Gastown lights up
A waterfront neighborhood enjoys a renaissance inspired by its history
VANCOUVER — Long a gritty downtown district hugging the city’s waterfront, Gastown is now the white-hot center of a culinary hipster renaissance. There have been a few false starts over the years on urban blocks best known for being where the down-and-out congregate, but in the last two years the momentum has proved unstoppable.
The rapid-fire openings of local standouts include Pourhouse, a gastropub that cultivates a turn-of-the-century feel in a heritage building, with rough-hewn wood beam ceilings, exposed brick, cozy upholstered booths, and heavy metal chandeliers.
“Our inspiration was always this 100-year-history of Gastown, and we really submerged ourselves in this neighborhood,’’ says Nick Rossi, co-owner of Pourhouse. They opened in May 2009, which, as Rossi says, “feels like a lifetime ago.’’
“You would go out on the streets at night and not see a soul except for the homeless. Now it’s buzzing all the time, and not just on the weekends. Fifteen new restaurants alone have come along around here in the last year since we opened.’’
Gastown’s roots are as the area’s first settlement, lined with saloons and taverns. (After two decades of rough-and-tumble living, it was Gastown itself — named after John “Gassy Jack’’ Deighton, who first opened a bar there — that became incorporated as the City of Vancouver in 1886).
Pourhouse’s bartender — buttoned up nicely in vest, tie, and fedora — serves old-fashioned whiskey drinks, and male waitstaff perform their duties in caps and suspenders. Old-time music drifts through the dining room, which is illuminated by Edison bulbs.
The whole speakeasy-style theme might have felt over-the-top gimmicky if the staff were not so down-home and friendly, and if the food were not so accessible and affordable. Pourhouse offers a terrific po’ boy’s lunch special that includes a po’ boy sandwich, one side, and a beer for $12. There are always six beers on tap, with one seasonal selection that changes regularly. We chose the brew of the day, a chocolatey Blackstone Porter from Driftwood Brewery in nearby Victoria, Vancouver Island; the braised pork belly po’ boy with house-made bourbon BBQ sauce; and a lovely side of lightly dressed baby greens.
By night a lounge atmosphere takes over, and that’s when the new places really shine. Establishments such as Judas Goat Taberna, a tiny small-plate spot that serves Spanish-style tapas heavy on locally raised meats, and Cork & Fin, a laid-back raw bar, have a real sense of character, led by specialty producers and chefs with quirky, creative food and design ideas.
“Restaurants and bars have always lined the streets of Gastown, but the last 15 years have been tough,’’ says Francis Regio, the owner of Cork & Fin. He found his restaurant space a year and a half ago while shopping for tomatoes at the newly opened farmers’ market on Carrall Street. Full-service front-runners such as Boneta, which opened in 2007, he adds, paved the way for more restaurants to aid in revitalizing the historic core of Gastown.
Today, Boneta shares the same block with relative newcomers Cork & Fin, L’Abattoir (opened last summer at the site of Vancouver’s first jail, its name is French for “slaughterhouse’’), and Peckinpah (opened in December, at the 1886 site of Gastown’s first saloon), just off the entrance to Blood Alley, once home to the city’s meatpacking district. Nowhere else in Vancouver has such a concentration of these old heritage buildings, and the new arrivals are honoring the colorful history found here. (The aforementioned Judas Goat, located in Blood Alley, takes its name from the slaughterhouse goat that would lead cattle and sheep to their demise.)
Cork & Fin occupies yet another historic building — the Alhambra Hotel, built in 1886 — and its dining room is lovely, with lots of exposed brick and gorgeous two-story windows. Everything is well priced, from seafood towers (from $33) with fresh-shucked Sawmill Bay oysters with champagne mignonette and cracked pepper to mussels with chorizo in a rich and spicy tomato broth ($14). The latter is served with fresh, doughy bread to sop it up. Cocktails start at $7, and the pared-down wine list includes local Okanagan Valley selections and is friendly to seafood pairing.
The Gastown renaissance has also extended into the surrounding neighborhoods. On the border between Gastown and Chinatown is Bao Bei, which specializes in modern, edgy Chinese dishes with inventive cocktails. “I’d watched the progression of Gastown for years and knew that it was about to explode,’’ says owner Tannis Ling. “Chinatown was perfect because it was close enough to reach the same demographic, but also just far enough so that the rent stayed cheap.’’
Ling had always felt a pang at the absence of good Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, especially in the evening, when the neighborhood pretty much shut down. She wanted to bring people back into the area and remind them of what it used to be like in the ’60s and ’70s.
Bao Bei’s small, buzzy dining room definitely succeeds in this respect, filling up with customers minutes after opening at 5:30 p.m. — not usually the prime dinner hour, but for a popular place that doesn’t take reservations, it’s the only way to get a seat. You’ll be glad you did as soon as you take your first bite of mantou: savory steamed buns filled with braised beef short ribs, hoisin, scallions, pickled cucumbers, and roasted peanuts.
Bao Bei shines in its parade of delicious and delightfully-named cocktails, such as China Libre, Kai Yuen Sour, banana colada, and dishes designed for sharing. A small plate of rich, fat-edged barbecued pork was just $4, and an order of baby bok choy with tender pork bits and fermented black beans was $6. So were the delicately crunchy king pea shoots, which I loved (much of the brightly flavorful produce is organic). Most other dishes, such as the squid stir-fried with crispy pork belly, fall in the $10-$12 range. Drinks tend to skew skyward: both the frozen banana colada and a Canadian beer, White Bark, topped out at $12.
But hip Chinese restaurants are few and far between, and the combination of rustic antique mirrors, plush armchairs, and photographs of Ling’s family make for a warm, nostalgic-yet-modern feel. Containers of housemade chili sauces, napkins, and chopsticks lining the wall are a throwback to Chinatown eateries of times past. Though busy and crowded, the service was excellent. The host went out of his way to seat a party with a baby, and a chopstick had barely hit the floor when it was whisked away from beneath our feet.
The concentration of craft in Gastown is impressive in both its youth and creativity. New spins on the historical and nostalgic seem to be the trend, and they have revived and reenergized the district in remarkably short order. This is the place to go to taste the latest on Vancouver’s rich food frontier.
Bonnie Tsui can be reached at www.bonnietsui.com.