If the West Coast were a Girl Scout, then she would have been the first in North America to acquire all of her locavore food and drink badges. The region is the cradle of the modern craft beer and specialty coffee industries, a longtime testing ground for a range of organic agriculture practices and home to the very first Edible magazine (shout out to Edible Ojai).
Yet those accolades only scratch the surface.
Tucked in the Canadian southwest, Vancouver may not be as publicized as its southern neighbors, but the city is their peer in every way. It’s situated at the southernmost point of the North Shore Mountains on a damp, craggy peninsula that juts into the Pacific. Ent-like trees shade its pebble beaches and can make a visitor feel more like they’re on the set of the next Jurassic Park film than on the edges of British Columbia’s cosmopolitan center.
But the boundary between nature and neighborhood is fluid here, and a graceful balance of these extremes is as noticeable in the landscape as it is in some of the city’s best food and drink.
Choices can range from traditional Chinese pastries and homely fish and chips to imaginative farm-to-table menus and high-end sushi made with only sustainably sourced catch. Brewers, distillers and winemakers bottle their own British Columbia–sourced beers, sake and varietals that are served throughout town, and visitors can tour their nearby facilities. Markets, some seasonal, are neighborhood hubs that offer a spectrum of products ranging from the very familiar to the very exotic.
And the producers aren’t the only backbone of the growing local food scene. The city government continues to make Vancouver an international role model for how communities can enable sustainable food production, distribution and access. If things keep going in the direction that they’re headed, then the city will remain on track to meet their 2020 goal of becoming the “greenest city in the world” — an aim that gives local food benchmarks as much weight as it does green buildings and transportation.
It’s difficult to describe this place without a utopian slant, but the sentiment comes from a hope that promising trends that rise on the West Coast will continue to arrive and adapt out East. If we’re wise, we East Coasters will continue to watch, taste and learn.
A special thanks to Vancouverites Debbra Mikaelsen of Edible Vancouver; Edible designer extraordinaire Bambi Edlund, Britney Gill of Farmacie, Peter Ladner (author of The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities), Karen Le Billon (author of French Kids Eat Everything and Getting to Yum: The 7 Secrets of Raising Eager Eaters), Vancouver Chinatown, Granville Island and Vancouver Tourism.
WHERE TO STAY
If you seek a quotidian experience while traveling, check Airbnb first. It can be a fraction of the price of a hotel room, and there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with some hospitable folks in a happenin’ part of town. Read the reviews, cross-reference the location with your itinerary and start a dialogue with the host to determine if it’s a good fit. You’re likely to see a side of town that you might not see otherwise if you book with one of the locals.
The Listel Hotel
1300 Robson Street
If where you crash is as important as where you eat when you travel, then you’ll be at ease at the Listel Hotel. The business boasts its art collection, which also encompasses its farm-to-table restaurant Forage. The restaurant has received warm praise since it opened and is vocal about maintaining its sustainable dining practices at an accessible price. They have Monday through Friday breakfast and dinner menus with brunch on the weekends that, depending on the time of year, might include dishes like a stinging nettle gnocchi with beer-poached radishes, English peas and brown butter. They also have B.C. beers and wines, both bottled and on tap.
Fairmont Pacific Rim
1038 Canada Place
The global Fairmont hotel chain is host to a unique establishment in the Vancouver restaurant scene: the city’s first sushi joint to achieve a 100 percent Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise approval. RawBar is mostly open for lunch (Monday through Saturday, lunch and dinner on Sundays) and favors British Columbia’s most environmentally friendly seafood options including West Coast sea urchin, giant Pacific octopus and geoduck. They also offer sake-steamed mussels seasoned with combinations like ginger and honey or bacon and dashi. Keep an eye out for daily specials.
Photo credit: Flickr/The Listel Hotel and Forage
WHAT TO DO
Granville Island Public Market
1661 Duranleau Street
Granville Island Public Market is the year-round hub for local food, drink and crafts. Think of it as your [7-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year] covered farmers market. Host to dozens of producers and vendors of everything ranging from B.C. oysters to house-cured guanciale, it’s best to visit with a healthy appetite and a flexible time frame. Go for lunch and allow some time either before or after to browse for dinner ingredients, try samples or shop for souvenirs. Taking time to wander is recommended, as are these vendors:
• Benton Brothers Fine Cheese: This is the place that’s believed to have broken the mostly cheddar-serving cheese shop mold in Vancouver. Find your Époisses and Mont d’Or here, alongside a large and interesting Canadian cheese selection.
• L’Épicerie Rotisserie & Gourmet Shop: This compact épicerie delivers the best of the French tradition. Find fancy pantry staples like infused oils and vinegars alongside specialty mustards and spices. Their B.C.-sourced meats are one of their obvious fortes.
When you go: Order the shaved lamb with caramelized onions, mushrooms, lamb jus and porcini aioli.
• Oyama Sausage Co: The New York Times once said that charcutier Jan van der Lieck “may be the most gifted, and certainly the most diversely talented meat man in North America.” The multifarious sausage menu (which changes weekly) speaks for itself: red wine elk, venison with blueberries, pancetta lemongrass pork sausages and bison with arugula and roasted garlic are only a handful of options available this time of year.
• South China Seas Trading Co: Vancouver’s immense diversity means that ingredients and foods that might otherwise be exotic rarities are accessible. This market stand encompasses specialty ingredients under at least nine major geographical categories including Mexican/Latin American, Far Eastern and African. Peruse their produce selection, which might include Australian finger limes, Brazilian caja-manga or Thai green eggplants depending on the time of year.
• Day Vendors: The market is home to more than just its full-time vendors. Thanks to its day vendor program, some of the finest local artists and food and drink producers rotate through market booths on a weekly basis. These businesses are required to have juried approval before setting up shop and are mostly full-time professionals selling everything from flavored nuts to handmade tableware.
Stanley Park + Seawall
One of the advantages of visiting Vancouver is that it’s a destination for both “beach people” and “mountain people.” Peaks that rim the city hug the coastline and allow for roughly 11 miles of beaches within city limits. At the same time, 11 percent of the city belongs to its 220 parks that blur the lines between the urban landscape and West Coast rainforest.
The largest is Stanley Park, which encompasses nearly 1,000 acres in Vancouver’s West End. The massive public space also includes over 15 miles of forest trails, multiple art installations, an aquarium, several gardens and other seasonal attractions. Surrounded by the Pacific, the roughly five-mile Seawall path borders the park and is open to both pedestrians and bikers. The near century-old wall follows the city’s coastline and has various entry points spanning from Kitsalano Park near Granville Island to the Convention Center in downtown (see map).
Wherever you start, find yourself here when you need a bite and a breather:
Go Fish Ocean Emporium
1505 West First Avenue
A fish shack that’s right on fisherman’s wharf near Granville Island. It’s a takeout fish and chips place with amazing tacos and a great Asian-style coleslaw. The fish is as fresh as it could possibly be. It ain’t fancy, there’s a small covered outdoor eating area, so most people take it to go and sit on the Seawall.
—Bambi Edlund, Edible designer
Photo credit: Eric Meeker, Flickr/Sébastien Launay
WHERE TO DRINK
Le Marché St. George
4393 St. George, at the corner of East 28th
This is one of the most eclectic spots in Vancouver. It is tucked away in a quaint neighborhood far enough from the city center that upon walking through the door, you automatically feel a little more calm and at ease; time actually slows down for me while I’m there. It is part French café, part corner store (sample the British Columbia cheeses) and a beautiful space to convene with friends and connect with the community.
The Liberty Distillery
1494 Old Bridge Road
A two-minute walk from the Public Market, this newly opened distillery is all locapour. Its slick copper pot stills beam behind the industrial glass frames that separate the operation from the bar. In this refitted industrial space, British Columbian grains are mashed, fermented and (at least) triple-distilled in small batches to concoct Liberty’s aromatic and bright gin, white whisky and vodka.
When you go: Visit on a weekend (Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.) for a $10 tour with samples, or drop by the bar during regular hours to taste and compare flutes at the same price.
Artisan Sake Maker
1339 Railspur Alley
Yes, there is more than one local sake producer in North America, and one of them happens to be in Vancouver (to date, New York has none, although rice production is possible). Owner Masa Shiroki started by importing high-end sakes from Japan but now produces his own on Granville Island with both Japanese rice imports and organic sakamai rice that he grows on nearby marginal farmland. The difference is unmistakable.
When you go: Sample three sake styles for five bucks at their factory, which sits adjacent to Liberty Distillery in the Railspur District.
The Keefer Bar
135 Keefer Street
For a swanky — yet still nerdy — bar lounge experience, try the Keefer. Their menu is an actual book brimming with calculated cocktails inspired by ingredients sourced from the surrounding Chinatown neighborhood. The menu changes regularly, but guests can expect housemade ingredients like black pepper bitters, Oolong tea syrup and seahorse (yes, the marine fish) tinctures. Chances are you’ll come across something new, so go curious or go home.
Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie
163 Keefer Street
Bao Bei could be Andrew Tarlow’s first venture outside of Brooklyn. Sitting right up the hill from the Keefer, this Chinese brasserie also takes influence from the neighborhood with fusion dishes like the pork jowl with Pixian chili bean, plum glaze, pomelo, grapefruit, mint, cherry tomatoes, peanut, fried shallots and nước chấm dressing. They keep a robust B.C. wine selection alongside Asian inspired cocktails.
When you go: Try the chino margherita: tamarind-infused tequila with ginger, lime and egg white with a chili salt/sugar rim.
Photo credit: The Liberty Distillery, Le Marché St. George
WHERE TO EAT
Farmer’s Apprentice Restaurant
1535 West 6th
The name of this restaurant tells a lot but not all. The predictably farm-to-table establishment has a refreshingly imaginative menu with highlights including five-spice braised beef carpaccio with pickled cucumber, shallots and cilantro alongside the gem oysters with celeriac, an oyster emulsion and horseradish “snow.” Serving size tends to be small, so unless you’re ordering the Angus rib eye, consider ordering two plates. And for SCOBY enthusiasts, you can order kombucha either straight up or in cocktail form with gin, aperol, grapefruit and Angostura bitters.
137 East Pender Street
The neighborhood radiating out from East Pender Street has been home to Vancouver’s Chinatown since the turn of the 20th century. Compact and diverse, the community seems both cosmopolitan and insular (if only enough to maintain its distinctiveness). Dim sum might be trending, but at Jade Dynasty, it’s tradition. Ingredients — including translucent rice noodles and taut shrimp dumplings — are prepared “in the old way,” as the management says.
When you go: A little can go a long way with dim sum, but however much you order, end with the jin deui: a spherical fried rice flour pastry rolled in sesame seeds and plumped with an ink-like black bean paste.
New Town Bakery
148 E Pender Street
Cross the Cambie Street from Jade Dynasty and you’re at New Town: a traditional Chinese bakery with goods that are so coveted that Seattleites have been known to regularly drive the two and a half hours north across the border solely for the establishment’s apple tarts. Fact or fiction, the tarts are undoubtedly swoon worthy; served piping hot, the filling is more savory than it is sweet.
When you go: Order the apple tart with a cup of coffee, and consider the egg tart or mooncake if interested in dabbling.
3347 West 4th Avenue
My favorite hole-in-the wall sushi spot. In Kitsilano but off the beaten track: funky decorations, a great collection of manga comics. Authentic sushi with a few nods to Vancouver’s obsession with all things healthy: organic and brown rice options, plus decorative twists (banana leaves and fresh fruit) that keep me coming back for more.
—Karen le Billon
Salmon and Bannock
1128 West Broadway
The only First Nations restaurant in town, with delicacies that can be found nowhere else: Oolichan fish (a Pacific Northwest local species that grills to perfection); bannock (traditional pan-fried bread); “bush meat” (bison and elk); and salmon prepared in many different delicious ways. You can’t leave town without trying their “Indian candy!”
—Karen le Billon
Photo credit: Farmer’s Apprentice Restaurant, Eric Meeker
Sole Food Farms
399 Hawks Ave.
Michael Ableman didn’t embrace an urban agriculture movement — he pioneered it. Beginning in California in the early 1980s, Ableman established one of the earliest models of modern and sustainable urban agriculture at what’s now The Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens. He has continued to push the field’s envelope since moving north to oversee additional operations including the Centre for Arts, Ecology and Agriculture at Foxglove Farm on Salt Spring Island and Sole Food Farms: a network of farms throughout Vancouver that provide employment to 25 individuals who are dealing with drug addiction and mental illness. In their own words, “Sole Food transforms vacant urban land into street farms that grow artisan quality fruits and vegetables… [its] mission is to empower individuals with limited resources by providing jobs, agricultural training and inclusion in a supportive community of farmers and food lovers.”
Vancouver Farmers Markets
Vancouver Farmers Markets have slowly grown to be one of the keystone food activities of our city, happening at least every week year round (at some locations). It has been a benchmark for the promotion and celebration of all things local. They do millions of dollars in sales every year!
3461 Ross Drive
The UBC Farm is a group that I am particularly passionate about; the intersection of tangible education, applied learning and local, healthy and nutritious food are in my opinion the most inspiring (and necessary) facets to education. They have, in the past, been somewhat undermined, to see their demand and increasing public support is really exciting. Sprouting new stewards to our local food system is extremely important and it is beautiful to see more and more people drawn to growing and learning about food, especially students…. Farms and gardens are not only important for what they physically provide but for the connections they nourish within communities.”
Photo credit: Alyson Strike Photography