I’ll admit that I don’t know a whole lot about the East Village. I didn’t even know it was called The East Village until I was invited to spend a day on a tour.
Living in Richmond, I spend most of my time in the narrow corridor between here and Downtown Vancouver. Sure, I’ll head to other places now and then. Maybe Kits or Granville Island but mostly downtown. Isn’t that where…everything…is?
The East Village is aiming to change that perception about Vancouver. As one of Vancouver’s oldest neighborhoods with some appropriately old businesses. On this stretch of Hastings between Commercial and Renfrew, there are places around that don’t even have an e-mail address let alone Facetweet or Instabook or whatever we young whippersnappers are on about these days (but you’re in luck if you still own a fax machine!). It’s a shame that some of these places haven’t embraced the new media way of marketing as some of these mom n’ pop shops are genuinely amazing. It’s a pocket of unique businesses ranging from artisanal sausage makers to one of Canada’s oldest makers of bespoke footwear.
But while the East Village proudly promotes their past, including the cobblestone roads peeking out of the asphalt, it’s also a quickly evolving area with new businesses popping up all over. It’s now home to quite a bit of homegrown Vancouver talent.
Our tour began with a quick cup of coffee at The East Cafe, which I missed because…because Richmond happened. The East Cafe is a relatively new coffee shop at the corner of Nanaimo and Hastings serving a variety of freshly brewed coffees and teas…
…as well as a selection of light meals like sandwiches and pastries, including options for folks with various dietary restrictions.
Walking along Hastings, you really get a good feel for the neighborhood where many of the shops have been in the same spot for decades. You get the feeling that these stores, some of which are really niche places, care a lot more about their craft than making a quick dollar. I mean, look at how perfect those pies are. If there wasn’t so much more walking left, I would’ve tried to find room in my bag for that bison pie.
We’ll get back to the food in a bit but first I was introduced to one of the most interesting shops I’ve ever visited in Vancouver. Dayton Boots has been around since 1946. I won’t pretend to know anything about boots but I can appreciate quality.
Everyone at Dayton is a skilled artisan, putting together boots that last twenty, thirty or, in some cases, longer than their owners.
Personally, however, I like the Dayton Boots store because the store itself is just brimming with history. They’re still using many of the processes that they’ve used for decades, like these 50+ year old sewing machines. Boots take, on average, 81 days to craft, since they’re made by hand. The name of the game is perfection, rather than mass production.
Not only that but oh man, this store is home to one of the scariest looking basements I’ve ever been in. Dimly lit and full of casts of people’s feet. The room where they keep the shoe oil…I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to go there by myself. As part of a tour, it’s just a supremely interesting place. It looks like 1946 never left.
Nearby in a completely not scary space is Tiny Finery, where owners Stephanie and Keli create handmade jewelry, ceramics and other gifts. The detail that goes into some of these things is amazing.
In addition to the pieces they make themselves, Tiny Finery also rents out their workspace to fellow artists and they also offer jewelry making classes. I don’t know how good I’d look in gold leaf earrings but they are thinking of doing some more dude-centric jewelry as well.
Lunch was at Campagnolo Roma, the sister restaurant to one of my favorite Italian restaurants in the city, Campagnolo (on Main). I had never been to Campagnolo Roma but I was correct in expecting much of the same rustic Italian cuisine at affordable prices.
I think of Campagnolo Roma as “classy casual”, the sort of spot that you’d be just as comfortable grabbing a quick lunch at the bar as you would be with a group of friends getting dinner before a night on the town. The space isn’t overly designed but there are nice touches that show the decor was planned rather than thrown together haphazardly.
On the surface, the Campagnolo menus look roughly the same and some dishes are available at both restaurants but keen observers will notice some key differences.
This beautiful salad is the sort you could make friends with. A great mix of various fresh greens, from bright and sweet to peppery and bitter along with some crispy croutons.
For me, there’s no better way to see how good an Italian restaurant’s pizza is than their margherita pizza. So simple, it only has three ingredients (cheese, tomato sauce and basil) in addition to the crust. While the Americans constantly try to one-up each other with extra toppings or cheese in the crust or square pizzas, the Italians keep it simple and strive to find the perfect balance between these simple things.
And, well, there’s no other word than “delicious” (…or delizioso!) for the pizza at Campagnolo Roma. The crust is just above perfect. Crisp enough on the bottom to hold it up while being soft in the middle where the sauce and cheese meet dough. Check the blistery dough bubbles in the picture before. The tomato sauce is rich, sweet and tangy. The chefs don’t try to mess around too much, letting their ingredients shine.
The funghi pizza is covered with a variety of mushrooms, argula and a sort of cream sauce I can’t quite put my finger on. Different toppings, same great crust.
Pepperoni might be a boring choice at Pizza Hut but at Campagnolo Roma, they use their own, house-made pepperoni, which adds a significant spicy kick to this pizza.
After walking off our lunch, we dropped by the newly opened Kessel & March for dessert.
How could you not like a place that looks like this? If you look closely, you can see a stack of Heinz “Beanz” (no, seriously) in the corner with the price tags in British pounds.
Dessert started with these beautiful lemon tarts, which I couldn’t stop eating just second after declaring that desserts aren’t my thing. They really aren’t. I usually skip dessert unless it’s ice cream but wow, that is some intense lemon flavor in that curd without being sour. Fantastic.
This stunning piece of work is a pavlova. The outer layer of the not-too-sweet meringue is crisp and center is a creamy, topped with a fresh assortment of berries. It’s light, airy and disappears quickly.
And this is a chocolate lava cake. If I need to say any more, then you must hate chocolate…and awesome.
Nearby, above the Powell Street Craft Brewery (I love that they have a bar with about 5 seats) is another local business that recently started in the East Village: designers Port + Quarter.
Kyla and Michelle specialize in a “manly” aesthetic to their interior design work, using a lot of dark woods and bare metal. It’s a very cool look, sort of like if someone upscaled a steel mill or a old tugboat. I love their use of blackboards. They do clean, modern lines very well and their work can been seen all over the city in various restaurants and buildings.
So we’ve done a lot of walking…time to get drunk! Last stop on the tour is the Parallel 49 Brewing Company, producer of some of the most interesting beers in Vancouver with names like, and I’m not kidding, Hoparazzi and Ugly Sweater. I’m pretty sure I saw something called “Banana Hammock” around as well.
We’re shown the ins and outs of making beer, such as what gives each beer it’s unique character and how you can play around with these ingredients to make new wacky but delicious flavors.
The real fun part is the tasting. Does that say “Mystery Lager”? How can I not order that?
Parallel 49 has a bar area where you can sample all their various brews. If you want to fill your fridge at home, you can opt for bottles or to fill up your growlers.
I was throughly impressed that they managed to produce a dark stout that I enjoyed. I’m not a big Guiness fan as I think they taste like beer milkshakes but this one is a rich, almost coffee-like flavor. The hefeweizen, another sort of beer I usually don’t order, is light and citrus-y without that overwhelming wheat aftertaste.
I enjoyed myself quite a bit on this tour of the East Village. That might have something to do with my fellow members of the media being fun people but this is a genuinely interesting part of Vancouver with a great deal of history. There’s plenty of classic deli and grocery store old school charm mixed in with the new breed of entrepreneurs, chefs and artists that are making this area their home. I think the neighborhood could use a little more entertainment to wrestle the tourists and partygoers from the downtown core but if you’re looking for homegrown shops and restaurants that just scream Vancouver, there’s plenty to see, do and eat in the East Village.