City Informer: Why Are Rooftop Bars So Rare in Vancouver?

All we want is to drink a lukewarm beer with our heads in the clouds—is that so much to ask?!

Millennia ago, our ancestors worked ceaselessly under the beating sun, dreaming of the day they would one day invent the roof. How could they ever have predicted that the height of modern luxury would be drinking outdoors? 

And yet what activity is more desirable, more aspirational, more centre-of-the-seasonal-vision-board for a Vancouverite than sipping a watery margarita while getting a glorious third-degree sunburn?

Vancouverites come from all walks of life, but at the end of a grey, grey spring, we are all one thing: very soggy. We crave the sun, and will bask in its middling rays wherever they may land—whether that’s curbside on a six-lane thoroughfare or in the muddy thicket of a dog park. But this city is missing what sun-seekers crave most: rooftop patios.

While I’m sure servers here are happy that they don’t have to sweat their way up 15 flights of stairs every time I decide I want hot sauce with my happy-hour tater tots (hello, yes, I am 35), it seems borderline cruel that we must do our outdoor drinking and nacho-bill splitting with our feet firmly on the ground. Ugh! Do you know what happens on the ground!? All the worst stuff! It’s disgusting down here! But to enjoy a beverage in the sky? To be five storeys closer to the sun’s glorious rays? There is no greater summer treat. 

Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler

The rooftop patio is a staple of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities: London! Bangkok! Calgary! And yet Vancouver’s rooftop watering holes can be counted on one hand and are often located a pitiful two storeys up. A tall, mean man could probably reach up and tie someone’s shoelaces together on the Darby’s patio if he had just finished watching Jackass Forever and was feeling a little prank-y. Legally speaking, I don’t think it’s a rooftop bar if you aren’t getting a side of vertigo with your frosé. 

What’s most frustrating is that nothing else is even happening on those rooftops. What a waste. They’re just keeping the rain off of penthouse apartments and providing a potential location for a dramatic fight scene in whatever D-list Marvel Cinematic Universe series is being filmed here next (Roof Boy: Origins). I could be using those roofs for a good cause! It takes all summer for me to get enough freckles to blend into a tan, and every moment not spent drinking on a rooftop is setting me back. 

The reason we are lacking in sky-high thrills is truly boring—very “ground level” vibes, if you will. Basically, a restaurant or bar can only licence a patio that is physically connected to their location (with the exception of the parking-lane patios that popped up during COVID). And in Vancouver, it’s rare that an establishment owns a full building, or is on an upper floor with rooftop access. Other cities have patio zoning that is more lax, or have bars located on upper storeys of buildings that are connected to the roof. 

But pick yourself up off that disgusting ground, because we’ve got an opportunity here! We just need to band together and buy a craft-beer keg and the tallest building we can find. Then, we can finally get high (above the city). Sure, a real estate investment in a skyscraper may cost a titch more than you were planning on spending on that first-date bucket of Sleeman’s Honey Browns, but climb with me, up 42 flights of stairs, toward the light—dizzy and panting and aware that you forgot your sunglasses in the car—and remember that the sky can be the limit, if we just believe. 

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This story was originally published in the May/June 2023 print issue of Vancouver magazine—find the digital issue here.