Review: Papi’s Oyster Bar Tries to Resurrect a West End corner

Can mollusks save Davie and Denman?

When Captain George Vancouver first sailed into English Bay in 1792, he made two notes in the ship’s log while gazing upon what is now the city’s West End. It is a place of raw natural beauty…and parking is going to be a mother. I was thinking of Captain George as I buzzed the intersection of Davie and Denman looking for a spot before heading into Papi’s Oyster Bar. It’s a complaint every non-West Ender has about the area and as a result it’s long been a place where the restaurants were of two sorts: large chains like Cactus Club that prosper because of the tourists and small neighbourhood gems like Tavola that are revered neighbourhood boîtes.

The last restaurant to break out of this two-way mould was this establishment’s geographic predecessor, the Raincity Grill, which was so ahead of its era in terms of locavorism in 1992 that one suspects proprietor Harry Kambolis might have possessed a time machine. But even flux capacitors break down, and by 2014 Kambolis was forced to sell both Raincity and his acclaimed C Restaurant to Viaggio Hospitality Group, which turned the latter into Ancora and set about trying to recapture some magic at Davie and Denman with the former.

They first tried a concept called Beach Bay Café, perhaps the most forgettably named eatery in the city, and despite a light, airy space and some solid talent, like chef Felix Zhou (Heritage Asian Eatery), it never caught on with locals or visitors. Earlier this year they went back to the drawing board and came back with Papi’s, with the stated goal of bringing some casual into the menu and space. My initial visit, however, found a place that was casual in name only, with a punitively priced wine list that didn’t scream fun or relaxed.

But retooling has been afoot—that list has been thoroughly revamped, and there’s new talent in the kitchen with chef Jefferson Alvarez (Cacao, Fraîche) bringing some swagger to the menu. Which is how I find myself looking for that elusive parking. But lo and behold, there’s a spot right in front. Things are already looking up.

It’s a Thursday at 7:45 p.m., and while the restaurant isn’t exactly hopping, it’s such a comfortable room that we happily slide into a two-person booth with that iconic view of the bay. We quickly tuck into a platter of reasonably priced West Coast oysters ($2.25 for Chef’s Creek), and all is as it should be. Our daughter’s at soccer practice and we’re short on time, so we stick to three starters. The fried oysters ($15) look amazing: the batter is infused with charcoal, so they materialize as a dramatic black puff studded with bright, fresh green jalapeno. Yet I don’t love them—they suffer from the plight of every fried oyster I’ve ever had; terminal mushiness on the bottom—but they’re better than most, which is all I can give them.

The burrata and funghi salad ($18) is likewise a bit of a miss. The “wild” mushrooms look more grocery-store button variety than morels, and when served warm don’t work at all with the less-than-generous amount of cold Puglian cheese spread overtop, which ends up a loose, oozing mass. But the third choice is a charm. The octopus and popcorn ($17) is a smoky line of thick, plump, perfectly cooked hunks of cephalopod, with a piquant paprika bite and a lovely char from the plancha grill. I spy Alvarez in the open kitchen and chalk up this winner of a dish to his presence. And our server, Jeanine, couldn’t be better, with her perfect balance of attentiveness and warmth. When I tentatively mention that the Black Cloud pinot I’ve ordered tastes like it’s been open perhaps a bit too long, it’s quickly whisked away and a fresh selection brought back in its place. We walk out to our amazing parking spot with a positive feeling—not all the dishes were hits, but on a balance the pros beat the cons.

We return the next night, this time daughter in tow, and damned if I don’t find another perfect parking spot. And things only get better. Jeanine is here again, and she not only remembers my wife Amanda’s drink order, but she also asks my daughter about her soccer practice. We order the starters we missed the previous night and each one is a winner: the fish tacos ($18), ample, fresh with flawlessly fried cod; the calamarata ($16), rice flour-battered squid, a light, ethereal take on what can often be a tired dish; and the tuna ceviche ($18), full Alvarez, with a citrus marinade counterbalanced by a coconut foam on a bed of large tuna chunks dotted with pickled red onion. We’re still riding high as the main courses arrive: the organic burger ($18) is cooked to a firm well done that doesn’t advance or detract, and the fish ’n’ chips ($18) is an insanely large portion–easily shareable by two—with a simple preparation perfectly executed. It’s the exact sort of dish a place like Papi’s needs to nail. We’re flying high now—and then Amanda orders a glass of lambrusco.

We’re just tucking into our mains as the sparkling red arrives, and I can tell by her nose lingering in the bowl that something’s amiss. “Smell this,” she says, and as I take a whiff, I pick up the subtle but unmistakable notes of wet cardboard that tells me there’s some cork taint. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s dominating the notes of fresh red berries that one expects. I tell her I think she should send it back, but she’s reticent given that I did the same the night before, and we almost never send wine back. But ultimately, when Jeanine returns she makes the call.

The restaurant is nearly empty, so I can clearly see the small conference that ensues—the GM, a playful Italian who we’d met the night before, pours a new glass, sniffs and swirls, then returns to the table smiling with an oversized Reidel stem in his hand. “Try this,” he says. Amanda sniffs the larger glass, sips and concedes it tastes a hair different but holds that it still smells off, though she assures him she’s no wine expert. He tells her to smell the original glass again, and her eyes dart to me. “I don’t know what to say,” she stammers. “It really doesn’t smell—or taste—great in either glass.” He then pours the original glass into a different Reidel glass and asks that she repeat the sniff test, and again she passes it to me. “Am I crazy?” she says to me. To me they all smell varying degrees of off. Another glass of a different size is poured and the exercise repeated. We’re now 15 minutes into this, and I’m just wanting it to end. “Maybe we just don’t love this producer’s style?” I offer. That’s when he drops what I assume he thinks is the Big Reveal: “They’re all the same bottle!” he exclaims. It’s delivered in a playful mood, and while there’s no apparent animosity, it’s odd all the same.

I believe he thinks he’s having delightful fun with an exercise on how a glass can change the nose of a wine, but why show that the wine would have been better served in a glass different from the one you actually served it in? Or maybe he’s telling us in a jovial manner that we don’t know what we’re talking about. By now, we’ve long finished our second course when he returns with a taster of sweet moscato—is it a conciliatory gesture or a suggestion that Amanda should stick to sweet, simple wines if she doesn’t know what lambrusco tastes like? I’m baffled and Amanda, confused, apologizes again for making a fuss. Yet he returns again and this time, he’s finally bearing a new bottle of said lambrusco. Amanda pleads with him not to open it—or waste—a bottle now that we’ve finished eating, but he opens and pours it.

She accepts the glass and immediately smiles with relief. It smells and tastes nothing like the first bottle—it’s fresh and berry-forward—and so she excitedly tells him to smell the two side by side. He does and simply shrugs and smiles. I’m still trying to process whether this was all a misinterpreted act of good-natured fun or something more pointed when the manager asks my wife what wine she ordered with our starters. She tells him the Cuma rosé, and he quickly fetches it and pours yet another tasting glass and asks her to smell it beside the lambrusco. She does and offers that it perhaps smells less fresh beside the lambrusco, which is when he drops his final animated kicker; “It’s not good to drink lambrusco after rosé.” We go along good naturedly, pay our bill—you can bet the lambrusco’s on there—and as we’re walking out he whispers to her, “I’m sorry for the wine.” 

As I wander back to the car, I’m too distracted to even revel in the greatness of my parking spot. I had come to Papi’s skeptical of its ability to turn itself around and had been largely won over. I still feel like the room is great, prices much more competitive and there are some real stars on the menu… but I fear that if you mention the word “Papi’s” to me, none of those things will be front and centre in my mind, which seems a shame.