Montreal and Toronto have long been duking it out for the title of the country’s must-visit food destination. But another city has been hiding in the wings, quietly eating and drinking better than all of us, while not even caring about whether the rest of Canada has been paying attention. Yes, we’re talking about Vancouver.
It’s not a big surprise. South of the border, Portland, Oregon, is winning the food-scene wars, and some Vancouverites consider Portland their backyard. British Columbia has some of the country’s best agricultural land (not to mention the longest growing climate), and they were some of the first folks eating local and organic.
Still not convinced? Here are a few exhibits in favour:
Exhibit A: the booze
Vancouver is practically drowning in awesome microbreweries. No, really: There are so many now that the sewage system is having trouble dealing with the waste. The distillery scene is exploding, too, with a new local gin announced every other week – okay, so maybe not that often, but it certainly seems that way. Some of Canada’s best cocktail bitters, Bittered Sling, are made by a local bartender, from a base of 100 per cent BC fruit spirits from distillery Okanagan Spirits.
- Vancouver Craft Beer Week runs annually in late May/early June, with events including tastings, parties, a trivia contest and a beer and sandwich pairing.
- In April 2015, craft spirits festival BC Distilled welcomed a whopping 29 participants to its events. Watch for even more in 2016.
- Vancouver Brewery Tours take visitors on an exploration of some of their favourite beer-making locations, or you can DIY – one favourite trio in the city’s trendy Mount Pleasant neighbourhood is Brassneck, 33 Acres and Main Street, all within an easy walk of each other.
- Stop in for tastings or cocktails at Granville Island’s The Liberty Distillery and nearby Long Table Distillery.
Exhibit B: the seafood
Not only is Vancouver near the ocean, it’s the birthplace of Ocean Wise, a sustainable seafood program that’s now in its 10th year. Look for the Ocean Wise logo on menus around the city and across Canada, designating seafood options that you can feel good about eating.
- Edible Canada on Granville Island features Ocean Wise ingredients on its café menus – think plank-roasted salmon with birch syrup, or mussels with kale, chorizo, white wine and duck-fat frites – as well as sustainable picks, such as tinned sockeye salmon and Canadian caviar in its grocery shop.
- Other popular seafood-focused restaurants that support Ocean Wise include Blue Water Cafe, Yew Seafood + Bar and Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar.
Exhibit C: the food trucks
While Toronto can’t get it together to launch a decent food-truck program, Vancouver has a scene that puts others to shame. Vancouver magazine even has a “food cart” category that, this year, crowned Tacofino (the Tofino-based taco truck that’s now a restaurant, too), Vij’s Railway Express and egg-focused Yolk’s as top of the pack.
- Starting June 28, Food Cart Fest will welcome more than 20 favourite food trucks to a prime spot in the Olympic Village for summer Sunday eats. Of course, there will also be live music, vendors and activities.
- Browse online or download the Street Food app to see who’s open and where they’re parked.
Exhibit D: the country’s biggest food festival
Eat! takes place every spring and is Canada’s biggest food and cooking festival, with chefs visiting from across the country to participate in dinners, workshops and other events. This year saw record attendance, with collaborative dinners and workshops 98 per cent sold out, and some $20,000 raised for charity partners.
- Eat! returns in 2016; follow @eat_vancouver for updates.
- In the meantime, check out some of the city’s other celebrations of food: the Spot Prawn Festival in May, the UBC Apple Festival in October, Dine Out Vancouver in January 2016 and the Vancouver International Wine Festival in February 2016.
Exhibit E: the world domination
Vancouver-based restaurant chains have been quietly expanding, taking over the Canadian scene. For instance, Japanese pub Guu Izakaya has two locations in Toronto, and coffee shop Caffè Artigiano is now in both Calgary and Toronto. Food truck Japadog has even expanded stateside, with locations in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California. And BC owns the upscale casual niche: Just look at Earls (across western Canada, Ontario and the US), Cactus Club (expanding into Alberta and Saskatchewan), Joey (Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Washington State) and Milestone’s (Alberta, Ontario, Newfoundland).
• The Earls Test Kitchen on Hornby, right in the heart of downtown Vancouver, opened last summer and is where a team of well-known chefs creates and tests new dishes.