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When this magazine began its restaurant awards way back in 1990, Driving Miss Daisy had just swept the Oscars and Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” ruled the radio. Locally, wrote Vanmag‘s then-food editor Scott Mowbray in that first awards issue, the dining scene wasn’t much to crow about-nothing like the vibrant cut-and-thrust of Toronto. There was a real mediocrity to Vancouver’s food, he mourned: “Many restaurants-even some with the best reputations-survive by being pleasant rather than interesting.” There was a certain complacency, a less-than-vigorous consideration of standards. “It is easy, and maybe even acceptable, to be just a little lazy on the coast.” To hold sloth accountable, to educate palates, to celebrate the lesser-known, Mowbray dined around, consulted widely, then drew up a long list of restaurants that he revisited anonymously in order to announce the winners of 11 categories, from Best Overall to Best Décor.
Twenty-three years later, those modest awards have been upsized. One judge has become 19: writers, reviewers, farmers, sommeliers, and former chefs who spend their time sampling new rooms, checking in with old ones, and following trends and personnel shifts with obsessive interest. The number of categories has also grown, to 41, with a welcome shift to an ever-widening range of Asian cuisines.
It’s cumbersome, sending out so many judges to sample so many rooms. Throughout the year, senior editor Rebecca Philps convenes the judges to consider whether a certain restaurant has opened in time for attention, whether the departure of a cook nulls a kitchen’s previous accomplishments. They debate the criteria for upscale versus casual, for the relative importance of décor, wine list, and service. Then it’s up to the judges to make their rulings without fear or favour. They send their votes to a chartered accountant who tallies the scores, then maybe take off a well-deserved night or two before gearing up for the start of yet another year of dining and debating.
Here’s where you come in: all that work, from restaurateurs and juries both, is to give you choices well above the merely pleasant. Your many options begin here.