Vancouver is often described as a “food city”. We know our way around all kinds of ethnic menus and we cherish the edible goodness that comes from our very own waters, forests, and farms. But it wasn’t always so.
When Dan McLeod started the Georgia Straight in 1967, there weren’t many restaurants to choose from; several refused service to the newspaper’s staffers and other “hippies”.
“Certain places I couldn’t go because they didn’t like you if you had long hair,” McLeod says. He remembers going to small Chinese restaurants, including one on Pender Street near the Straight’s first office, that had a jukeboxe on every table, and Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, a former bootlegging joint known for its fried chicken (still the most delicious ever, in McLeod’s opinion).
In the mid-1970s, McLeod hired Irishman Bob Geldof, today’s musician turned humanitarian who served as the paper’s music editor before going on to form the Boomtown Rats. The two worked closely together but rarely went out to eat. “He’d come over to our place,” McLeod says, referring to the home he shared with his future wife. “We’d make roast beef.”
The Straight’s first editorial meetings took place on Hamilton Street, next door to Lupo Restaurant and Vinoteca (then Villa del Lupo), in an identical house that was a crash pad before being torn down to make way for today’s firehall. McLeod remembers a conversation there one night in 1969 as he was leaving the place.
“There was this guy on the porch I hadn’t seen before,” McLeod recalls. “I started talking to him, and he was telling me he had just arrived in Vancouver from Italy via Montreal. He sounded quite ambitious, and he talked about how he was going to start a restaurant.”
That determined new arrival was Umberto Menghi. He had just taken a train ride across the country. Four years later, he opened Il Giardino in a little yellow house on Hornby Street. Menghi was the first to bring authentic Italian cooking and quality international food to the city.
Here’s how James Barber—the late restaurant critic, cookbook author, and TV host, himself a culinary icon—described the chef and his first eatery in the pages of the Georgia Straight in 1990: “Umberto Menghi drives to work in a Ferrari Testarossa, wears $5,000 silk suits, and bathes twice daily in Veuve Clicquot. He has seven restaurants in town, all of which bear not only his name but also his undeniable imprint: ‘This is the way I like it—the best of everything.’
“There is nowhere more story-book Italian than Il Giardino during a sunny lunch-time, with a really glorious overabundance of vines and plants, the tiles, the sunglasses, the monstrous great Etruscan ewers and the Beautiful People at their midday blooming,” he wrote. “It’s lush.”
With Menghi as a grandfather of Vancouver’s food scene, much of the culinary talent here is connected to some extent, like branches of a family tree. Menghi hired John Bishop who in turn hired a young Vikram Vij and, later, Andrea Carlson. Michel Jacob pioneered exceptional French food at Le Crocodile, becoming a mentor to people who went on to start their own restaurants or become otherwise highly successful, like David Hawksworth, Rob Feenie, and Ned Bell.
A similar phenomenon occurred at Chambar: after working under executive chef Nico Schuermans, staff such as Tannis Ling created their own notable ventures (Bao Bei, Kissa Tanto).
Along the way, the food scene matured with the rise of immigration and multiculturalism and as people became more curious about other cultures. What better way to get to know other places than by experiencing and sharing a meal?
The development of Vancouver’s dining landscape goes far beyond restaurant chefs, of course, with everyone from pastry chefs and chocolate makers to local growers and producers playing vital roles.
Here’s a handful of highlights (far from a comprehensive list) of what made Vancouver the foodie paradise it is today—and a glimpse of what’s to come.
The language of love
Michel Jacob was just 27 when, in 1983, he transformed a small room on Thurlow Street off Robson into what would become a Vancouver institution, Le Crocodile. A decade later, it moved to its current elegant location on Smithe Street, where the Strasbourg native serves classic French Alsatian food. Some of the dishes haven’t changed since day one: garlic-sautéed frog legs, foie gras, grilled beef tenderloin with peppercorn sauce, tarte à l’oignon, and much more.
It is simple, sophisticated, classic bistro fare, but under Jacob’s watchful eye, it is also extraordinary. And even though he could be a celebrity chef, having gotten his start before the Food Network even existed, he is content and most comfortable keeping his head down in the kitchen.
Rob Feenie might have quit cooking and become a firefighter had it not been for Jacob’s guidance. Ned Bell, who now heads the Ocean Wise program at the Vancouver Aquarium after boosting the profile of hotel chefs during his years at YEW at the Four Seasons Vancouver, once said that doing his apprenticeship at Le Crocodile was akin to going to Harvard. “Michel is my culinary hero,” he tells the Straight.
A Welshman in Kitsilano
John Bishop, a native of Wales, worked for Menghi for a decade before opening his own restaurant, Bishop’s, in 1985. Back then, he says, fine dining meant showcasing foods from anywhere but Vancouver.
“Fine dining was made up of stuff we wouldn’t have here: New Zealand lamb. Icelandic scampi. Dover sole,” he told the Straight last year. “There were no local oysters on those menus; it had to be Belon oysters from France. Even mushrooms—this is mushrooms central, but we used to bring in mushrooms from Germany. We would go to Richmond to pick berries with our kids, but you would never see them on local menus; berries all came from one truck from California. Local food was alien. Fresh halibut or cod or cracked crab: you wouldn’t see it on menus very often.”
Inspired by Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, Bishop wanted to use fresh, local seasonal ingredients—which was easier said than done a few decades ago; there were no farmers markets, and local producers were rare. He sourced much of his produce from Chinatown and fostered relationships with local farmers, becoming the local pioneer of farm-to-table food that diners now expect.
“I don’t think the food on plates in this city has ever been better,” Bishop says. “It’s hard to find a bad restaurant in Vancouver, and the choices are endless.”
Part of the experience of dining at Vij’s is getting to talk to Vikram Vij himself; the chef and restaurateur makes a point of going from table to table to interact with guests. Too bad the former Dragons’ Den judge can’t be in several places at once, with the empire he owns with his former wife, Meeru Dhalwala, now including Rangoli, My Shanti, and the Vij’s Railway Express food truck.
Before he left Mumbai to study hotel management in Salzburg, Austria, Vij spent Sundays learning to cook from his mom. He got his start in Vancouver’s restaurant industry as a server, working at Bishop’s from 1991 to 1994 before going on to open the original Vij’s Restaurant on Broadway. With just 14 seats, the place was tiny. His mom used to make chicken curry and transport it from Richmond by bus, holding the big pot firmly between her legs. Prices were low, and the place was an instant hit.
“The service was just plain lovely, not done by rote from the corporate bible but authentically courteous,” former Georgia Straight food writer Angela Murrills wrote of her visit to Vij’s shortly after it opened. “A parfit gentil knight is Vij, who, noticing we’d run out of space on our table, quietly slid another one alongside, brought out a bag of cinnamon bark from the kitchen to point out the difference between the mechanically rolled variety and the real stuff, and, when traffic slows down, takes time, if you’re curious, to talk about how his dishes get their nuances from the mingling of individual spices.”
Having made the flavours of his homeland accessible and irresistible to Vancouverites, Vij has since drawn the attention of everyone from Anthony Bourdain to the New York Times.
Won tons, noodles, and dim sum: we can’t get enough of them. Of the city’s many Chinese restaurants, some stand out for helping bring the cuisine out of Chinatown and into the mainstream.
Hon’s—having started on Keefer Street in 1972, with equally frenetic locations on Robson Street and in Coquitlam and New Westminster to follow—lays claim to being the first here to serve Cantonese-style pot stickers. It also has a line of products it sells in the frozen section at various grocery stores. In 2001, Straight wine writer Jurgen Gothe, now deceased, wrote that Hon’s steamed pork-and-shrimp buns were just the thing to enjoy with a certain B.C. Sémillon–Sauvignon Blanc.
Pink Pearl Chinese Restaurant, meanwhile, was one of the first Chinese restaurants to operate outside of Chinatown when it opened in 1980 on East Hastings Street near Clark Drive. It was also one of the first to offer handcrafted dim sum served from pushcarts—which it still does to this day, often drawing long lineups. James Barber called it the best dim sum place in town in a 1991 Straight column: “immaculate, shiny, and noisy, which is the way a dim sum restaurant should be”.
Hidekazu Tojo, the mastermind behind the California roll and the B.C. roll, worked at various Vancouver restaurants after arriving here in 1971 from his native Kagoshima via Osaka, opening Tojo’s Restaurant in 1988. The accolades and awards have been rolling in ever since.
Tojo was the first here to focus on using fresh, local ingredients in Japanese food (like barbecued salmon skin in the ubiquitous B.C. roll). He’s also known for perfecting the art of omakase, where the chef personally selects customers’ dishes.
“Hidekazu Tojo—little, enthusiastic, energetic—can always be relied on to be imaginative, to be welcoming, and to somehow understand just how much his customers need to eat,” Barber wrote in the Straight in 1991.
Last year, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries named the chef a goodwill ambassador for Japanese cuisine.
Angus An may be best known to millennial diners as the founder and chef of Maenam, his acclaimed Thai restaurant in Kitsilano, but he was a culinary star long before it opened its doors in 2009.
He was an early adopter of sustainability at his Gastropod, which was the first restaurant in the city to have a plot in a community garden; he also grew his own herbs in a back alley. At Maenam, as it was at Gastropod, everything is made in house with local, sustainable, nonmedicated ingredients. An has elevated Thai cuisine in Vancouver, even presenting his modern take on traditional flavours at New York City’s famed James Beard House.
Chains are smoking
Given his pedigree as one of the finest chefs in Canada, it came as a shock to many when Rob Feenie, an Iron Chef champ, joined Cactus Club as its “food-concept architect” in 2008. His hiring upped the game for restaurant chains. In a similar move, Stefan Hartmann, the former executive chef of Bauhaus Restaurant who earned a Michelin star in his native Germany, recently joined Tacofino—the local “surf-centric” business that operates several food trucks and restaurants—as its regional executive chef. “Upscale casual” is a trend that shows no signs of dying down.
There are so many other change-makers and up-and-coming chefs to watch.
“Charlie Trotter cooking at Lumière helped put fine dining on the map in Vancouver,” says Jonathan Chovancek, executive chef at Cibo Trattoria. “When Bin 941 first opened, it completely turned the idea of fusion food on its head with whimsical, delicious multiethnic small plates. The 2010 Winter Olympics welcomed the world, opening the doors for critically acclaimed restaurateurs and chefs such as Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] and Daniel Boulud.”
West Restaurant executive chef Quang Dang points to seafood restaurants like Joe Fortes, Blue Water Cafe, C Restaurant, and the Cannery Seafood Restaurant as important players in shaping the city’s dining scene. “Our community of chefs seems to really embrace cooking with the very best local ingredients by supporting local markets and having a close relationship with amazing suppliers and producers,” he adds.
Paul Grunberg of L’Abattoir and Osteria Savio Volpe notes that the B.C. government’s approval of happy hour was a game-changer for local restaurants, and he credits the city for its support of local, independently owned restaurants. “Encouraging individualism and creativity in business is helping the overall growth and development to the culinary talent pool,” he says.
Chovancek considers West Restaurant sous-chef Alex Hon to be a rising star: “This guy needs his own place ASAP!” Dang says Hon “truly has the ability to tailor a dining experience to meet the needs of all our guests”.
Torafuku sous-chef Sandy Chen is another. She has won the title of B.C. chef of the year and placed third in the National Chef of the Year competition. Ned Bell—who counts Karen Barnaby, Lesley Stowe, and Caren McSherry among the city’s many key culinary movers and shakers—says of Chen: “She is kick-ass. She’s young, she’s creative, she’s hungry, she’s talented. I think chefs like that will spawn a whole new generation of young culinarians.”
Look out, Vancouver: the best may be yet to come.