Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vancouver's eastern frontier

Once sketchy areas now dining, drinking destinations

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During my first visit to Vancouver, in 1995, my mom and I inadvertently wandered from Robson Street down to Gastown and Chinatown. We immediately felt uneasy, a lone pair on the deserted, foggy streets, and beat it back to the bustle of the west end and its duelling kitty-corner Starbucks.

Fast-forward to the present and my, how these two neighbourhoods east of downtown have transformed. They're getting the kind of attention granted to Yaletown a decade ago, with hip new restaurants scooping up awards and winning over a dedicated following.

So, on two recent trips to Vancouver, I skipped over my usual South Granville scene and headed "down east" to refuel.

Gastown

"Fab shopping, great food, amazing cocktails," is how a good friend, who lives just up Main Street in Mount Pleasant, describes Gastown. I can't vouch for its clothing or home furnishings selection, but the drinks and dinner I sampled at two different restaurants were fantastic. Even on a Thursday night, Gastown's brick streets received heavy foot traffic from the after-work crowd.

We started at The Diamond, a resto-lounge located upstairs in one of the few heritage buildings that survived the devastating fire of 1886. Good thing, too -- it operated as the city's main brothel and lounge at the time. Now, its huge windows offer what may be the best view of Gastown's iconic Maple Tree Square.

I ordered a Hotel Nacional, a tart and refreshing rum cocktail with apricot liqueur, pineapple juice and lime juice. My friend and I shared the devilled eggs and perfectly steamed gyoza, and I followed that up with a classic sidecar. The Diamond's cocktail program speaks to both classic and contemporary drinks, mixed properly.

"The character that you feel in there is its history as a cocktail parlour," says Mark Brand, who owns seven dining establishments on Vancouver's east side, including The Diamond, which opened in 2009.

Brand first got involved in Gastown in late 2006 when he opened Boneta.

"People thought we were crazy opening in the area. For the most part, it was a completely desolate area and an empty street," says Brand, who recalls shooing vagrants out of the doorway when the restaurant first opened. In retrospect, "we were part of a movement that was revitalizing Gastown."

The movement continues with the likes of Bitter Tasting Room, Two Chefs and a Table and L'Abattoir, which opened in 2010 and was named enRoute's No. 3 best new restaurant in Canada last year.

We migrated to L'Abattoir for dinner and more drinks, including a sexy and very boozy Donald Draper followed by Tommy's margarita, both made by mixologist Shaun Layton, who was voted bartender of the year in 2011 by Vancouver Magazine. Though the drinks and my steak Diane were delicious, what I loved most was the ambience: diners packed in, elbow to elbow, seated in mod chairs and surrounded by brick walls with gas-lamp pendant lights hanging down.

Chinatown

Chinatown is located a mere three blocks from Gastown and is in the midst of a similar gentrification. On a different trip to Vancouver, my same friend and her husband took me and my hubby to Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie -- yet another enRoute pick, at No. 2, back in 2010 -- on the corner of Keefer Street and Main.

We were but two blocks from the notorious Hastings Street and Main intersection, yet inside the buzzing, warm and casual bistro, dining on delicate and delicious octopus salad, mantou (steamed buns with pork belly) and sticky rice cake, the atmosphere was all style and sustenance.

"Over the last five to six years, there has been an influx of businesses," says Danielle Tatarin, manager at The Keefer Bar, where we retired for drinks after Bao Bei. She says lower rents on the east side initially drew restaurateurs to the area. Housing development followed, bringing in a base of permanent residents and further revitalizing the neighbourhood.

Throw in Chinatown's history and "it's added to people embracing the area," says Tatarin.

I noticed many of the cocktails include bitters and tinctures (herbs steeped in high-proof alcohol).

"The cocktail program is based on an old-school apothecary," explains Tatarin. Apothecaries were basically pre-Pharma pharmacies that mixed healing herbs with alcohol to make them more powerful.

"We're using herbs (in our tinctures) that are traditionally used in Chinese medicine," she says.

Keefer staff even shop at local Chinese markets for the ingredients.

Whatever their secret, it's working. The bar was packed on a Wednesday night, and Owen Wilson is rumoured to frequent The Keefer when he's in town.

There wasn't time to stop in at Campagnolo Restaurant or Electric Owl Social Club, but now I have two more reasons to hit Vancouver's east side -- foggy streets or no -- the next time I'm in town.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 D4

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