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3995 Main St., 604-566-0991. Theacornrestaurant.ca
The best vegetarian restaurants are ones where the food surprises you—and the chefs here are mad tofu-loving scientists who eschew the idea that meatless food should riff off carnivore staples. There are no veggie burgers on the menu, but rather beautifully plated towers of eggplant and tallegio on a bed of braised chickpeas and roasted garlic ($18), and deliciously greasy beer-battered Middle Eastern cheese on a crispy zucchini pancake with freshly smashed spring peas ($19). The drink menu is short but sweet: try a tall, cool Mirror Lake (a minty, bourbon-soaked twist on a Dark and Stormy, $8). The room—a warm blur of trendy minimalist wood and white—is lively and buzzing, even late on a Tuesday, so come prepared for a wait (no reservations taken).
1944 W. Fourth Ave., 604-732-1322. Fablekitchen.ca
Kitsilano’s Fourth Avenue, with its high rents and thrifty residents, is a tough go for a restaurateur, but Top Chef notables Trevor Bird and Curtis Luk seem unbowed in taking the reins of the former Fuel (and Refuel) space. So far they’ve been able to pack ’em in with a concise menu that keeps it real on the price point: gnocchi gussied up with pea shoots and macerated cherries is a reasonable $16, and while some entrées skirt the $30 mark, the place never feels pricey, just casual, jocular, and relaxed. The wine list is good because it favours interesting bottles and keeps the markup fair.
350 Davie St., 604-642-0557. Lapentola.ca
From the underrated Elixir to Peter Girges’s pop-up concepts (100 Nights, then Cento Notti), the Opus Hotel has long struggled with its dining program. La Pentola, which opened in September, puts an end to the gimmickry. A comfortably welcoming room, it relies not on glamour or shtick but on the sort of simple, well-priced, perfectly executed Northern Italian dishes that make Adam Pegg and Lucais Syme’s original location, La Quercia, so popular. Antipasti include parmesan soufflé with zucchini salad, and roast bone marrow with salsa verde and crostini. Pasta iterations (porchetta ravioli with sage; francobolli with guanciale) are understated and spot-on al dente; sides (rapini with chilli and garlic; green beans with pancetta) are brilliantly simple. The wine list is brief, carefully chosen, and reasonable (2009 Nichol Syrah for $50).
26 Powell St., Gastown, 604-568-1350. Thesardinecan.ca
Blink and you might miss this skinny little room (eight seats at the bar, four tables) looking onto Maple Tree Square, which would be a pity, because here’s where you’ll find the most authentic Spanish tapas experience in the city. Watch the chef (if you’re lucky it’s owner Andrey Durbach) prep dishes in a tiny workstation behind the bar (a couple of hot plates, a small countertop oven), and deliver them in the tiny pots they were cooked in. Everything is fresh and flavourful, but be sure to order smoked sardines on toast ($5), chorizo sausage cooked in sherry ($10), patatas bravas ($5) with garlic aioli and tomato, and smoked ham with melon ($10)—a lesson in just how good simple, traditional dishes can be. Drink list is all Spanish beer, wine, sherry, and brandy; dessert is a choice of two but go for the brick of chocolate terrine dusted with sea salt and chili, sprinkled with floral olive oil, and served with grilled baguette—a “dessert for non-dessert people,” that you’ll be dreaming about for days.
120 W. Hastings St., Gastown, 604-687-6880. Wildebeest.ca
The tall, dark, and handsome space has the requisite salvaged-heritage touches (reclaimed wood, vintage tiles) that befit a Gastown resto (the light fixtures make clever use of curtain pulleys rescued from the Pantages Theatre). The menu is “meat-centric, off-cut farmhouse fare,” which translates to small plates of puffed-up pork cracking dusted with spicy salt (we could’ve eaten a feedbag-ful) and large meaty plates like 48-hour-cooked Angus beef short rib with hay-infused jus. Our favourite dish, though, is a salad of heirloom radishes, whole and thinly sliced, nestled in crunchy bits of whey, and topped with fresh yogurt and a beet sorbet. This is seasonal peasant food lifted and lightened by infusions, emulsions, and jus that show chef David Gunawan’s fine-dining background and nuanced palate. Excellent cocktail program under Josh Pape.