My Top Restaurants

 

January 24, 2020

On February 7th the Dinner Devils will be 2 years old and that anniversary coincides with a personal goal I’ve been working on for the last 2.5 years. I will have visited 250 unique restaurants around Vancouver, many of which I’ve been to multiple times.

Understandably I frequently get asked what my favourites are. Up until now I have been fairly reluctant to write any food-related articles because my opinion is just one of many. And there are a lot of people espousing their opinions on this topic already.

However, after reading the lists that come out annually with the supposed best restaurants in Vancouver, I am frequently left disappointed. There are the obvious ones that make all the lists and some of them deserve to be there. But then there are the ones that would never appear on my list because their reputation far exceeds the actual experience you get. They are popular because a certain crowd frequents them, but I would hazard a guess these people wouldn’t know “good” if it slapped them in the face. And so this brings me to my list. And if you’re interested you can read this post on my judging criteria.

These are my top 25 restaurants. Some of them are Vancouver favourites, some are newer to the food scene and some you might not have heard of before. But that’s kind of the point, these are the restaurants that deliver on the experience, but that might not have a marketing budget. These are the restaurants that deserve praise. These are the restaurants that need to survive as they are adding something to the local food scene.

The list is in alphabetical order with no numeric ranking

This unassuming restaurant on Commercial Dr is a lovely French-inspired eatery that is not well known. It’s run by a husband-wife team who do a fantastic job of making you feel welcome. They have found that fantastic combination of talent and passion which shines through in the small details. This is what makes the difference between a good experience and a fantastic one.

Cory is Canadian-born and did his culinary training in France, offering a creative take on French cuisine. Juliana is Columbian and her genuine warmth and hospitality is unrivaled in Vancouver. On my second visit she referenced our conversation from three months earlier. Where else can you get taste, service, value and the feeling that you are appreciated? It’s a wonderful feeling when you walk out of a restaurant at the end of the evening realizing that all your expectations had been exceeded.

When I first walked into AnnaLena I was nervous. It looked like I had wandered into the centre of a hipster lair and I immediately felt like I wasn’t sporting enough facial hair to warrant a seat. But my apprehension was quickly replaced with a sense of calm and confidence. The staff know their shit and were able to talk me through the menu in a way that made my mouth water. On my first visit we ordered a la carte and shared a dozen items, but the next three visits were all about the tasting menu.

They do Pacific Northwest cuisine with a creative flair that borders on pretension, but falls ever so slightly on the safe side. The food is just divine. While consistency is a hard goal to achieve, they have managed to hit it every single time. But the other side of that coin is the one complaint I have which bumped AnnaLena from being my favourite restaurant. They don’t really innovate anymore. The tasting menu was 95% the same over three visits that spanned 1.5 years. On the other hand, they have a good thing going and they consistently deliver. So on all future visits, I think a la carte is the way I will go.

Breakfast Table is a cheerful little eatery in South Granville that is only open for breakfast and lunch. But their name says it all, you go there to get your fill of eggs and other breakfast-related items. As a true brunch aficionado, I am thrilled Breakfast Table is in my neighbourhood as they have created brunch items I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Touted as Asian-fusion, I would actually say it’s just damn creative. Apart from all the typical bennies, they also offer their own homemade coffee-crusted pork belly benedict and a braised short rib benedict. They have a chicken karaage hash, fried chicken omelette and a number of sweet options including zucchini cheddar sourdough waffle. Now in their fourth year, they are one of the tastiest brunch spots in town.

This is one of those new restaurants that just opened and was immediately revered by locals and critics alike. I was quite eager to give it a try since the Vancouver food scene is fairly sparse on good Spanish tapas, with a few exceptions. I immediately loved Como and have returned a number of times. While it may not be as authentic as what you’d get in Spain, it’s the best Spanish-influenced tapas you will find in Vancouver.

The menu is diverse and always being innovated, meaning some of the wonderful dishes I tried on my first visit were no longer being offered on my second. But I then discovered new wonders which I committed to memory for my next visit. The room is crowded and bright, with a buzz as you sit should-to-shoulder with other patrons, but in a way that’s not impeding your enjoyment. It seems the place just lifts your spirits and you’re happy to stand at the bar as they eke out a place for you to sit.

Latin food, and specifically Peruvian, is all the rage right now. To be honest, if it weren’t I am not sure I would know much about it. I have since discovered my love for this cuisine and I’ve been trying as many Latin restaurants as I can. And through this tasty experiment I have discovered that none do it as well as Cuchillo. They set the bar high!

Cuchillo ofers a great selection of inspired, creative dishes that include a number of ceviches, half a dozen tasty tacos (like angus skirt steak with blueberry habanero jam) and some exquisite tapas like roasted sablefish. All meant for sharing and not a dud on the menu! For $35 each they will feed a small group with 6-7 items that will allow you to sample all the sections of their menu. But equally as impressive is their bar. They serve THE best margaritas in Vancouver. Period. In fact they are responsible for my new found love of margaritas, but none are as worthy as theirs.

East is East is a unique combination of East meets West. The owners are Afghani and lived in India before moving to Vancouver and creating their unique concept for a restaurant. This is another example of fusion done well as the balance falls more on the East than the West.

The room is stunning with lots of wood and fabrics, local art and live ambient music most evenings of the week. While the mood is set with the surroundings which creates a relaxing tone, the food is centre-stage. Their signature menu item is the Chai Feast tasting menu. You select a salad and soup after which you can eat your fill from a menu of 13 main and side dishes. Each dish from the tasting menu is served in small portions, allowing you to try multiple all for a set price of $45 per person.

El Camino is a casual Latin American eatery offering delicious street food. The concept and décor is simple; a bar vibe with a great patio right on Main street. I’ve only recently discovered it, but I can see it would be a great place to hang out in the summer when they can open it up to blur the lines between inside and outside. Sitting in the light breeze on a sunny day enjoying tacos and some of the best margaritas in Vancouver.

Their tacos are simple and delicious, priced between $13-$16 for two and if you plan your visit based on their great daily specials, you can eat your fill for a shockingly small amount of money. They’ve got an inspired cocktail list including a jalapeno and super habanero margarita for the hardcore spice enthusiasts. This is a perfect place to hang out with friends or for a fun first date. I’ve done both.

España is a cozy little tapas restaurant on Denman street, known by the locals and a bit of a destination for those of us who believe good food is worth traveling for. Warm, inviting and cozy describes the ambiance of this local haunt. Another great option for a first date if you are looking to make an impression.

With an inspiring list of tapas and daily specials, there is no shortage of shareable dishes that span from small plates right up to main entrees such as their daily paella. In addition, they have an impressive charcuterie with a number of imported Spanish hams as well as a decent cheese list. This is the type of restaurant you camp out at for an evening, noshing on half a dozen items while sitting at one of their small tables, or perched at the bar. It has the kind of feel that makes you never want to leave… and maybe that’s the point.

Conveniently located just a short walk up Lonsdale from the Quay, this restaurant is bright and airy with textured wooden tables along with quaint fishing-village decor. It’s got a warm and inviting atmosphere that makes you feel comfortable and at ease.

As the name would indicate, their menu is seafood-oriented with an abundant range of Ocean Wise options from fresh oysters to halibut poutine to seafood paella. That said, their beef tenderloin with truffle emulsion is one of the better steaks I’ve had. And their daily specials are frequently no-brainers like the Alaskan sablefish with a tarragon beurre blanc sauce that I had on my first visit. That was worth crossing the ocean for (OK, Burrard Inlet but you get my point).

Grub is a tiny restaurant on Main that that’s so narrow, you could easily miss it if you walked past and sneezed. But it’s worth knowing exactly where it is so you can experience what their loyal followers know and keep coming back for. And I am one of them.

Their menu is inspired; offering timeless dishes with modern ingredients that bring out the natural flavours of the food. It’s the kind of menu where you struggle to pick just one thing as every dish looks amazing. And to help beat your willpower, for an additional $15 you can turn any entrée into a three course meal! On top of value and flavour, the room is quaint with funky wallpaper that is both original and eye catching. Grub really stands alone as a one-of-a-kind gem in a large culinary landscape.

Homer Street Café feels like it’s been around forever, but shockingly it’s only in its 7th year. It already feels like a Vancouver landmark. Everything about this restaurant is appealing. The rooms are beautiful. Housed in two historic buildings, each of the two dining rooms has a different ambience to it. One feels more elegant while the other looks like a French brasserie with a black and white floor.

Then there’s the food. They are know for their rotisseries, specifically chicken, but they also feature other meats daily. And like all good establishments, they have a family style offering for $49 per person which I have yet to try, but is definitely in my future. They nail brunch as well, with some creative savoury dishes that push past the traditional items you can find everywhere in the city. The service is proficient and friendly, the room is comfy and the food is scrumptious. No wonder I keep thinking it’s a local classic.

Hydra Estiatorio

Hydra is a new restaurant that opened in 2019 offering Greek-inspired Mediterranean cuisine. Having been to Greece a few times, it’s long been a frustration of mine that there isn’t much in the way of good Greek food in Vancouver. Hydra is changing this! They are avoiding all the cliché taverna-type dishes and trying something more upscale. And it’s working brilliantly!

While their flatbreads with spreads, salads and meze are spectacular, their real show stoppers are their family style platters. They include whole grilled fish, forno roasted chickens marinated with herbs & lemon and forno roasted legs of lamb marinated with oregano and lemon. The platters are presented to the table, then taken away to be cut up into servable portions. With the fish, they expertly debone, plate, and dress them tableside, putting on a show-worthy performance. This is the type of attention to detail that makes Hydra stand apart. Not to mention the room is gorgeous, the staff are expertly trained and you leave with a full belly. This is what it’s all about.

It’s rare for me to rave about a hotel restaurant as I find they are usually overpriced for what they’re offering. But La Pentola (along with Hydra) buck that trend. This little Italian gem in the lobby of the Opus Hotel in Yaletown does a perfect job of not feeling like it’s a restaurant in the lobby of a hotel. It’s classic in its presentation, almost feeling more like it’s been designed to look French. But the food is all Italian!

They have a great a la carte menu with daily specials to tantalize the most sophisticated taste buds. In addition they do offer a alla famiglia option which is a great way to sample many aspects of their menu. The service is professional and refined, a bit more formal than the other Italian restaurants on this list. And the food is a tad more on the fancy side, making La Pentola more of an elegant choice. But on all fronts they deliver and for a Yaletown restaurant, that is a feat unto itself. (To really understand my Yaletown bias, wait until you get to West Oak at the end of this list!)

Nightingale is one of David Hawksworth’s restaurants and it’s well known as a hotspot for business executives trying to woo clients. It’s also one of those places where the people who want to see and be seen go, when they take a break from frequenting Yaletown. And despite all of that, they really deliver on the food which is why it’s also a place foodies frequent. It’s rare to see those three groups of people all at the same place, but that’s Nightingale.

They have a ridiculously varied and interesting menu of sharable items, and as they are situated on two levels with 160 seats, it’s amazing they can pump such delicious food out of their kitchen in a timely fashion. That’s probably also why they don’t allow any modifications at all. But their menu is so diverse, there’s something for everybody. Plus it’s really a beautiful room and a great place to spend an evening enjoying some of the finer things while taking in the buzz that surrounds Nightingale. It seems like it would be the kind of place that’s all show, but it’s not… they deliver on all fronts.

Peaceful Restaurant

Simple, unassuming Chinese food. There is literally nothing fancy about this restaurant at all and it’s one of two on this list – Zabu Chicken – that likely never find themselves on “best of” lists. But that’s OK, they do a really good job of serving decent Chinese food with no fuss. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a cafeteria, but the food is why you go.

I think I have a special place in my heart for Peaceful as it was the first place I tried xiao long bao. They go by a number of names – XLB, steamed dumplings & soup dumplings – and I have yet to find a place that does them better. I am sure there are many, but I am new to testing the waters with Chinese food (I am most comfortable with European flavours) and this was my first time having a WOW moment. I’ve tried a number of other items on their menu and I haven’t come across any duds. But an order of their XLB dumplings are what keeps taking me back time and time again.

I feel like I am cheating by putting Pear Tree on my list as I have only been to it once. And I truly believe you have to experience a restaurant at least twice, preferably three to four times, before you can accurately assess it. But as it’s rated as one of the top 10 restaurants in the country, I am making an exception.

In a word the food was perfection. I ordered the chargrilled beef tenderloin with 36-hour braised beef cheeks which was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. It was well worth the two buses I had to take to get to north Burnaby. In fact, I wouldn’t even consider looking at the menu again, I would order that same dish and be happy I could relive the experience of knowing there’s somebody in the world that can make beef taste like that. The room is warm, the service is attentive and professional and the price tag is exactly what you would expect for a place with that reputation. But they’ve earned it because they were every bit as good as the hype.

Salade de Fruits is the busiest unknown restaurant in Vancouver. That’s right, they are in their 21st year, are full most nights and on Saturdays for brunch, yet so many people have no idea they even exist. Located street-level in the Centre Culturel Francophone de Vancouver just off of Granville Street, this is one of the city’s best kept secrets.

I took a friend from Paris and she said it was the only authentic French cuisine she had in Vancouver. Most French restaurants go for the more typical fancy French cuisine, whereas Sald de Fruits is more like a brasserie; casual, fun and unassuming. Their menu is a chalkboard mounted on the wall with a myriad of ever-changing offers including a weekly 3-course prix fixe menu for $35. They source their baguette and croissants from Beaucoup Bakery around the corner and you haven’t lived until you’ve tried their eggs benedict served on a croissant. There is no better way to start your Saturday morning… or to end your Saturday evening.

]It’s crazy to think that Salmon and Bannock is the only native restaurant in Vancouver. A few others have come and gone over the years, but right now – other than a food truck – this is the only restaurant that specializes in the food of the people who have called these lands home for thousands of years.

The restaurant is native through-and-through. The walls are decorated with works from local artists, all of which is for sale and the staff represent nine different nations. They serve comfort food that calls back to their ancient traditions with flavours as rich as their culture. Their menu allows you to be as safe or daring as you like. On my last visit I tried a small piece of smoked sealion (and I know how that sounds!) but I am glad I tried it. Whatever you think it might taste like, it didn’t. There was a meatiness to it and it was delicious. But you don’t have to leave your comfort zone to have a wonderful meal there. This is a restaurant that deserves to be known.

This is a restaurant that sits on everybody’s list and there’s a good reason why. They deliver! The room is open and airy, with an Ikea-influenced look about it which seems slightly odd for a highly rated Italian restaurant. But it works. And to be honest, you’re there for the food and it steals the show.

While you can dine a la carte, they really shine when you come with a group of 6 or more and dine alla familia style. This involves a chat with the server about the table’s likes and dislikes and then you sit back and wait for the parade of dishes that will slowly make their way from the open kitchen to your table. The smells that fill the airy space whet your appetite and the flavours deliver on that promise. Family style dining costs around $60 per person and you will leave feeling it was money well spent. This is a restaurant for special occassions, for group dining, for date night, or for a solo dinner at the bar. Basically any excuse will do.

If Savio Volpe and Tavola were Italian siblings, Savio would be the loud, showy brother and Tavola would be the classy, friendly sister. Both offer the best Italian food I have had in Vancouver, but their approach is different. Tavola’s room is so warm and comfortable, with a maroon and cherry-wood interior that makes you feel like you are in someone’s home. And the service matches; it’s personable with a professional yet casual flare. This is one of the reasons I dined there seven times last year.

Their food is equally as delicious as Savio, yet it’s less on the fancy side and more what you’d expect if you were invited into an Italian foodie’s home. As with Savio, they promote family style dining with the same price point of $60-$65 per person. For this you will experience a few salads, some daily crostinis, 2-3 of their homemade pastas, 24oz dry aged rib steak, brick chicken with roasted garlic jus, daily vegetables and a sample of their homemade desserts. If this doesn’t have you licking the screen right now, I don’t think we can be friends.

I have been very deliberate not to rate any of the restaurants on this list of 25 but I would be remiss if I didn’t fess up that The Mackenzie Room is my #1 favourite. It sits at the top. The only restaurant that I imagine can ever come close is Say Mercy, their brand new sister restaurant (which I am trying next week!!).

Sean Reeve is the chef but I don’t think that word does him justice. Food artist. Culinary genius. Ingredient magician. He sees combinations and ways of preparing food that others haven’t thought of. And as such the menu is a constant 12 items displayed on a chalk board which change with the seasons. And there’s really only one way to experience them; you go as a group of 4 and order the I Want It All menu. You systematically work through the menu from start to finish and experience the delicate flavour profiles, artistic plating and the continuity from one dish to the next. Each one stands on its own, but together they create a perfect meal. It’s hard to put a price on that sort of experience, but $68 feels like a bargain. I’ve been five times now, but my first time was the moment I realized my stomach could smile.

I am going to let my bias shine through here – and this won’t be news to anyone who knows me – but I am not a fan of Yaletown. It feels like it’s douchebag ground zero. And so many of the restaurants cater to this demographic. Then there’s West Oak; a beacon in an over-priced, underwhelming food neighbourhood. They deliver quality dishes, cooked creatively and priced reasonably in a comfortable room. So basically, they offer everything that Yaletown isn’t.

One of my weaknesses is cookies and West Oak is the only restaurant I am aware of that has freshly baked cookies on their dessert menu! It’s child-like heaven on a plate! They literally bring you six soft-baked, fresh-from-the-oven morsels of cookie heaven. They are accompanied by a vanilla dipping sauce and that dish alone is worth venturing into Yaletown for. But then again, so is their burrata and prosciutto board and their lamb leg. It’s all good and it’s one of the only restaurant I frequent in that part of town.

I am going to let my bias shine through here – and this won’t be news to anyone who knows me – but I am not a fan of Yaletown. It feels like it’s douchebag ground zero. And so many of the restaurants cater to this demographic. Then there’s West Oak; a beacon in an over-priced, underwhelming food neighbourhood. They deliver quality dishes, cooked creatively and priced reasonably in a comfortable room. So basically, they offer everything that Yaletown isn’t.

One of my weaknesses is cookies and West Oak is the only restaurant I am aware of that has freshly baked cookies on their dessert menu! It’s child-like heaven on a plate! They literally bring you six soft-baked, fresh-from-the-oven morsels of cookie heaven. They are accompanied by a vanilla dipping sauce and that dish alone is worth venturing into Yaletown for. But then again, so is their burrata and prosciutto board and their lamb leg. It’s all good and it’s one of the only restaurant I frequent in that part of town.

After I divorced my vegan wife I make peace with the fact I love meat. I mean, I really love the stuff. I don’t care which animal it came from, I have a craving for meat that occasionally needs special attention. And that’s when I go to Wildebeest. While they know their way around a kitchen, their specialty is preparing, butchering and cooking flesh. And they dare to offer items other restaurants might not such as the time I tried their horse tartar which was exquisite.

As with many restaurants of their calibre, they promote omakase which loosely translates to “trust the chef” and I certainly do. For $70-$80 per person you will dine on a variety of dishes, spanning the meat spectrum and usually involving bone marrow, a terrine or tartar, lamb or wagyu and perfectly prepared side dishes. I favour going in the dead of winter when I crave a hearty meal that will lull me into a dreamy food slumber. And they always deliver.

Zabu Chicken isn’t the kind of restaurant you would expect to see on any “best of Vancouver” list, but they have earned their spot on mine. Zabu sits on Robson street amongst a sea of other Korean restaurants, many of which are fancier and more renown. Zabu is cheap and cheerful and sometimes that’s what you want.

Tasty, succulent, fried chicken with a sweet soy glaze and a delicate flavour that leaves a hint of sweetness on your lips. Fried chicken is my weakness and when I get a craving – which is more often than I am comfortable confessing to – Zabu is where I go. It’s full of Korean students, the staff struggle with their broken English and the ambience makes you feel like you are in another land. It’s perfect and you can eat your fill of chicken, have a glass of wine, leave a tip and still spend under $30.

Alistair Henry

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Alistair is a real lover of food having visited 300 restaurants around Vancouver over the last 3 years. Passionate about sharing food while connecting with people, he is the founder and the host of the Dinner Devils.  Having spent 10 years living in Europe, he is bringing some of that food culture back home with the creation of this group.