2020 Bar of the Year: Trans Am

When it comes to Vancouver bars, Trans Am is tops.

2020 Bar of the Year: Trans Am

1879 Powell St.

Like every truly great success story, this one could have gone wrong in myriad ways. The much-babbled-about no-cell-phone policy, for example. It could have been a jaded ploy to grab some pre-opening publicity (if they had, you know, any publicity). Or a menu (newly expanded) that still features just two burgers, a $125 steak, one side and some olives could seem a bit precious. Only playing vinyl, contrived. The complete lack of tables, an annoyance. But all these things are delivered with such a dose of no-B.S. authenticity that it pervades every inch of this 13- “seat” marvel on Powell Street and helps make this improbable candidate our favourite bar in Vancouver.

And the place is authentic because the proprietor is. Gianmarco Colannino worked in the industry, got cancer, beat it and, after returning to work (for a beer company), took a step back—priorities fully in place—and decided to open a bar like the ones he loved in other cities but could never find here: small, with a casual atmosphere and a hard focus on the work side, where neighbourhood folk could hang out, listen to good music and shoot the shit. He essentially built the place himself using a handsaw, because he didn’t have the scratch for an electric one, let alone a professional contractor. The early days—where the food was more front and centre—were tough, with overflow from neighbour Bistro Wagon Rouge providing a thin lifeline. But Colannino streamlined the menu radically: one burger, one steak, one side. He brought in bartender Dave Beck when Merchant’s Oyster Bar closed, and the two started to craft a cocktail program that is near-perfect in its construction: a page of classic cocktails, a page of originals, a small rotating selection of craft beer and a cool selection of wines at “market price,” which Colannino mistakenly thinks is a 100-percent markup—insanely low.

This summer saw the addition of chef Edie Steensma, who initially left a sweet gig at Autostrada Downtown just to help out here. (That’s the sort of devotion this place inspires.) Soon she had taken over the food program—now two burgers (!) and daily teasers like Spam gyoza—and together the three of them run the bar like a well-lubricated machine.

But the easygoing atmosphere belies a serious dedication to making this spot hum—they routinely take staff trips to other cities to see how they can up their game—but they’re just so self-minimizing about their work that it all seems so easy. It’s not, but they want you to believe it is. After all, this is a bar, and you’re here to have a good time.

3 Albums the team at Trans Am really doesn’t want scratched:

1. Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul and Synth Boogie in 1980s South Africa

2. Freddie Gibbs’ album Shadow of a Doubt

3. Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” single on 45 original pressing

How to Get into Trans Am:

1. There are reservations at 6 p.m. and 7 p.m., but only for four to six spots.

2. There’s usually a lull between the time the after-workers leave (about 8-ish), and before the hard-chargers arrive (8:45-ish).