The Alaska cruise season is almost upon us, with the first ships scheduled to go north any day now. Some 1 million people will sail aboard the state's cruise fleet this summer, and about a third of those will begin or end their cruise at the port of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Ports of embarkation/debarkation are often an afterthought for people who travel by ship. A lot of folks fly in just in time to hop on their vessel, then head right to the airport after their trip is done. Unless you just can't be away another day, that's almost always a mistake. In Vancouver, though, it's an absolute crime, because if you stop long enough to smell the coffee (and Vancouver is definitely a coffee town), you'll find this bayside city to be one of the most beautiful, friendly, walkable, modern, and well planned in North America -- and one of the tastiest, too.
Vancouver has long been known as a foodie mecca, its dominant "buy local, eat seasonal" culinary philosophy merging with a variety of subtle international (mainly Asian) influences to set taste buds beaming. Cruise travelers can get a good sense of the city's culinary scene by staying a day or two before or after their cruise, though you really need a full week to get an appreciation for its full richness. Below, I'll run through some of the best the city has to offer.
If you can only do one foodie experience in Vancouver, visit the Granville Island Public Market (www.granvilleisland.com), located just steps from the ferry dock on Granville Island, Vancouver's popular arts/crafts/entertainment/shopping destination. Open 7 days a week, year-round, it offers three dozen indoor shops and stalls stuffed to the gills with fresh local produce, seafood, meats, artisanal cheeses, ethnic foods, grains, spices, sweets, rare teas and coffees, and fresh bread, bagels, and other baked goods. There are also more than a dozen casual walk-up restaurants around a central seating area, and between June and October there's an outdoor Farmer's Market where regional growers bring fruits, vegetables, and plants fresh from the fields. Foodies can easily spend hours at the market, smelling the aromas and sampling the wares. Those who want to get deeper can take a 3-hour chef-guided tour offered through Edible British Columbia (www.edible-britishcolumbia.com). The company also offers tours of other Vancouver foodie destinations, such as ethnically diverse Commercial Drive and the herbal stores, meat shops, bakeries, and specialty stores of Chinatown.
Within steps of the Public Market are several other worthwhile stops: La Baguette & L'Echalote bakery (www.labaguettebakery.com), which makes hearty breads and pastries and keeps baskets of samples out for you to try; and several shops in the Net Loft building, including the Market Kitchen for cookware.
An easy walk to the east, Sake-maker Masa Shiroki's Artisan Sake Maker shop, 1339 Railspur Alley (www.artisansakemaker.com), is the original Canadian small-batch sake winery, producing hand-pressed, hand-bottled sakes that complement the seasonal variations of West Coast cuisine. Sake is available by the bottle or by the taste, the latter $2 per glass.
Exit Granville Island on foot at Anderson St. (under the Granville Bridge) to access several other worthwhile foodie experiences. Along serpentine Island Park Walk, which runs along the waterfront, False Creek Fisherman's Wharf offers fresh fish right off the boat. If you don't have the time or facilities to cook it yourself, you can get the next best experience right across the parking lot at Go Fish!, one of Vancouver's most beloved fresh-seafood joints. It's just a shack, all seating is outdoors (even in winter), and they only serve from lunchtime through the afternoon, but you can't beat it for authentic Vancouver flavor. From here, walk up 1stt Ave. West, following it around the S-curve and making a left onto Pine St. Make the next right onto 2nd Ave. to reach two worthwhile retail shops: Barbara Jo's Books to Cooks, 1740 W. 2nd Ave. (www.bookstocooks.com), which stocks an absolutely huge selection of cookbooks, wine books, and periodicals and offers cooking classes at its own open kitchen, and Les Amis du Fromage, 1752 W. 2nd Ave. (www.buycheese.com), Vancouver's best cheese shop, stocking between 400 and 500 cheeses at any given time.
Coffee & Pastries
For Vancouver's most distinctive cappuccinos and lattes, drop in to the Italian-style CaffÃ¨ Artigiano (www.caffeartigiano.com), which has 13 locations around town and is known for the elegant designs its baristas create with coffee foam -- one reason it's been home to several Canadian Barista Champions (or maybe it's the other way 'round?). The most central locations are at 763 Hornby St., 1101 W. Pender St., 740 W. Hastings St., and 574 Granville St.
For a down-home experience in Chinatown, get in line with the old Chinese men and women at New Town Bakery, 158 E. Pender St., and order a steamed bun, sweet rice cake, or any among dozens of other pastries.
Along restaurant- and snack-lined Denman Street in the West End, Cupcakes, 1168 Denman St. (www.cupcakesonline.com), serves just that -- in mini, regular, and "Big One" sizes and almost 20 different flavors.
While the number of restaurants you can sample is more-or-less dictated by the number of days you're in town, your choices are seemingly endless. All told, Vancouver offers some 4,000-plus restaurants, of which the following are only a sampling -- albeit an excellent one.
Bin 941 Tapas Parlour, 941 Davie St., Downtown, and its twin, Bin 942, 1521 W. Broadway, on the West Side (both at www.bin941.com), are tiny, crowded, full of attitude, and lacking the willingness to take reservations, but the seafood, Moroccan dishes, and other small plates are absolutely amazing. I'd go again just for the Navajo fry bread.
In grungy yet touristy Gastown, tucked into an alley with a forbidding name and a look to match, Salt, 45 Blood Alley (www.salttastingroom.com), is a simply decorated, brick-walled tasting room that serves only artisanal cheese and cured meats. Order a tasting plate of any three, get three small sides to complement them, and then pick a wine to complement them all. The day's selections are chalked on a blackboard.
Right on False Creek, the restaurant simply called "C," 2-1600 Howe St. (www.crestaurant.com), is a longtime seafood favorite, featuring local fish and recipes from around the world. An outdoor patio makes for wonderful sunset meals, offering views of the ferries making their way to and from Granville Island across False Creek.
In trendy Yaletown, Cioppino's Mediterranean Grill, 1133 Hamilton St. (www.cioppinosyaletown.com), is the city's best formal Italian, its vibe warm and low-lit, its wine list enormous, and its seasonal menu prepared with a light touch. Nearby Coast, 1257 Hamilton St. (www.coastrestaurant.ca), is a hip, minimalist hot-spot featuring local and international seafood and seasonal produce. The "community table" offers tasting menus prepared on the spot.
Just off English Bay Beach in the West End (the city's preeminent sunset-watching spot), Raincity Grill, 1193 Denman St. (www.raincitygrill.com), set the bar for Vancouver's fresh local food movement when it opened in 1992. Expect exceptional organic cuisine, friendly service, and a killer sunset view. Their "100-mile tasting menu" is exactly what it says, with all ingredients sourced within a 100-mile radius of the kitchen. Farther north on the West Side, near massive Stanley Park, Parkside, 1906 Haro St., in the Buchan Hotel (www.parksiderestaurant.ca), blends local ingredients, informal but elegant service, and an always-changing menu with dining on one of the city's loveliest courtyard patios.
On the West Side, the aptly named West, 2881 Granville St. (www.westrestaurant.com), is perennially named among Vancouver's best restaurants, its stylish yet relaxed, of-the-moment but not trendy room offering perfect service and contemporary seasonal cuisine. Also in the West Side, Vij's,1480 W. 11th Ave. (www.vijs.ca), offers stratospherically inventive Indian cuisine, mixing classic dishes with seasonal local meats, seafood, and produce. They don't take reservations, so plan to arrive early.
Out in Kitsilano, across English Bay from Downtown and the West End, Fuel, 1944 4th Ave. (www.fuelrestaurant.ca), offers locally-sourced, perfectly prepared regional cuisine, which changes weekly. The wine list changes seasonally too. Try and get a bar seat for a view of the open kitchen.
And for a Nightcap ...
End your foodie days at one of Vancouver's excellent downtown wine bars. 900 West Lounge, 900 W. Georgia St., in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver (www.fairmont.com/HotelVancouver) is the most classic, an old-time-elegant lounge that's regularly voted Vancouver's best wine bar. It offers piano music and jazz in the evenings. Much newer in both style and attitude is Yew, 791 W. Georgia St. in the Four Seasons Hotel (www.fourseasons.com/vancouver/dining.html). They offer 150 wines by the glass, and will open any bottle as long as you commit to buying at least two glasses. Across from Robson Square in the center of Downtown, the Bacchus Piano Lounge, 845 Hornby St. (www.wedgewoodhotel.com/hotel/bacchus.html), offers a mood that's as ornate and gilded as everything else at the tony Wedgewood Hotel, off whose lobby it sits. It's a gorgeous space, with a carved limestone fireplace, burgundy velvet banquettes, and cherrywood paneling, and at night it transforms from a cocktail spot into an elegant piano bar.
If you're in Vancouver from the States or anywhere else abroad, you won't be able to take all that fresh food you bought at the Public Market home with you -- which is a serious, serious drag. The solution? Book a hotel room with a kitchen and cook it there. The Pacific Palisades (www.pacificpalisadeshotel.com), Rosedale on Robson (www.rosedaleonrobson.com), and Coast Plaza (www.coasthotels.com/hotels/canada/bc/vancouver/coast_plaza/overview) all offer rooms or suites with stoves and fridges.
In addition to his cruise writing for Frommer's, Matt Hannafin is also the author of the forthcoming Frommer's Vancouver Day by Day.
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