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Here it is: our most unorthodox Restaurant Awards in three decades.
It was February 2020 and the judging for our 31st Annual Restaurant Awards had just concluded. Our amazing panel of judges had spent the previous 12 months scouring the city for restaurants that excited and enthralled them, revisiting the classics and re-revisiting the new rooms that were creating a buzz. And then… whomp.
Many of the restaurants we had hoped to fete were forced to close, our Restaurant Awards issue was put on indefinite hold, and B.C. and the world started the long process of first understanding and then fighting COVID-19. It was, on all accounts, a slog, and few industries suffered more ups and downs and downs—and more downs—than the restaurant sector. At the magazine, we did ultimately regroup and, through much heavy lifting, we put the 31st edition of the awards out last September, and held a virtual event. But even then, it seemed almost an exercise in nostalgia: a throwback to a time that may have been quite recent but also felt a million miles away.
Which brings us to the more optimistic outlook we’re enjoying right now. For the first time in 16 months, the industry seems genuinely hopeful that a corner has been turned and that normalcy (or, better, a new and improved normalcy like we kick around on page 42) is imminent. But for us—who are the stewards of this great tradition of celebrating the city’s restaurants—the question remained: What to do about our Restaurant Awards? It hardly seemed fair to judge the industry even in the most positive light when many of the candidates had spent the year barely keeping their head above water. But, on the other hand, to let another full year go by with no celebration also seemed unfair when so many deserved recognition for the sacrifices they undertook at every turn.
So, we hit on what follows here. We’re calling it the “32nd* Annual Restaurant Awards.” There’s only one category that has been carried over from previous years: Best New (because we thought it unfair for spots that had the courage to open during the past 16 months to have to wait another year to be lauded). For the rest of the categories, we tried to follow the trends that arose during the pandemic: they’re all takeout related, and they echo the way we were eating this past year.
A big thanks to our many Restaurant Awards judges, who volunteered their time to help us make this year’s awards a reality.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS:Potluck Hawker Eatery, 3424 Cambie St.Bar Gobo, 237 Union St.
Perhaps nothing speaks more to the resilience of the industry than the number of new rooms that opened during the pandemic. It takes a certain type of dreamer/lunatic to look straight into the eye of a hurricane and say, “Let’s go sailing.” (Although, to be fair, when your banker demands you go sailing, it may be more about financial obligation than straight-up courage.) And even limiting the candidates to spots that opened in late 2019 and 2020—the scope of this year’s awards (the 2021 rooms will be on next year’s slate)—still left us with the most competitive race we’ve had in years.
And after all of the votes were tallied, it was the spectacularly low-key Oca Pastificio that emerged with the Gold. The place screams focus, but it never feels studied: there’s chef/owner Greg Dilabio, dialled in at the front of the open kitchen and steadfastly hand-making the sublime pastas that form the bulk of the small chalkboard menu. There’s FOH maestro, Antoine Dumont, making every-one in the small room forget about the wait (this is no-reservation territory) and transporting you to what feels like that perfect trattoria you happened upon during your trip to Italy years ago. The entire effect is that of comforting brilliance at a shockingly low price point.
Our Silver winner is also defined by brilliance, in this case that on frequent display by head chef Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson and his uber-capable kitchen. Published on Main was one of the most ambitious openings we’d seen in years when it opened its doors on a stretch of Main Street more used to craft beers than a Michelin-star-worthy tasting menu. The room was gathering some serious word of mouth for its high-wire cooking and unflinching devotion to the best ingredients when the pandemic hit. But while others retreated, Stieffenhofer-Brandson stayed the course for month after gruelling month. Everything coming from the kitchen continued to be exacting, with the team never accepting less than perfection with every dish as the world strived to return to normal.
Taking the Bronze is Sean Reeve and company’s crazy mash-up of Italy and Southern U.S. that is Fraser Street’s Say Mercy! The novel concept required a constant balancing of richness and acidity, seriousness with fun, and Reeve’s kitchen executed night in, night out. All the while, the team simultaneously spearheaded the Staff Meal initiative that saw a small cadre of restaurants helping front-line workers with food, and crafted affordable takeout for the rest of us.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS:Di Beppe, 8 W Cordova St.Sprezzatura, 265 Kingsway
Well, evidently the best pizzeria in town is also able to best translate their perfectly crusted pies to takeout. Via Tevere has won Gold in this category for the last two years, and here they are again, on top. It helps that its style of warm minimalism—never too many toppings, never too wacky—means there’s less to go wrong in the box, and it also helps that the entire operation offers a comforting embrace of hominess, a boon this past year. In second place is the no-longer-under-the-radar AJ’s, a place that’s always been an industry favourite for its effortlessly convivial vibe and as-authentic-as-you-can-get Brooklyn-style pizza (which has the attitude to travel well). Taking the Bronze is another continued presence on this list: Main Street’s Farina, whose small room meant it spent years perfecting a pie built for takeout.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS:Stem Japanese Eatery, 5205 Rumble St., BurnabyTetsu Sushi Bar, 775 Denman St.
One of the lasting images of the pandemic is Masa-san, the uber-perfectionist behind the elaborately controlled environment of Masayoshi, cheerfully smiling behind his bar while making to-go chirashi and other delicacies for his takeout customers. No doubt many a restaurateur thought, “Well, if Masa-san can do, so can I,” and the orders that came out of the Fraser Street institution, with Masa-san working solo for the most part, will be long remembered as one of the few silver (er, Gold) linings in a supremely tough year.
Silver goes to Temaki, the overnight sensation that’s only been around for 18 years. Perhaps it was the numerous chefs who posted themselves picking up takeout (Boulevard’s Alex Chen, we’re looking at you), but word has definitely gotten out that this Broadway spot mixes an accessible menu (in both selection and price point) paired with a commitment to ultra-fresh ingredients that’s seen it become the go-to spot on the west side. Bronze goes to Sashimiya, a jewel box on an overlooked and tough-to-find section of Hornby specializing in no-frills, perfectly presented sushi and sashimi paired with a well curated selection of Japanese grocery staples.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS:Unchai, 2351 Burrard St.Livia,1399 Commercial Dr.
Our co-winners in this category are both new spots, they’re situated only two kilometres from each other, and, like all great restaurants, they have both filled voids we didn’t even know we had. First up is Superbaba, fresh from its multi-year beta-testing in Victoria and backed by a well-regarded team of industry pros (Medina’s Robbie Kane, Jason Sussman of Tacofino, Ryan Spong of the recently sold food.ee), and led on the ground by Abdallah El Chami. This brain trust has come up with a take on Middle Eastern fare that has people losing their minds over the fresh, generous portions and inventive takes on a compact menu. More singular is Justin Cheung’s Potluck Hawker Eatery, an ode to the casual greatness of Malaysian cooking that sees the Angus An protégé crafting a menu that’s equal parts innovative and nostalgic, opening up the tastebuds of Vancouverites to the joy of laksa, roti and salted egg yolk chicken. Taking Bronze is Doug Stephen and Lindsey Mann’s now-iconic Downlow Chicken Shack, the perennial Gold winner that reinvented how this city saw fried chicken (spoiler—we love it). And while the pandemic had its challenges, one of the calming influences was seeing how some things stayed the same—like the never-ending lineup out its Commercial Drive door.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS:Golden Paramount, 8111 Anderson Rd., RichmondHK BBQ Master, 4651 No. 3 Rd., Richmond
While takeout at entry-level Chinese restaurants has long been a staple in most Vancouver households, the elite restaurants at the top of their game often eschewed the idea. But as it became clear that wouldn’t be an ongoing option, many of the top rooms began to show that they could be masters at to-go as well. Chief among them was Gold winner Chef’s Choice, which opened on West Broadway mere months before the first shutdown but nonetheless captured the attention of the city’s die-hard foodies with its interpretation of classic Cantonese dishes like gold coin roasted chicken. A stone’s throw away is Silver-winner Dynasty, no stranger to these awards, which was able to translate its magic with seafood into takeout—no small feat. And taking Bronze was another newcomer, the opened-in-February iDen & Quan Ju De, whose somewhat gimmicky promise of 5D dining belied the fact that it did the near impossible: create a Peking duck that could travel.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS:Per Se Social Corner, 891 Homer St.Downlow Burgers, 926 Main St.
Burgers have never been a standalone category in the Restaurant Awards, but it’s tough to think of a food item that’s been more on people’s minds lately than a classic, well-made burger. And this year, no place captured the public’s attention more than the awesomely lo-fi Between 2 Buns. What started as a passion-project food truck that drew lines at every stop morphed into a bricks-and-mortar spot occupying the former digs of the much-missed Bestie. Smash burgers are the order of the day here, and don’t even think of asking for tomatoes (or any substitutions, for that matter). Your subservience will be rewarded by warm-hearted staff and even more warm-hearted prices ($10 for a burger)—and because it’s already smashed, it travels like a pro.
A jump up the elegance scale is the very unsmashed marvel from Kits stalwart Au Comptoir, all Gallic pride in its juicy thickness and topped with caramelized onions and raclette. As a takeout option, it’s an exercise in messiness, but worth it. And last on the podium is the most bittersweet of the bunch—the legendary beefy star of Gianmarco Colannino’s Trans Am, then its offspring Turbo X Trans Am, both victims of the pandemic: a burger so great and pure that it started a movement.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS:Hawksworth, 801 W Georgia St.Pidgin, 350 Carrall St.
It’s easy to look at Gold-winning Boulevard’s deep-pocketed owner and think, well, the pandemic was a cakewalk for them. But anyone who ordered takeout from this spot in the early days was greeted by GM JP Potters—and seen out by him too, as he walked your bags to your car himself—while acclaimed chefs Alex Chen and Roger Ma toiled away making meatballs for patrons and selling prime meat at cost. Three people, that was it. As the months clicked by, the offering from BLVD Provisions expanded (exceptional chowder, make-your-own sea bream in salt crust) and the fact that Boulevard—with its level of greatness that has dominated these awards in the past few years—was able to translate its excellence into takeout was a source of near normalcy for many. Across town, JC Poirier’s St. Lawrence, our Silver winner, took a little longer to figure out how to recreate their intricately devised meals into a takeout format, but when they did, wow. That telltale blue bag holding the multi-course extravaganza mirrored the restaurant’s renewed commitment to table d’hôte dining at the highest level. And rounding out the podium was the tour de force of Top-Table2U, an Avengers-esque grouping of CinCin, Blue Water, Elisa and Thierry that quickly became an essential service, be it for a bag of flour or a Holstein striploin, and continued delivering a wide array of perfectly executed dishes at an even wider array of price points.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS:Mak N Ming (closed), 1629 Yew St.Burdock & Co, 2702 Main St.
This category is the five-letter word that no one will ever want to hear once the pandemic is fully behind us, but it was also one of the dominant skills required for survival during the dark days: take your modus operandi and radically rethink it as quickly as possible, or you’re finished. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Gold winner Pidgin is that owner Brandon Grossutti’s first response in the face of upheaval was: “How can I help my community?” His answer was to create FromTo, a grassroots delivery system that sought to shield participating restaurants from the high costs of delivery services through a transparent cost-based model that benefitted both consumer and producer. Pidgin and their acclaimed takeout may have been the test case, but soon dozens of thoughtful owners signed up as well, willing to explore the idea of another way to do delivery. Taking Silver is the one-two punch of Caffé la Tana and Pepino’s who, like Davey Boy Smith and the Dynamite Kid, joined forces to offer everything under one metaphorical tent: groceries, pizza, fresh pasta and wine with a side of the welcoming hospitality that both are known for. Bronze goes to Say Mercy!,whose Staff Meal initiative gathered a disparate group of good souls (from Masayoshi to the Arbor to Belgard Kitchen) to cook affordable takeout, earmark funds for food banks and lend a hand to front-line workers—all while trying to stay afloat in a terrible business environment.