2016 in Vancouver was the year of the ubiquitous poké shop, and while this trend infused the city’s already-bright (and seafood-centred) dining scene with a big bellow of semi-fresh air, none of these fast-food alternatives are doing the best cooking in town–no matter what the line up at Pokérrito makes it seem like.
Instead, this year has been about the gentle evolution of the neighbourhood spot, a relaxing of the “fine dining” rules that leave room for table-cloth free surfaces and umbrellas in your drinks. There are second generation food families who are melding rich culinary heritage with modern touches. These days comfort doesn’t mean compromising quality.
It’s an exciting time to be eating in Vancouver, and you don’t have to get too dressed up to enjoy some of the city’s best restaurants. Hell, you don’t even have to spend too much.
Here are our picks for the best new restaurants in Vancouver for 2016.
Ascend the staircase and slip into an otherworldy slice of yesteryear at Kissa Tanto, where the unexpected but seemingly effortless hybrid of Japanese and Italian lives out in a space that concurrently melds mid-century with the truly modern, and it’s all very Vancouver.
I’ll admit, I fell in love with Kissa Tanto the second we were shown to our table; having the option to indicate on the online reservation system my dining companion was a kid (hey, it happens) it turns out we were not only given the best spot to keep a kid occupied but also least likely to disturb other patron, but we were also treated as well as any other table in the room, with cheery service from every employee who crossed our table. Now that’s class.
Of course, we had to eat, and we feasted on memorable dishes that quietly exuded technique and invention, from the tender fresh pasta to the contrast of well-dressed greens and octopus in a gorgeous salad, to the surprisingly successful chicken prepared two ways. Italy meets Japan mostly in ingredient crossovers in traditional dishes from both disciplines, but it works, without being gimmicky.
Address: 263 East Pender Street, Vancouver
Fried chicken. Bottom line. Soulful, finger-licking, satisfying. Juke aims to pay off the feel and fare of its namesake, the ol’ town juke joint where people gathered to drink, eat, and kick up their heels in spite of the hardships of every day life.
True, not many who are spending their disposable income in Vancouver’s Chinatown of 2016 are the lot that need a welcoming space in which to escape repression, but who would turn down a welcoming space, period? This is precisely the role Juke plays, with its easy menu, good cheer, and hospitable vibe.
Roll up your sleeves and focus on the fried chicken here, and don’t skimp on the sides. And if you need to know, that chicken is gluten free; it’s still Vancouver 2016 after all, and these things matter.
Address: 182 Keefer Street, Vancouver
It’s a coffee roasting company. It’s a cafe. It’s a bar. It’s a restaurant. Bows & Arrows can be confusing, but if you decode its intention–that is, that it wants to be where you can go any time of day–it suddenly makes sense.
From the tiny kitchen comes tender pastries, an array of breads, and a parade of preserves and pickles that overflow into the dining area. This represents a more European style of cooking, eating, and serving, and there is a learning curve for both restaurant and patrons (for example, the wifi you were surfing on with your morning latte and mini bundt cake is turned off by lunchtime).
The food here showcases the best of what has been trending in modern cooking in recent years: Holding onto the bounty of harvest seasons through preserving, and making the most of the animal. So you’ll spread silky chicken liver mousse and sweet apricot jam on housemade toast here, or savour salty bits of ham hock terrine while sipping on craft cocktails. Easily dismissed as a cafe, Bows & Arrows is precisely why the Fraser corridor remains one to watch: this is a true gem.
Address: 4194 Fraser Street, Vancouver
2016 saw a mini-surge of modern Vietnamese restaurants open in Vancouver. But rather than “modern Vietnamese” meaning deconstructing or reinventing tradition, in the case of Anh + Chi (and its peers in the class of ’16) it means the next generation of Vietnamese restaurant families are giving a damn about quality ingredients, presentation, and ambiance.
It’s gorgeous inside Anh + Chi, and it feels almost like you’re on holiday somewhere tropical and posh. The tables are always full, and are packed tight, New York City style, but that’s fine, because when you wonder what your neighbour has ordered, you can just quietly lean over and ask (or answer when another neighbour inevitable inquires what you are having).
The food is traditional Vietnamese here, and while a bit of the soul suffers in translation from the lacklustre service, the eating itself doesn’t. How fun it was to gather rice paper roll fillings from our own tray and do a little DIY construction, and how lively the flavours of the grilled meats and the fresh herbs in the dishes.
Address: 3388 Main Street, Vancouver
Filipino food is poised to get its moment in the culinary spotlight, and in Vancouver that’s no exception. While the city has had a few popular Filipino spots for some time, the crew behind the wildly popular duo of Bao Down restaurants are now serving exciting, innovative, modern Filipino-fueled fare in Gastown–all with the signature Bao Down spunk and soul.
What is on the menu at Bao Down Snack Bar is a study in Filipino flavours for the next generation. Amidst the bright neon of the mural and the lively tunes on the sound system is a lot of deep heart, and a desire to share the flavours of Pinoy cuisine with Vancouverites with a palate for local, high-quality ingredients and great value.
There are the expected lumpia (spring rolls), big rice bowls piled with veggies and/or savoury meats, adobo fried chicken, and rich curries. Naturally, there are vegan and gluten-free options, and for those who can’t visit a Bao Down outpost without eating bao buns, your gentle request might find an order sent over from their neighbouring original location. Touches like that–and menu evolutions based on early feedback–that show you the Bao Down guys give a crap about their diners. And it makes a difference.
Address: 221 Carrall Street, Vancouver
Vancouver isn’t known for having a rich, diverse BBQ scene. Though there are some tried-and-true places to go for grub generalized as “barbecue,” the city isn’t exactly bubbling over with regionally-specific options.
Then there’s Dixies BBQ. This joint on East Hastings, just a stone’s throw from Main, specializes in Central Texas-style barbecue, and they are unapologetically dishing up smoked meats and sides with a good ol’ down sense of hospitality (and minus the glut of sauce you might be looking for to slather on your meat).
Two options for dining experiences at Dixies that are worth doing and that aren’t mutually exclusive: Imbibing and brunch. They’ll spike just about anything besides the water (and, who knows, they’ll probably spike that, too), and for Sunday brunch, their tender, smoky meats become the backbone of some killer morning fare.
Address: 337 East Hastings Street, Vancouver
Chef Jefferson Alvarez has been a bit of a nomad the past couple of years, and has finally seemed to have settled down in Kitsilano at Cacao, a new venture that showcases Pan-Latin cuisine in the former Epicurean Caffe space.
Alvarez and the team (namely mother-daughter duo Marcela Ramirez and Andrea Ramirez) kicked off the new project by introducing brunch, then expanding to dinner. Still re-shaping and tweaking the menus (particularly in an effort to introduce more street food-inspired dishes in the daytime), regardless, the result is vibrant, progressive food in a charming atmosphere.
While it’s easy for the notion of Mexican, or Central or South American, cuisine to conjure up images of very homey, hearty, combo-plate fare, Cacao instead spotlights very modern and forward-thinking cooking, including dishes that reflect Alvarez’ passion for foraging and sourcing local. (The server emphasized that the wild mushrooms in one brunch dish were, in fact, hand picked locally–wild, indeed.) Already off to a great start, it will be delicious fun to see where this eatery progresses.
Address: 1898 West 1st Avenue, Vancouver
Probably the most-anticipated Vancouver opening of 2016, David Hawksworth’s sophomore effort isn’t breaking any rules, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the most imagination seems to have gone into the space itself.
Tucked onto two lofty floors, this noisy, bustling Coal Harbour all-day restaurant pulls off the trick of casual elegance thanks to a menu that lets you keep things modest (pizza and a cocktail for a light bite night) or go all out (a special occasion with a table loaded with a handful of share plates).
While you’ll want to stick to Hawksworth’s original namesake at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia if you want modern fine dining, you’ll do just fine here.
Address: 1017 West Hastings Street, Vancouver
Here’s the thing about Timber: It may seem like an unassuming pub, but all the food they’re putting out is backed up by passion and integrity. Chef Chris Whittaker, of next-door’s Forage fame, is showing his roots here, and it is true blue Canadian. While puns and riffs on the Canadiana trope abound, the food is serious business.
From a game meat Tourtiere to house made ketchup fries and a selection of Caesars for sipping, diners in search of an evolving elevated approach to the humble but hard-to-define Canadian “cuisine” will do well at Timber. Sure, they’ve got a stuffed beaver on display. But damn that Butter Tart dessert is on point.
Address: 1300 Robson Street, Vancouver
If Osteria Savio Volpe is a neighbourhood joint, is this where we want to be living? Much like the city itself, Savio Volpe is hard to get into; even after a year getting a reservation here in the vicinity of when you want to eat is a bit of a long shot.
There’s a simplicity here that can easily read as sterility, and, frankly, it’s not even a comfortable restaurant (I watched an elderly patron struggle to fold herself into a seat, from my own uncomfortable bench). The food is also deceptively simple, but irresistably satisfying, and you can, in fact, bring your kids here (they’ll get to don a paper wolf mask, to boot).
Succulent fire-roasted chicken, housemade pastas, and a trim menu of cocktails demonstrate that the modern “neighbourhood” joint isn’t lowbrow, and that classic cooking can be done with class. If Osteria Savio Volpe can get over its own pedigree a bit, it can also prove that it can redefine the notion of neighbourhood…and endure.
Address: 615 Kingsway, Vancouver