guests will be paying the market price for some of the seafood options, such as whole Dungeness crab and whole East Coast lobster. If you want a mix of the best, there are seafood trays ($120 to $180 each) that include the whole crustaceans, as well as shrimp ceviche, pink scallops, and tuna crudo served with house-made sauces.
“When people think about fast food, they think it’s unhealthy and terrible,” added An. “But when people come here and try the food here, they’re going to be pleasantly surprised. It’s delicious, healthy, and you get to sit at one of the most beautiful sceneries in Vancouver.”
Featured libations include red and white wines, specially brewed beer, bottled cocktails (think negroni and caesars), and classic sodas.
Many Vancouverites may be familiar with the renowned team behind Popina, thanks to each chef’s career in the city, but they couldn’t be less bothered if you don’t recognize their names. The four of them are aiming to create delicious food that will blow away their guests—many of whom will be tourists—and it doesn’t matter to the chefs if their involvement is known or not.
“I crave all those things that everybody craves, like the fried-chicken sandwich and the great burger and the ice cream, but I won’t go to some of those places out there that serve these things because I know it’s terrible,” said Watanabe. “It would be nice to have a place where you know there’s integrity in the food, but it’s also those guilty pleasures that you really want to have. Hopefully, the food speaks for itself.”
Popina is now open and serving up a select number of items; it will make its full menu debut by the end of the month. The chefs just have to wait a little longer to see if they can reap the fruits of success: smiling customers who are enjoying every last bite of their dishes.