Back to Hydra: Revisiting the Scene of One of Vanmag’s Most Controversial Reviews

Five years after a very viral visit, our restaurant critic gives Hydra a second look.

“This seems like a terrible idea.”

That’s what I’m thinking to myself as I circle around Pender and Howe looking for one of the three available parking meters in this slice of downtown. It’s a cool Sunday in October at the blue-haired hour of 5 p.m. and my destination is the modern Greek Estiatorio, Hydra, an establishment with which I have some uncomfortable history. Let me explain.

Back in the heady days of 2019 when the editorial team here was kicking around what might be a good contender for our next monthly review column, a new Greek restaurant called Hydra was suggested. It had launched a bold pre-opening campaign to build hype for its swish new digs in a downtown hotel. The Vanmag editorial team all liked the idea of a high-end Greek spot and, because it had already been opened for three or four months, we agreed it would a reasonable time for me to drop by—anonymously—to see if it lived upped to its advanced billing.


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The visit—and the subsequent review—were not favourable. It happens sometimes, although if you went through our food review archives, you’d find it doesn’t happen as often as you think (we’re probably about 9:1 positive to negative over the course of the last decade or so). Usually that would be the end of it, but for a stroke of fate that could only happen in the digital age. It was late on a Monday and the print issue featuring the upcoming the review was delayed at the printers. But we needed a story to run online ASAP. Someone suggested we feature the Hydra review before it ran in the magazine, and I agreed to moved it over to online. The only thing it needed was a headline and I just typed in what seemed the most natural description after my disastrous visit—”Hydra Estiatorio Is a Dumpster Fire of a Restaurant”—and pressed “publish” on WordPress.

Then all hell broke loose. Most writers would kill for a piece to go viral, but in this case, it seemed more like dogpiling than any appreciation of the words. It got clicked on, and clicked on, and clicked on and it began to take on a life of its own. The restaurant and its people read the review and sent us a thoughtful note saying they’d heard our complaints and they would strive to do better next time. Er, I’m just kidding—instead, the owner sent us an angry email that took turns rebutting the story all the while interspersing personal insults to me (“With all due respect, Neil doesn’t know what the fuck he’s writing about and wouldn’t know good authentic Greek food and recipes if they kicked him in the teeth.”) and the magazine (“It’s an insult on many levels and perhaps worthy of being printed only in the failing Vancouver Magazine with its dwindling readership which no one has paid to read in over 15 years.”)

Additionally, he also opted to take out a full-page ad in that delayed issue that ran opposite the restaurant review in the print publication, which essentially rehashed the letter… with a few less expletives.

So, with that “brief” synopsis, you can imagine my trepidation about returning. But when it was suggested I head back, I wasn’t wholly opposed. For starters, I don’t feel good about putting the boots to anyone, at least not in public. And I have one really good friend who works downtown and loves the place. And finally I popped online and it appeared that their Happy Hour seemed insanely good, so I used this as a jumping off point to see what a revisit might look like.

Weirdly, I find street parking right away—it feels like a good sign? But it feels tense walking through the threshold again and, on my wife’s recommendation, I’m wearing a baseball hat to make sure no one recognizes me, just like Ben Affleck in Gone Girl. We approached the main floor reception desk and ask if they have room for two. The hostess speaks to her headsets (disconcerting, but probably useful for a two-storey restaurant) nods and then asks us our name. My first thought is that our cover is blown followed by a quick contemplation of running, wife or no, but I blurt “Ross” and just like that we’re ascending the still very stylish winding staircase to the top floor.


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It’s almost full—at 5 p.m., on a Sunday, in late October. But we get a nice table in the middle of the action and aren’t seated for more than a few seconds when a cheery server presents menus: both the regular menu and the pint-sized happy hour version. I pretend to contemplate the pricier menu, but my wife, blessed with the self-confidence of Zeus, says, “We’re here for the Happy Hour!”

The menu is start-the-car priced. It feels like we’ve entered a wormhole to a Vancouver restaurant in 2008. For starters: the starters. Buck-a-shuck oysters, a phrase that seems as antiquated as horse-and-buggy parking in 2024 Vancouver.

To be fair, while the oysters spent much of the past few years at $1 each, at Hydra they’ve now migrated to $1.50 since then, and if you want East Coast oysters, the price “jumps” to $2. But even with all those provisos aside, it’s a jaw-dropping deal. While we look at the menu, we inquire about the Happy Hour wines and our server tells us that the white is a Sauvignon Blanc from B.C. When I drill down further, she says what sounds like “Heron Point,” and I nod as if I’ve heard that name before. My wife does the same dance with the rosé and is told that it’s actually an orange rosé, which immediately has my mind churning about how one could make an orange rosé, but at $6 a glass, we’ve used up our allotted questions so we both take the vinous plunge.

Going over the food menu makes one feel like Lloyd Christmas doling out C-notes in Aspen. In addition to the oysters, the small plates—all variations from the main menu— are all $12. I order almost everything on the happy hour menu, including six of the local oysters and six of the east coast, lamb ketftedes (meatballs), the kalamari (the Greek spelling, brought to you by the same people who want you to say “Hee-drah”) and a trio of lamb sliders.


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The wine comes out almost immediately in proper glassware from Puddifoot and pours that looks to be generous six ounces. My Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and fine (I’m wondering if it’s New Zealand’s Dog Point, but it doesn’t taste quite so tart or complex) and my wife’s rosé is very much not orange, but is in fact a very pretty pale pink. It’s quite nice with good acidity, but it doesn’t taste natty at all, so notwithstanding I’m now about to be someone who’s asked three questions about a $6 wine, I ask if I can see the bottle. Our server happily obliges and as she presents it, she confesses in the most charming way that she is still learning about wine. One look at the bottle confirms her confusion—the winery is L’Orangerie from the Languedoc—a mostly traditional French rosé that despite its name, is not orange wine. For an $18 bottle of wine, it is, however, a great deal at $6.

While we’re waiting for our food, I take the opportunity to peruse the wine list. On my infamous visit, I was a bit underwhelmed by what I saw were excessive markups, but the list has been completely reimagined in the best way possible. The margins have come way down: Cali bubbles from Domaine Chandon come in at $75 for a $30 retail bottle, French pink bubbles from Billecart Salmon are $250 for a $142 retail bottle, which shows that they’re not only starting at a reasonable place, but they thankfully drop the markup as you go further upscale—two huge pluses for a thrifty wine nerd.

And the list is long and very cool, with an entire section on just cult B.C. wine Pamplemousse Jus (also well priced at $75). They have two different white Chateauneuf du Papes (and one, the Clos De L’Oratoire is only $144 for $97 wine). I actually think it’s one of the more compelling lists in town, which is amazing from where it started four years ago.

If I weren’t so thrifty I’d dive in, but dammit, I’m here for happy hour, so my wife and I dive back into the $6 pool—I have the bubbles—which is the completely acceptable Jean Louis from France. It’s served in a coupe, which I normally hate, but in here it feels festive. My wife, hems and haws over the red, a Santa Rita cab from Chile, and our server, unprompted, dashes off and retrieves a taster—for a $6 glass of wine.

I’m so tickled that I barely care that our hot dishes come out before our oysters (it’s amazing how much slack one can offer when you’re getting a deal). Of them, the kalamari is the standout—large meaty chunks of Humboldt squid, lightly breaded. It’s not revelatory, but it’s well thought out and it’s generous in serving and in spirit. The lamb meatballs have that odd uniform dense consistency that comes when no human hands have been involved in their creation, but then again it could just as easily have been a huge handed chef who favours rigour. Once more, the flavours are solid with some welcome whipped ricotta on the side and the presentation is thoughtful on the plate. The solid bronze medallist is the sliders—which are fine and, unlike the meatballs, so handmade that the patties break apart very quickly, but they’re quite small and are the only dish where the $12 tariff seems appropriate.

And then the oysters arrive and suddenly…..

I’m just messing with you. They’re really excellent, presented classically on ice with a interesting, slightly sweet mignonette. No, they’re not Kushis and Malpeques (our server only broadly knew where both were from—Vancouver Island and PEI is as close as we got), but they were the same as 95% of the oysters I’ve ever ordered and they we’re better priced than 98% of the oysters I’ve ever ordered. The entire hour felt like you were up at the casino, playing blackjack with the casino’s money and just had a wonderful sense of lightness that pervades the whole shebang.

The entire tab? Under a $100 for 4 glasses of wine, 3 small plates and oysters. I’m not going to say it’s the best happy hour in town. Boulevard’s oysters are better, but they’re more expensive and they cap you at a dozen. Keefer Bar’s drinks are much better, Nightingale’s wine is way better, but I don’t know of a place that hits the nexus of quality and value as good as Hydra does right now. No kidding.

I’m so happy when I leave that I say to my wife, “I’m legitimately interested to come back here for a proper dinner”—but that’s for next month.

Hydra Estiatorio
475 Howe St.