Vancouver just keeps hitting it out of the park. There are so many excellent restaurants to choose from already, but new must-visit establishments keep showing up year after year, with 2015’s hot spots featuring everything from upscale European dining to pan-Asian share plates. Confession: I haven’t had a chance to go to all the restos that came on scene this past year—Chang’An and Ancora are at the top of my list to visit pronto—but here’s a shortlist of my faves from the outgoing year.
Top Chef Canada contender Curtis Luk teamed up with former Fable manager Chase MacLeod for this Kitsilano delight. The nose-to-tail, root-to-tip fare is beyond impressive, with an emphasis on daily tasting menus. Priced at $45 for four courses or $65 for six in vegetarian and carnivorous versions, these are fabulous value for the quality, inventiveness, and care behind each and every dish. Consider the earthy condiment served this summer with an inverted pea-and-turnip tart—it consisted of more than a dozen ingredients, including birch syrup and nori. The drinks are first-rate too: start with the Under Milk Wood cocktail, containing, among other ingredients, made-in-B.C. Tempo Renovo gin and a cordial of foraged fir, nettle, and meadow grass.
Chef Stefan Hartmann comes to Vancouver via Berlin, where his own restaurant earned a Michelin star and a nod in a New York Times article about that city’s top restaurants. His technique is impeccable, whether he’s crafting a strudel out of goat cheese, potato, and asparagus, or trout with rutabaga, peppercress, and slow-cooked onsen egg. À la carte dining is available, while tasting menus come in three sizes: four courses for $75, five for $95, and six for $110. Look for early-bird specials and even discount coupons if you can’t stomach the prices. (It’s participating in Tourism Vancouver’s 2016 Dine Out Vancouver Festival, too.)
Michael Robbins is another former Top Chef Canada competitor, and he’s in his element here, serving up contemporary, Pacific Northwest–inspired plates meant for sharing. Mussels out of the shell come with a white-wine-and-fennel broth and house-made brioche that’s been torn and toasted; slow-and-low is the method behind the wagyu short rib, cooked at a very gentle temperature for 42 hours and then served off the bone with peppercorn jus—ambrosial.
The “angry tiger sauce” with “Calamari the Way I Like It” alone is worth the visit, its fiery wallop surprising you right after the sweet litchi goes down. Swirl the onsen egg into the “Kickass Veggie Risotto”, currently containing duxelles (sautéed, finely chopped mushrooms) and tomato purée. Dishes draw on the cuisines of Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam, with executive chef Clement Chan and general manager Steve Kuan—the duo behind the Le Tigre food truck—clearly having fun both front and back of house. Items top out at $16 for miso sablefish with fried snow crab and congee—a price point that helps justify the weekend lineups.
Talk about being on a roll: David Gunawan, the chef and owner behind Farmer’s Apprentice, opened this spot in partnership with the Donnelly Group in the heart of the financial district this year, in addition to starting up Grapes and Soda, the city’s first natural wine bar. Located beneath the Blackbird Public House, Royal Dinette is a refreshing alternative to the existing dining options in the downtown core, with Gunawan’s farm-to-table philosophy at the heart of his healthy, vegetable-centric creations. You won’t leave stuffed, but you’ll be wholly happy with dishes like freshly made pasta (long fusilli come with octopus, clams, Buddha’s hand, olives, and herbs) or seafood such as lingcod in a spot-prawn bisque with black trumpet mushrooms, turnip, and apple.
Headed by John Crook and Erik Heck, the partners behind the Flying Pig, this Yaletown eatery celebrates the sea with items including Alaskan king crab, Prince Edward Island mussels, Lois Lake salmon, oysters from east and west coasts, and more. Hemingway’s Santiago would be bowled over by this mariner’s bounty.
7. Au Comptoir
It helps if you speak the language to get past restaurant servers’ perceived snootiness in the City of Light, but regardless of your command of high-school French, you can count on service being professional and friendly at this bustling café run by two Frenchmen in the heart of Kitsilano. It serves up classics like steak frites, duck, beef tartare, cheese and charcuterie plates, and a true taste of Paris.
The location has changed (now at 3106 Cambie Street), but it’s the same exceptional Indian fare that’s made Vikram Vij famous. The lamb popsicles are still on offer; look too for local pork belly with apple-mint chutney or saag paneer with Punjabi daal and chapati. You’re in good hands here; I just hope that the man himself still has time to make the rounds between all of his various ventures, since part of the pleasure of dining at one of his establishments is speaking with him and watching him work the room.
The latest from Glowbal Restaurant Group gets a mention because it’s got something for everyone, from crispy calamari to chunky cioppino to skewers of all sorts cooked on a monstrous robata grill—halloumi cheese, wagyu beef, lobster tail, and Japanese eggplant among them. Plus the décor is super cool—try to snag a birdcage table if you’re dining alfresco.
10. HOpe Café
One of these things is not like the others… Yes, it’s a coffee shop, but it’s also a social enterprise that employs people who have experienced mental illness, the first of its kind in B.C. A partnership of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Vancouver Coastal Health, and Blenz Coffee, it’s a bright and spacious place in the Greta and Robert H.N. Ho Centre for Psychiatry and Education (the HOpe Centre), which is part of Lions Gate Hospital, serving up promise and potential with every latte. Here’s hoping 2016 sees its continued success.