The downside of going all in on cocktails in Vancouver is there's a steep price to pay

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      Painful as it is to write this, things have gotten so out of hand that it might finally be time to stop drinking. At a certain point you have to accept that it’s part of a lifestyle that’s killing you.

      Where this finally hit home was on a recent gloriously sun-baked Saturday night just off Main Street in Mount Pleasant. As much fun as it might be crafting the perfect Margarita, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Yellow Bird, Horse’s Neck, Dark ’n’ Stormy, Harvey Wallbanger, Sex On the Beach, Monkey Fart, or A Lonely Island Lost in the Middle of a Foggy Sea at home, sometimes you need to get out and see people over drinks. And that’s where the trouble starts.

      Somewhere along the way someone gambled that Vancouver folks not named Bob Rennie, Chip Wilson, or Michael Bublé will happily pay New York City prices for drinks when out for dinner. It was a smart wager. 

      To get where we’re going here, let’s use that sun-baked Saturday night as an example. We ended up at an East Side spot, which shall remain nameless here. It was as old-school charming as it was casual and funky, the clientele a mix of heavily inked Main Street post-hipsters, downtown-casual urban professionals, and Instagram addicts who don’t put anything in their mouth they haven’t posted a photo of first.

      The music—gloriously heavy on vintage hip-hop—was nothing less than great, the mild shtick cool, the staff the kind of folks you’d want to hang out with at Coachella. Or, God willing, Squamish Constellation Festival. The food was more or less reasonably priced and, while it won’t land anyone on Chef’s Table, decent for what it was.

      And then there were the drinks. Which, while not world-beating, were good and sometimes great. And also around $16 a pop. Round that up to $22 with tax and 20 percent tip, and you can see where this is all headed.

      As they like to say at Los Angeles’ fabled Tiki Ti, the thing about a beer is that you can get one anywhere—including the mini-fridge next to the sofa—so why bother ordering one when you’re out? The same goes for wine, which nine times out of 10—no matter how expensive the bottle—most of us can’t distinguish from Little Penguin in a blind taste test.

      So the default when heading out for drinks is cocktails. Cocktails which, when there are two of you, start at $44 each round with everything figured in.

      And you never stop at that first round, because there’s no point going out unless you’re ready to spend a few hours discussing the unending brilliance of Quentin Tarantino, the insane price of Dungeness crab at the local fish market, and all the places in the world—Laos!­—you really need to see before you die.

      Keep things low-key, and that means three drinks each, for a total of $132 before you’ve ordered anything resembling food (the dried lime wheels and assorted garnishes, including the tiny bamboo clothespins, don‘t count). Go hard in the paint with four or five rounds over a few hours, and you’re north of $200. Which is to say, unless you’re a member of the Lotusland Temperance League, every time you head out these days the bill is inevitably well over $200 for two people.

      Spend time on a patio once a week for drinks at almost any place not named the Ivanhoe, and suddenly you’re spending $800 per month on cocktails.

      Before you go picking up your pitchfork and cocktail swords, a quick bit of context.

      There are places in Vancouver where you don’t go out for dinner, you go out for drinks. An insane amount of work on the back end goes into creating those drinks—months of sourcing innovative ingredients, experimenting with different liquors, tinctures, infusions, and shrubs, and creating hard-to-find cocktail building blocks (hello, pimento dram) from scratch.

      Are those drinks worth paying a little more for? Absolutely. Sometimes it’s all about the experience of watching highly skilled artists at work, and soaking up the meticulously detailed atmosphere while making memories with friends.

      But here’s where things get complicated. Some of the greatest drinks you’ll ever have in Vancouver are at restaurants where food is supposed to be the focus, even though the cocktail program is nothing less than killer. And so you end up paying big time on two fronts­—food and drink­­—and perhaps happily so because a fantastically executed cocktail can be every bit as great as a gold-star appetizer, main, or dessert.

      Except that—unless your name happens to be Mr. Creosote—you don’t have three appetizers, a main, and a dessert. But you might, on the nights the laughter is out of control and the storytelling great, have four or five cocktails. At which point, assuming Bob Rennie, Chip Wilson or Michael Bublé isn’t paying, there’s a price to pay, and it’s usually a steep one. And so, to pay for your drinking, you work harder than you've already been working, which is to say there's so only much working you do can before something gives. Ie. You need a drink. Or five. 

      What’s the point here? It certainly isn’t to suggest that whatever restaurant you happen to love needs to lower the price of its drinks—including the one off Main in Mount Pleasant, where last Saturday’s bill for two came to $240 for a couple of appetizers and a number of cocktails. The drinks were mostly great, the folks creating them both devoted and working hard. Still...

      The service industry was hit harder than most during the pandemic, and today profit margins can be so slim many bars and restaurants are struggling to survive. If liquor sales are keeping the doors open, then make sure to order another round next time you’re out, whether you need it or not.

      The larger issue here is that almost everyone in Vancouver is having a hard time of it. Historically low wages in this city don’t even come close to matching the cost of housing. Everything from grocery prices to concert tickets and the price of multiplex popcorn is out of control.

      To even think about opening a restaurant is to start with insanely high rents for commercial spaces and endless and costly hurdles from City Hall and the province. Add in sky-high liquor taxes designed to keep the province drier than Dubai in August, and rocketing inflation adding stresses to the supply chain. Then the real work starts of carving out a devoted clientele in a city with no shortage of places to eat and drink.

      So the service industry does what it can to survive, the real money-making often thanks to drinks, where two ounces of Jack or Absolut cost far less than the albacore tuna on the appetizer menu.

      As for me, at some point one has to seriously weigh the cost of a good time. And sorry, having a good time without drinking isn’t an option. The solution? Truthfully, I’m not sure there is one. There’s a reason cocktail prices are what they are in this city, and that’s no-one’s fault but the one-percenters determined to wring every cent of profit out of every piece of land they own.

      Is drinking in Vancouver killing not just me financially, but possibly you? Absolutely. Time to stop? Let’s have just one more round and talk about it.