I am extremely lucky to have Vancouver as my hometown. Situated between to the north shore mountains and the pacific ocean, Vancouver is a nature-lovers paradise. With lush green rain forests thanks the autumn rains, Vancouver dazzles with its beauty. Another great aspect of the city is the strong asian population, who have given us fortunate Vancouverites the opportunity to try some amazing Asian dishes such as Chinese dim sum, Thai curries, Korean japchae, Malaysian curry laksa, Japanese sashimi or izakaya and Indian lamb vindaloo. These Asian tastes also influence the local Pacific Northwest cuisine, leading to a beautiful fusion between Asian and classic European cuisines, together with the best and freshest local meat, fish and produce.
I have compiled a list of my favorite cocktail, coffee and food experiences in Vancouver.
The Keefer Bar (Keefer St, Chinatown), cocktails $10-$20
Unlike New York, SF or London, Vancouver barely makes a blip on the cocktail enthusiast's radar. This can be partly blamed on the city's ridiculous liquor laws and skyhigh rent, which makes it difficult to open a cocktail lounge. But now things seem to be changing with cocktail lounges such as the The Diamond opening up. Another important cocktail bar in Vancouver is the Keefer Bar which I first found about thanks to Grant Sceney's rave review. The Keefer Bar has cracked the top 100 in the World's Best Bars list, making it the best bar in Canada. Situated in Vancouver's Chinatown, Dani Tatarin's Keefer Bar is famous for incorporating traditional chinese medicinal ingredients in their cocktails. It sounds odd until you realize that many amari and bitters used in modern cocktails were invented for medicinal purposes.
I've been to Keefer bar many times, and the drinks are always on point thanks to the skilled head bartender Amber Bruce. The bar itself, although a bit cramped because of its long and narrow space, is very nice. It is darkly lit with strange ornaments, bottles and art that remind you of the chinese medicinal theme. The lovely staff are very helpful in guiding you through the menu if you can't secure a spot at the bar. From the winter menu, try well-balanced Wūméi sour, a sour and sweet concoction with Forty creek whiskey, plum wine, dry vermouth, lemon, smoked date and plum syrup, and egg white. Don’t miss the signature Tokyo drift from the alumni section of the menu. This boozy yet elegant cocktail features Suntory Toki, Noilly Prat Ambre vermouth, kumquat gomme, and "tobacco" bitters.
If you're hungry, the Chinese-inspired food at Keefer is excellent. I suggest the Peking duck tacos and dim sum.
The Botanist (1038 Canada Place), cocktails $14-$32
The Botanist at the Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver is part restaurant, part cocktail bar. I'm a huge fan of the Fairmont Pacific Rim, having hosted my pre and after wedding party here 10 years ago. To find The Botanist, walk past the popular lobby lounge bar and up the stairs. I visited the Botanist with my mom, the first time I've reviewed a bar with her! Conceived by World Class global finalist Grant Sceney, this ambitious bar also has a dedicated laboratory next to the bar area.
The drinks program is currently led by Jeff Savage (ex Proof YYC and creator of Cinder and Smoke, one of my favorite drinks of 2017 and featured at Casa Mia Milano). We started with the succulent Botanist's Martini, featuring coastal gin blend, house vermouth, seaborne tincture and garnished with oyster leaf and vegan caviar. If I didn't have to drive home, I would have had 3 of these!
Then we ordered something from the laboratory section of the menu. After 10 minutes in the lab, our bartender Zoe returned with the stunning Deep Cove, served in a beautiful bespoke glass which is molded onto a piece of driftwood. Deep Cove is a refreshing and slightly sweet cocktail evolves as it dilutes thanks to the addition of cucumbers to the mix of Island Gin, sea buckthorn and blue algae.
Upstairs at Campagnolo (1020 Main Street), cocktails $12-$16
Just above the Campagnolo restaurant is Upstairs at Campagnolo, a dimly lit cocktail lounge open from 6pm until late. I really enjoyed the unpretentious vibe in this bar, and was impressed with the solid renditions of the Dry martini, Whiskey Sour, and Old Fashioned by Peter Van De Reep. Don’t miss the burger Upstairs, which many claim to the best in town.
Boxcar (923 Main St), cocktails $10-$13
Boxcar is a favorite hangout for industry, and features a long wooden bar coutner with several beers on a tap and a simple cocktail menu that rotates often. This place is more about the vibe than the drinks. Grab a bar stool, order an IPA or whisky highball and take in the casual dive bar atmosphere.
Revolver (325 Cambie Street) $3-$5 for a coffee
A reliably good coffee bar, Revolver is located in the hip gastown district. They serve excellent espresso and can prepare coffee in a myriad of different ways such as cold press, siphon and pour over. Although they don’t roast their own coffee, the feature the best “local” and foreign roasters including Phil and Sebastian from Calgary, Bows and Arrows from Victoria and superstars Tim Wendelboe from Oslo and Rubens Gardelli from Rimini.
Aubade (230 E Pender St) $5+ for a pourover/Aeropress
What started up as a pop up cafe doing only pour overs has evolved into a serious coffee shop, with owner Eldric Stuart offering Aeropress, espresso and even vegan treats. Aubade perhaps the most intimate coffee shop experience I've had in my travels. I would compare it to a chef's table experience in a gourmet restaurant. Eldric's passion is inspiring and makes the best Aeropress in the city, and perhaps the world.
Moving Coffee is attempting to push the Vancouver third wave coffee scene forward, with an in-house coffee roastery focusing on premium single origin beans roasted with modern profiles. Run by a husband and wife team that moved here from Hong Kong in 2014, Edmund Keung is a licensed Q-grader and strives to achieve the best possible expressions from his beans. Unlike many in Vancouver, Edmund roasts his own coffee instead of relying on out of town roasters such as Bows and Arrows or Phil and Sebastian.
A bonus of Moving Coffee is that it’s co-located with Fife, the well-known artisan baker in Vancouver. Owner and baker Felix Yau makes naturally leavened loaves from local ingredients such as flour from Chilliwack, milk from Abbotsford, and eggs from Langley. The long fermentation process results in one of the best tasting sourdoughs in Vancouver.
Nemesis (302 W Hastings St)
Nemesis is located a stone’s throw from Vancouver’s leading coffee shop Revolver. Huge windows allow natural lighting to enter the large and welcoming space on W Hastings. This place has a similar vibe as Blue Bottle SF in Mint Plaza. An eclectic mix of beautiful customers in a great space, looking to level up on their Starbucks experience. Nemesis is big, aiming to be a high volume specialty coffee shop. Therefore, most of your interactions will be with the cashier, and not the baristas. That said, the cashier that day was super friendly and was able to recommend a nice coffee based on my hipsterish palate.
33 Acres (15 W 8th Ave ) $3-$5 for a coffee
Although 33 Acres is better known as one of the top craft brewers in Vancouver, they also happen to make the best espresso in town! I enjoyed a Phil and Sebastian roast of Nansebo Genene. It was acidic and vibrant, and my favorite espresso in recent memory.
Do Chay (1392 Kingsway), $20/person
Do Chay, which means vegetarian stuff, is a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant opened in May. Run by Patrick and Amanda Clark, Do Chay is a modern take on Vietnamese cooking, obviously with no meat. Ensuring that tradition is always respected in the innovative cuisine is Patrick’s mother Yen Do, the heart and soul of the operation.
A must try to start are addictive the Vegan XO potstickers (hand-wrapped potstickers, mushroom XO, cabbage, carrot, served with sweet soy, sweat pea shoots). From the noodle dishes, I was blown away with the taste of the Desert Island noodles (thick rice noodles, coconut milk, vegan “meatballs,” shredded tofu, peanuts, “Ish sauce”, herbs and greens) and Satay noodles (peanut and sesame spicy satay broth, broccoli, seitan, tomato and rice noodles). Note that Ish sauce is the homemade vegan replacement for fish sauce, a crucial part of Vietnamese cuisine. To mimic the flavor of fish sauce, they used many ingredients, including fermented mung beans. Another solid noodle dish is Bird's Nest with silken egg tofu, enoki mushrooms, straw mushrooms, choy sum, and a tasty pho reduction gravy. The most interesting Asian restaurant to open in recent memory, Do Chay is a must visit for Vancouver foodies.
DD Mau Chinatown (145 East Pender St) Dishes $11-$15
DD Mau offers hipster-friendly but authentic Vietnamese food. DD Mau was initially a food truck but in 2012 they opened a restaurant in Yaletown and an even larger restaurant recently in Chinatown. The family run business seeks to provide “Vietnamese food for the people”. Based on our experience, they’ve accomplished this, with clientele ranging from Vietnamese families, to hipsters like me, to blue collar hockey fans enjoying a pre-game meal. The minimalist Vietnamese fusion design elements at DD are appealing, but are not meant to overshadow the star attraction, the kick ass food.
Start your adventure with the fried sticky rice with Chinese sausage, Shitake mushrooms and runny egg. Not only is it food porn, it’s umami overload. I thoroughly enjoyed the signature bun cha ha noi, grilled meatballs and pork in a fish sauce broth served with vermicelli, salad and herbs. It’s simple but savory comfort food. Another winner is the
Bay Sushi (678 Seymour St)
Bay Sushi Cafe is a no-nonsense over the counter-serve cafe serving top quality sushi and bento boxes. Although the Instagrammer in you won’t be happy with the very basic surroundings, the foodie in you will love the fresh raw fish at a very honest price.
Bao Bei (163 Keefer St), appetizers $10, plates $11-$23, cocktails $12-$15
The always packed Bao Bei is located on the increasingly popular Keefer St in Chinatown. People come here for the hip contemporary Asian atmosphere which attracts a young and beautiful clientele…and of course for the damn good dumplings. Other than the delicious steamed dumplings, order the crispy tofu with garlic sweet soy and fresh water chestnut. It’s one of the best dishes I’ve had in Vancouver.
Phnom Penh (244 E Georgia St), $25/person
Phnom Penh is an institution in Vancouver. Foodies line up for hours to sample the Cambodian and Vietnamese dishes at this no frills eatery. I recommend the tender Marinated butter beef and crispy Deep fried chicken wings, two of the signatures at Phnom Penh.
Honey's Doughnuts (4373 Gallant Ave, North Vancouver)
Honey’s Doughnuts is probably the most famous eating joint in Deep Cove. The specialty here is obvious but they also have decent sandwiches. In addition to their flagship honey donut, you can also find maple and chocolate flavors at Honey’s. The honey variety is possibly the best donut I’ve ever had. A word of warning: despite the laidback Deep Cove location, there are long lines and rapid-fire service at Honey’s, leading to a rather stressful experience. But take a deep breath as it’s all worth it once you have the holy grail of donuts in your hand.
Naka Bistro Lao & Thai Cuisine (20055 Fraser Hwy) $25/person at dinner
Naka bistro is 45 minutes from Vancouver but the Laotian/Thai food on offer here is so good, that a true foodie would make the trip to the Fraser Hwy location. When I am back in town visiting my parents in Surrey, I visit Naka at least once a week. Naka makes the best Laotian food in the Lower Mainland.
My favorite Laotian dishes are the Nem Khao (crispy rice lettuce wrap with spices, shredded coconut, cured pork, fresh herbs and sour lime juice), Kao Piak Sen (noodles in soup topped with chicken, green onions, dried garlic flakes and cilantro), and Sai Gok (Laotian pork sausages with spicy chilli dip and sticky rice)
If you are less adventurous, the Pad Thai and Pad See Iw are solid choices and the Curry chicken is very good. But I strongly encourage you to pick from the Laotian specialties. It’s some of the best Asian food in the Greater Vancouver area.