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It’s 9.45 p.m. and I’m at the tiny, brass-trimmed bar of a dark, creaky-floored old pub. A roaring hearth crackles in the corner, baking the winter-frozen flanks of nearby patrons and projecting shadows across the ceiling. Perusing the shiny taps and chatting with a barrel-bellied barman, I settle on a pint of chestnut-brown Chiswick Bitter then decamp to a candlelit corner.
Within minutes, I’m debating the merits—or otherwise—of pear cider, utopian socialism, and last night’s Queen Park Rangers soccer game with two well-oiled friends I’ve been drinking with since high school. It’s one of several similarly animated conversations playing out across the glowing room, a laughter-studded babble that’s as warming to the regulars as the fireplace.
Not surprisingly, this isn’t Vancouver. I’m back in the UK for a fleeting visit to my birthplace, dipping into a centuries-old neighbourhood pub scene that was the sociable foundation of my formative years. I’ve missed it ever since.
I like to believe that my giddy and abiding pub love is about more than just nostalgia. These multigenerational gathering places are the community halls of many UK towns. Serving the same regulars (and their children) for decades, their regional ales predate our hipster-driven craft beers, while their ever-welcoming vibe facilitates face-to-face “likes” without the need for Facebook, which still lacks a button to buy a round for your friends.
The absence of a pub culture like this was the cloud hanging over my 1990s move from England. Vancouverites, it seemed, preferred winding down with seawall runs and spa treatments, while I pined for murky rooms enlivened by conversation and the clink of dimpled pint glasses. Canada’s “pubs” were less community halls than restaurants, where dining was the key activity and hanging out all evening over a few brews was discouraged by the lame beer selection and tip-hungry servers.
But after a few years, something started brewing here. B.C.’s craft beer revolution kicked off, making ale a focus rather than a sidebar to eating. Bars that used to serve factory-made dross began pouring local heroes like Driftwood and Central City. And new venues emerged that echoed my ideal of chilled-out neighbourhood taverns. The required features? Fine beer and grub that gives grease a good name; dialling down the music and TVs to foster banter; and—most importantly—making everyone from plaid-shirted coolsters to red-nosed CAMRA members feel equally welcome. Bars that follow these rules are the antidote to Vancouver’s infamous cliqueyness and that’s guaranteed. (Okay, that’s the drink talking.)
Here, then, are my meticulously researched recommendations for great Vancouver locals. These neighbourhood joints best recall my favoured UK watering holes and, in some cases, surpass them. If you disagree, drop by and debate the point. I’ll almost certainly be sipping an Extra Special Bitter in a shady corner and talking a little too loudly about utopian socialism.
2616 Main St., 604-709-8650. Thecascade.ca
North America’s British pubs, swathed in faded football scarves and populated by expat alcoholics, are typically depressing affairs. The alternative is Vancouver’s vibe-tastic Cascade, co-owned by an Oxford chap. Combining sly nods to London boozers—flock wallpaper, Queen Victoria-accented lampshades, and that Keep Calm And Carry On glass panel—with chatty candlelit booths and genial good service, this room hits all the right notes. But the reason Cascade is Mount Pleasant’s merriest bar—where local hipsters relax enough to check their irony at the door—is the near-perfect drink-and-dine selection. Stomach-lagging Sunday roasts head a gastropub menu from Rossdown chicken to Salt Spring mussels, while the topnotch beer list runs from Phillips to Fullers and Cascade’s own Main Street Pilsner. It’s complemented by a tongue-tickling 50-plus cocktail menu—check the chalkboards for the latest concoctions.
Pull up a chair Monday nights for the Trivia Quiz or Name That Tune
157 Alexander St., 604-623-3383. Alibi.ca
The pioneer of Vancouver’s love affair with microbrews, Alibi and its 50-ish taps make it the city’s most inviting beer room. (St. Augustine’s on Commercial is comparably well-aled, but the sports-bar racket makes it far less friendly for chatting.) The tavern’s glowing redbrick interior is striped with rows of candlelit long tables where rotund older drinkers and skinny-arsed hipsters merrily dive into brews together—the former usually necking pints, the latter preferring the $11 four-glass samplers. After scarfing a BBQ pork belly sandwich—the highlight of a hearty gastropub menu—beer nuts often perch at the bar to chat with Brit co-owner Nigel Springthorpe. Ask for something weird and he’ll fix you up with a brain-addling witch’s brew—and might even tell you about plans to open his own Brassneck Brewery in 2013. Until then, you’ll have to content yourself with an Alibi draft selection showcasing B.C.’s best, from Hoyne to Howe Sound and from Storm to Parallel 49.
Pull up a chair Tuesday evening for a calm, intimate vibe
579 Dunsmuir St., 604-681-1625. Therailwayclub.com
You might be avoiding the Rail after a half-remembered story about some crazy night long in the past. But stagger upstairs and discover that all is forgiven and this legend is exactly where you left it. That perilously stained carpet and the faint wet-dog aroma still greet like an old (though slightly soiled) friend, while the bar-only service, proper pint glasses, hot-nuts dispenser, and trundling model train will make you feel like you’ve never been away. But rather than relying on nostalgia, the Rail keeps on chugging because it’s one of the city’s most welcoming trad pubs, and it effortlessly gets just about everything right. There’s an excellent B.C. craft beer list—including Tuesday’s guest cask—an unfailingly eclectic roster of nightly live shows from indie bands to poetry slams, and a pub grub hole-in-the-wall counter that hits the perfect booze-complementing grease spot. (I recommend the DeRailer Burger with bacon and blue cheese.)
Pull up a chair First Monday of the month for the Hard Rock Miners Sing-a-Long
3835 Main St., 604-569-2494. Portlandcraft.com
Since transforming from Copper Tank Grill into a buzzing new local this summer, Portland Craft has been brimming with giddy regulars. But it’s not the décor—a barely altered interior of comfy booths, log-slice long table, and a Post-it Note art installation—that’s changed the bar’s fortunes. It’s the clever invocation of Oregon’s hippest city, with the sudsy substance to back it up, which Portland Craft manages with a 20-strong draft list of top-drawer Western U.S. producers like Rogue, Elysian, Hopworks, and Deschutes. It’s the only place in town you can start with an Immortal IPA and end with a Black Butte Porter, with a pit stop for some beer-absorbing grub along the way (flatbread pizzas and fried chicken both recommended).
Pull up a chair 5 p.m. on Friday, when the regulars roll in
1305 Commercial Dr., 604-566-9669. Stormcrowtavern.com
You don’t have to know the difference between Narnia and Neverwhere to enjoy Commercial Drive’s new nerd pub: like any great inn, all comers are welcome. But if you roll up in Gandalf robes, no one will bat an eyelash here—especially the redhaired server with replica elf ears. With darkwood tables, medieval beams, and steampunk replica weapons adorning the walls, this sports bar for fantasy and sci-fi fans is ideal for communal Game of Thrones screenings. And if it’s a rerun, there are always the board games. (Anyone for Elfenland?) There’s a small, good-value array of mains and $6 sandwiches, and a B.C.-focused beer list (East Side Bitter recommended). The wine choice runs from one red to one white, but who needs fancy beverages when the role-playing books are out on the tables and the drunken Eye of Sauron is kicking off at the bar?
Pull up a chair Sunday afternoon, when the board games take over
209 E. Sixth Ave., 604-874-4687. Thewhiprestaurant.com
Rays stream through the floor-to-ceiling windows, heating the honey-coloured tables like a summertime conservatory. It’s tempting to stretch out for a catnap, but then you’d miss the reason you came here: the 4 p.m. Sunday tapping of this week’s guest cask. Sipping a mildly floral Central City Saffron ESB, you bask in the light and chat to your buddies as another timeless afternoon—the kind where the world operates at half-speed—unfolds. Socked into a century-old heritage building, the Whip is the perfect comfy local: a shabby-chic interior of dinged tables, dark corners, and shimmering chandeliers that invite rainy night hunkering. Whenever you drop by, peruse the ever-changing artwork and flirt a little with the tattooed waitstaff. They’ll help you choose some great grub—salmon fritters recommended—before you continue your beery amble, preferably including Fat Tug IPA and Black Plague Stout.
Pull up a chair Sunday afternoon for the weekly cask tapping
Corner of Third Ave. and Main St. Narrowlounge.com
It’s just after midnight and you’re in a windowless, subterranean saloon no bigger than a train carriage. Antlers and a mangy bear head (wearing sunglasses) stud the candlelit walls as you slowly sip a Phoenix Gold pilsner. If you were alone, you’d feel like Jack Nicholson at the hotel bar in The Shining. But since this speakeasy room is hopping with good-time Main Streeters—the sociable kind, rather than the ones frowning behind MacBook Airs—you sink into the private party vibe animating my favourite cult bar. Ridiculously hard to find from the street—its only marker is a red light bulb illuminated when open—the graffiti-covered stairwell entrance gives most first-timers second thoughts. But once inside, you’ll settle right in. It’s my chosen nuclear bunker for when the time comes, and I’ll join the regulars here toasting the world’s end and feasting on the bar’s excellent baked mac and cheese. When it’s time to venture back outside, we’ll start at the hidden tiki patio out back.
Pull up a chair Late Saturday night, when the turntable is cranked up
1052 Deep Cove Rd., North Vancouver, 604-929-3834. Theravenpub.com
The ’burbs are home to a few gems worth jumping in the car for, like this instantly welcoming Deep Cove joint. The crowd is an effortless mix of dining seniors, blokey barflies, and lads in their 20s intent on partying; the interior inviting with a glowing hearth and red-glass candle-holders that foster an increasingly cozy ambiance as the night unwinds. The Raven is renowned for its 20 or so deep-dish pizza varieties—pesto chicken recommended—plus a bewildering array of mains running from braised lamb to bulging fish tacos. The beer list is even better, with top quaffs from Storm, Phillips, Driftwood, Howe Sound, and—on my visit—Crannóg’s near-legendary Back Hand of God Stout.
Pull up a chair Saturday night for a hopping vibe and occasional live music
730 Main St., 604-689-8645
There’s a speakeasy frisson to Vancouver’s most beloved alt-pub, especially if the handwritten door sign points you to the sketchy back alley entrance. But don’t be afraid. Once inside this windowless room you’ll feel instantly warmed by fairy-lit movie posters, old pop machines, and neon-bright fish tanks rippling with aquatic life. You’ve just walked into the physical extension of owner Leo Chow’s eclectic mind. Perch at the bar with some chips (the only food available) and a Raven Cream Ale—one of several well-priced drafts—and you can quiz him about his love for what he calls the “living room” vibe in UK pubs. Then ask the regulars (friendly young coolsters who view the sofa-lined spot as their den) how they found a place that eschews advertising, is website-phobic, and prefers social to social media—you’ll learn just how effective word-of-mouth can still be.
Pull up a chair Tuesday night’s got a chill feel and there’s no wait for the pool tables
1901 Powell St., 604-253-6645. Princetonpub.com
Vancouver dive bars are either hellholes or ironically rediscovered saloons where smirking kids guzzle Old Milwaukee (sometimes both). But B.C. was founded on working-class taverns, and the Princeton—in a time-capsule neighbourhood where cobbles poke through the roads—is the real deal. Inside, Keno screens, a busy pool table, and vintage Molson and Labatt signs evoke a 1980s neighbourhood legion minus the meat draw. Perch at the bar with the regulars—tough-ass fellas in Dickies pants for work, not skateboarding—and you’ll overhear Wild Turkey-fuelled conversations about cars and failed marriages. Drinkswise, it’s mostly standard lager and some craft bottles: perfect for washing down a shared Princeton Platter of wings, ribs, fries, and coconut shrimp. Visit soon: “East Village” banners flutter nearby, signalling the ever-nearing march of gentrification.
Pull up a chair Thursday evening for live blues with Harpdog Brown and the Bloodhounds JOHN LEE was born in St. Albans, England, where his favourite pubs are The Goat, White Lion, and Six Bells