A Memoir of Gastown

My Alexander Street building is 100 years old and I’ve lived in it for the last 20.

Almost every evening I’ve taken the same stroll: across the Main Street overpass to look at the fish boats moored alongside the fish plant that’s been there since 1906, along the Crab Park beach, and back down Water Street, the historic heart of the city. In the brick buildings with their fir beams and wooden floors around Maple Tree Square live the ghosts of iconic Vancouver restaurants like Chez Joel, La Créperie, and Cherrystone Cove.

In the early ’90s, when I moved in, those three were gone. Instead we had La Brochette (which I still miss) with its 18th-century French rotisserie and real fireplace, serving simple roasted meat and fish with vegetables from the chef’s garden. There was Incendio too (still here), drawing the pizza-hungry from across the city with its Italian wood burning oven; and Umberto’s Al Porto (also still here, though no longer operated by Umberto), where us media types went every Friday for idle afternoons of wine, martinis, and chat while watching the train tracks and the port. For pure drinking there was always the taxi drivers’ watering hole, the Archimedes Club (now the Alibi Room). On long summer nights, Crab Park was mainly empty, save for a few Portuguese sailors debating whether they had enough money to eat at the Adega (now Campagnolo) on Main Street, Polish hake fishermen with nowhere to go (but thrilled by my husband’s shaky ability to chat in their language), and a few crabbers hoping to haul something off the dock.

At the time the lure of Gastown was lots of space for (relatively) little money in heritage buildings within walking distance of downtown. For more than a decade that lure didn’t reel in new blood or new money. Instead, restrictive zoning, costly seismic upgrades, and the overspill from the deteriorating Downtown Eastside sent Gastown into nearly terminal decline-only T-shirt tat, bong shops, and the Old Spaghetti Factory survived. Even by early 2006 there was nowhere to eat except Incendio and Sapphire (a long gone Sri Lankan restaurant, now Jules Bistro), and the Irish Heather.

And then came Salt. Down the dingy alley between Carrall and Abbott, the inconspicuous spot had no kitchen, just charcuterie, cheese, and a terrific wine list-but it was the real start of Sean Heather’s Gastown empire (now at eight rooms and counting). And the year after came Boneta, a pop-up concept on a shoestring budget (in the old Meat Market location at the corner of Powell and Carrall) that stayed on for four years before moving around the corner. If Sean Heather is called the king of Gastown, Boneta co-owner Mark Brand is called its mayor, a man on an entrepreneurial mission to improve the lives of everyone in the neighbourhood. Small-scale commercial and indie enterprises aimed at people who, like me, live and work here, largely created by locals with a personal stake in the neighbourhood, followed suit. Gastown was on a roll and hasn’t looked back.

On any given summer night, Chill Winston has lineups for its patio snaking down the cobblestone street. On the other side of Gassy Jack’s statue, Cork & Fin, Vera’s Burger Shack, and L’Abattoir are bursting out onto the street while across Water, Secret Location proposes rather intimidatingly curated fashion along with a stylish café. Mark Brand has revived the old Save-on-Meats on Hastings, while Alexander Street’s Two Chefs and a Table opened an artisan butchery shop at Powell and Gore, and, most recently, Vancouver Urban Winery has brought taps, tanks and barrels downtown.

The fish boats are still moored at the plant, but the cannery that worked around the clock every August is closed. Crab Park (where hardly anyone remembers the 1980s fight for “Create a Real Available Beach”) is now home to families with small children, friends picnicking, dog walkers, even bocce and croquet players enjoying an impromptu match. My own summer evening stroll has become a passegiata, the Italian parade and promenade that’s a communal event-neighbours, families, tourists, musicians, poets, pets, panhandlers.

As on the day I moved in, I still favour Incendio for its old brick and Ukrainian Angst (roasted potatoes and rosemary) pizza, but equally relish the authentic Bianca (organic potatoes, caramelized onions, and gorgonzola) just around the corner at the very contemporary Nicli Antica Pizzeria. Two takes on Gastown, both home to me. VM