Three years ago, Vancouver’s restaurant scene was riding high on a wave of Olympic optimism. Internationally acclaimed chefs like Daniel Boloud and Jean-Georges Vorichten opened Vancouver satellites, while local cuisiniers indulged their patrons’ ever-more refined palates and ever-deeper pockets. But when Wall Street collapsed and the Winter Games went a billion over budget, the public’s taste for wine lists and white linen turned to soda and serviettes. And so did those of some of our culinary high-flyers. Comfort food in the city has become exceptional, and here are the establishments driving the change — some of them on two-wheeled carts.
American Cheesesteak Factory
Anthony Sedlak’s laid-back vibe made the chef-dude a natural for his Food Network show, The Main, but less suited to a very brief partnership with the owners of Corner Suite Bistro Deluxe. (It dissolved before the now-defunct French fusion joint had officially opened.) American Cheesesteak Factory, which Sedlak launched last November, is a fully licensed homage to Philadelphia’s iconic culinary contribution, but like the bistro tile, exposed brick and wood-beam décor, the sandwiches are dressed up with premium ingredients like Wagyu beef, Portobello mushrooms, truffle aioli and Fontina cheese. 781 Davie Street, 604-682-8626
Another Food Network celebrity, Top Chef Canada’s Dale McKay took over the vacant room of the aforementioned Corner Suite Bistro Deluxe months before the show actually aired (making his victory the worst-kept secret in Vancouver). As such, the success of Ensemble was all but guaranteed. That didn’t stop him from opening ensembleTap, a two-storey, sports fan–friendly den inside the Scotiabank Theatre complex. Belly up to the 40-foot bar and choose one of 15 craft-brewed pints or 30 international bottled beers to go with your burger, Reuben or pulled-pork sandwich. 990 Smithe Street, 604-566-9770
Chef Connor Butler’s latest venture, Max’s Burgers, is a far cry from his short-lived, eponymous supper club on South Granville. A collaboration with deli dude Bruce Redpath (Max’s Deli), the wood-paneled, bare-bones burger shack on the Cambie Rise keeps it simple with the customizable, five-ounce Big Max, a chipotle chicken burger called the Rooster on a Tailgate, and the ancho chili-laden Schloppy Joe. Grab a booth and wash it all down with a liquored-up milkshake, a tequila paralyzer float or a glass of the house red. 521 West 8th Ave. 604-873-6297
Brothers Steven and Michael Weisse’s Tiffany-lamped Franco-German bistro brought a new level of sophistication to the Davie Village — one that was sorely lacking in the donair shops, by-the-slice joints and the Denny’s that characterized the neighbourhood’s traditional dining options. While their tiny 35-seater, Brasserie, always seems packed to the last bar stool, the spot’s real success comes from its downtown lunchtime food cart, which serves only one thing: beer-brined rotisserie chicken and crispy onion sandwiches. The so-called Brass sandwich has proved so popular that the two-man operation at the corner of West Georgia and Granville often sells out before 1 pm. A second cart at West Georgia and Burrard is slated for the spring. 1091 Davie Street, 604-568-6499
Although Nu won En Route magazine’s top honours as the best restaurant in Canada in 2006, Harry Kambolis shuttered his futuristic waterfront eatery last year. An otherwise successful restauranteur (he still owns C Restaurant and Rain City Grill), Kambolis returned to his roots, reopening Nu as a street-side souvlaki stand (542 Robson St.) similar to the one his grandfather used to own and in which Kambolis used to spend his summers working. The street-front gambit seems to be taking off with a second location turning out tzatziki-laden lamb on a stick (1513 W. Broadway), and a third, featuring a Greek bakery, slated to open in Gastown this spring.
Image courtesy of Max’s Burgers.