The Next Course

In the restaurant game, those without the experience or talent to endure hard times wither and die in short order. Here are the rooms that adapted and blossomed in 2009

It’s a Thursday night at the bar of a busy, buzzy 113-seat room in Gastown, a room that honours its ancient brick-and-beam bones (and these shaky economic times) with a design amalgam coolly evocative of the Prohibition Era.

The crowd, a healthy mix of downtown suits and neighbourhood hipsters, spills onto Victorian armchairs and sofas in a long saloon bar that specializes in brown spirits. Antique radiators are cleverly reclaimed for a one-of-a-kind balustrade. The dining room is gussied up with white linen and wine glasses. Everything is lit by replicas of Thomas Edison’s first commercial lightbulb.

Hard to believe this charming space once housed Gastown’s short-lived Flux Bistro. Flux’s biggest problem? A terminal absence of customers, clearly not a challenge faced by its successor. Even before the recession hit, Flux suffered from zero concept, an invisible marketing plan, and an unfortunate name that can either mean “a state of uncertainty about what should be done” or “an excessive discharge of fluid from a body cavity or an organ.”

When it finally shuttered last winter, subject to a distress warrant for $42,086.64, it freed up a prime location off the high-trafficked corner of Cambie and Water streets, opposite the steam clock. The address was pounced upon by industry veterans Jay Jones and Chris Irving, who between them have worked behind the bar (Jones) and in the kitchen (Irving) in some of the city’s finest rooms.

Smartly, when it came time to install the restaurant’s stunning bartop, the partners made a day of it by inviting neighbourhood restaurant owners and staff to the construction site to ceremonially lower the massive fir beam into place. Once the bar was fastened and secure, Jones lined up shots of Maker’s Mark bourbon for the assembled, raised his own glass, and asked them all to participate in the christening of Pourhouse.

There was a palpable, almost euphoric sense of camaraderie in the room that day. The owners and managers of Boneta, Salt Tasting Room, Revel, Two Chefs and a Table, Cobre, Deacon’s Corner, and The Diamond weren’t just toasting the arrival of a new competitor. They were sizing up Pourhouse, keenly aware of how a successful replacement for Flux would benefit them all in the long run by upping the area’s reputation as a dining destination.

If Pourhouse is aesthetically emblematic of Gastown’s rapid gentrification, the food gets in on the uppity act too. This is chef Irving’s first walk as an independent after rising through the kitchens at Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn, Granville’s storied West, and London’s Michelin-starred Petrus. At Pourhouse he is tabling a simple menu that aims for refined, wintry Canadiana. Iconic dishes (with origins lost to Canuck lore) are done up “all fancy like”: rich white bean cassoulet is mixed with high-quality white sausage chubs to become nouveau pork-and-beans; neatly sliced baguettes layered evenly with ground local Pemberton beef and Sloping Hills pork are an upscale take on Sloppy Joes.

Pourhouse is typical of most of Vancouver’s new crop of restaurants: it’s affordable (most dishes are well under $20) and it opened strong. Irving and Jones kept everyone up to date on their own “opening soon” blogs, and Tweeted their location’s rise from gutted shell to fait accompli. Between the owners and staff, the restaurant’s online reach easily exceeds 10,000 people; one of the partners, Chuck McIntosh, has over 8,000 followers on Twitter.

“Social media can take credit for the word spreading,” says Jones. “Here, you look across the bar at people staring at handheld devices Twittering about positive experiences and then 20 more people show up. It’s like PR with a human quality to it, with customers vouching for you of their own volition.”

Despite such success stories, 2009 was a harsh year on Vancouver’s restaurant scene. And the recession wasn’t the only menace. After a winter that started with Scrooge-like Christmas returns and ended with an 8.3 percent drop in overnight tourism, news came that cruise ship visits worth an estimated $100 million were on their way out, too. (Over 70 round-trip Alaskan cruises, bringing in $2 million each, up and moved to Seattle.) Wary restaurateurs then entered summer with a backhanded smack courtesy of provincial government. Premier Gordon Campbell’s announcement of a harmonized sales tax—or HST, due to hit July 2010 and increase the current levy paid by customers on restaurant meals from five percent to 12—floored the industry.

“Last spring was just horrible, and then it was sort of rolling thunder through the summer,” admits John Bishop, whose eponymous West Fourth restaurant has weathered many storms in its 26-year run. “I don’t know anyone in our industry, fine dining or not, who hasn’t been impacted by this economy. There are all these other things coming at us, whether it’s the HST or new licensing proposals from City Hall.”

The licensing changes, which were cancelled after an immediate and uproarious reaction from the restaurant industry, would have forced restaurants to ensure alcohol sales did not exceed food sales. In other words, if a table of two ordered $50 worth of food each and then splurged on a $101 bottle of wine, the restaurant’s receipts would be off balance, cause for a fine or a suspension of its liquor licence.

Such added pressures were dispiriting. Despite all the bad news, however, many restaurants proved remarkably resilient. The especially limber ones adapted and navigated their way without losing their commitment to quality. Bishop’s, for example, hosted special (and affordable) winemaker’s dinners, farm-to-table dinners (with the farmers in attendance), and themed prix-fixe menus that whispered of bosomy comfort. While many restaurants scaled back on public relations, Bishop hired Nancy Wong, a PR pro with several hot clients in her portfolio, to increase the restaurant’s visibility. Suddenly, as many new rooms struggled to maintain an even keel, we remembered that Bishop’s was a place we could count on come hell or high water.

Naturally, in 2009 there were closures of note, but three in particular stand out for the wisdom that occasioned their ends. In the spring, Parkside partners Chris Stewart and chef Andrey Durbach closed their West End fine-dining charmer and transformed it into a facsimile of one of their other restaurants, the cheaper and more popular La Buca (“The Hole”) on MacDonald. “We watched the number of people spending $130 a head dwindle rapidly,” said Stewart, and so they closed, tweaked the décor, and reopened with a new name—L’Altro Buca (“The Other Hole”)—and a new concept. For under $20 you can feast on superbly done pastas prepped traditionally with high-quality ingredients.

Durbach is Durbach regardless of the brand, so his hedonistic touch translates at every price point. His luridly assembled Amatriciana, done in the Roman style with al dente garganelli noodles thick with house-cured pork cheek shards and sweetened to seduce with onion, and the traditional “hunter-style” chicken ragu over truffled potato gnocchi so hot and pillowy that they border on the obscene, are hallmark dishes.

Though the death of Parkside, with its romantic patio and velvet nooks, was a loss for the West End, the switch turned the business around. According to Stewart, sales went up 20 percent. “Fine dining,” he says, “is a bit of a scary proposition these days.”

Around the same time, Kitsilano’s gorgeously austere Gastropod was also feeling the economic pinch. Owner/chef Angus An surprised his peers by shutting down the restaurant in May to retool and refit as an authentic Thai restaurant, Maenam. Drawing on his wife Kate’s exacting Thai palate and his own training under chef David Thompson at London’s Nahm, the world’s only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant, he saw the move pay immediate dividends: sales have increased by 30 percent. “We are doing better now in five days than Gastopod used to do in seven.”

Much as Vikram Vij did for local Indian cuisine with his South Granville room, An has changed the prism through which Vancouverites view Thai food. With its smooth soundtrack, recipes adapted from the Thai royal house, and food-friendly cocktail and wine lists, Maenam is tricked out for a long haul.

At the end of November, Maenam’s neighbour, the award-winning Fuel Restaurant (home to this magazine’s Chef of the Year, Robert Belcham) also shuttered to go through a recessionary metamorphosis. Belcham and business partner Tom Doughty launched a cozy neighbourhood restaurant and bar at the same address. Gone are the linens, expensive stemware, and suits. The wine list has shrunk and the craft beer list has blossomed. The commitment to quality ingredients, however, remains. As for the menu? Burgers made with dry-aged beef ground in-house and cooked to order, buttermilk fried chicken with biscuits and gravy (first made famous as a special at Fuel), and price points that have plummeted. Quite aptly, they’ve named it Refuel.

Also thriving amidst the turmoil, predictably, was Sean Heather. Area elbow benders held their breath when, in late 2008, he moved his three interconnected Gastown rooms—the Irish Heather Gastropub, Salty Tongue Deli, and Shebeen Whiskey House—across Carrall Street to their new and significantly updated locations.

Many worried the wintry Old World charms wouldn’t translate to a new space. But with Heather’s drafting of highly skilled chef Lee Humphries (freshly decamped from the manqué FigMint in the Plaza 500 hotel) and a keen understanding of his customer base, he has ensured their commingling addresses  remain the centre of the neighbourhood.

The value on offer at the Irish Heather is as comforting as the food. The gastro­pub’s popular Long Table Series seats dozens at a massive communal table, five nights a week. These are set-price, family-style meals that cost as much as a salad in most fine-dining restaurants, and they come with a drink, too. Customer loyalty here is earned the hard way, with heaping portions of traditional Irish stew and soda bread paired with 20-ounce pints of Guinness, all for $15. The series consistently books solid a month in advance, evidence that it’s still an exciting time for Gastown.

But Sean Heather is not one for resting. Just last month, he launched a gourmet hot dog stand called Fetch in the foyer of the BC Electric Building at Carrall and Hastings. Now he and his business partner in the Salt Tasting Room venture, Scott Hawthorn, are set to open Judas Goat, a tiny Spanish-inspired tapas bar next door to Salt in Blood Alley.

Also in the future: Everything Cafe on East Pender, a quality coffee and sandwich shop designed to serve Bob Rennie’s new art museum in the Wing Sang Building. Which brings us to Chinatown, often cited as the next Gastown as the lofts and hip joints cometh. The promise of the neighbourhood is seducing not just Heather. Thirty-three-year-old former Chambar bar staffer Tannis Ling has just opened Bao Bei, a sexy, hipster Shanghainese cocktail bar serving hot, soupy dumplings and other Asian small plates, on Keefer Street.

Just a few doors down from Bao Bei is the liquor-primary, Battersby Howat-designed Keefer Bar, a modern, Asian-inspired hangout run by ex-db bistro bar manager Danielle Tatarin. Activity like this reminds Heather of how he landed in Gastown in 1997, not quite 30 years old. “It was the only place I could afford.”

Though cruel, the hard times of 2009 have made the good restaurateurs more nimble and the promising upstarts whipsmart and quick. Fortunately, with the Olympics on the immediate horizon and the end of the recession in sight, the pressures have begun to ease. John Bishop started noticing an uptick in the fall. “October was a very busy month for us. People started coming back into the fold. And of course with the 2010 Olympics, who knows?”

Bishop has seen it all before. He was in the thick of the recession that scarred Vancouver in the early 1980s, right before he opened Bishop’s. “I was working for Umberto at Il Giardino, which was, at that time, the top restaurant in the city.” The restaurant “didn’t do any business on Tuesday or Wednesday, and just a little bit on Thursday and Friday. Saturday was our one big night, and this time around it’s been pretty similar.” It took Expo 86 to ignite a comeback then—many hope the 2010 Games will do exactly the same.

As for what he tells younger restaurateurs, Bishop tempers optimism with the realism born of experience. “You just have to stick to your knitting and do the best that you can for your clientele,” he says. “We need to be valuing our customers more than ever. Those who aren’t— well, they’d better watch out.”