Vancouver Bars Hit A High Note
Kick-started by an English ex-pat whose 1867 saloon sparked a city-sized development, Vancouver was founded on the idea of a good drink. But since the days of Gassy Jack Deighton — that fella on the whisky barrel plinth in historic Gastown — the bar scene here has lurched around like a drunk on payday: plenty of quantity but not enough quality. Luckily, recent years have seen a toast-triggering transformation.
Mirroring a renaissance in BC wine and micro-brewed beer, Vancouver suddenly has enough great watering holes to make bar crawling a worthy pastime. From new character taverns like Six Acres to gastropubs like Three Lions and cocktail-hugging haunts like Habit Lounge, there’s never been a better time for a citywide tipple or three. And the best of the older bars still cut it too: the brassy Yale, the den-like Brickhouse and the reinvented Irish Heather easily hold their own among the upstarts.
Intrigued by this dizzying resurgence, I launched an exhaustive weave around the city’s freshly hot bar scene. But rather than stopping after a few brews, I kept on going … hence the new book, Drinking Vancouver: 100+ Great Bars in the City and Beyond. Now that I’ve finally sobered up, here’s a six-pack of some of my favourites, complete with libation tips and raves from their regulars.
This laid-back, brick-walled contemporary tavern has been reinvented by a Brit co-owner who knows a thing or two about great quaffs. Pull up a perch at a candlelit long table and peruse the ever-changing draft roster of around 25 regional microbrews, often including lip-smacking treats like Red Racer ESB, Swans Extra IPA and the darkly satisfying Old Yale Pale Ale. Adventurous taste-trippers — local hipsters and paunchy CAMRA drinkers alike — prefer the $9 “frat bat” of four sample beers. Food-wise, go for a side of skinny fries with chili garlic vinegar or a bulging, Pemberton-sourced burger.
Regular rave: “There’s a great deal of anticipation when you walk in the door not knowing what’s going to be on tap. You’re excited to come,” says Craig Billey.
A hopping trad bar reinvention, the chatty bonhomie here is fostered by cozy booths, a Keep Calm And Carry On etching and a cheery soundtrack running from vintage Cure to Arctic Monkeys. Choice bottled beers like Anchor Steam and Young’s Double Chocolate Stout feature, but the excellent 50-strong cocktail list also warms: go for a Cascade Room Cocktail of bourbon shaken with pressed apple, lime juice, vanilla bean, bitters and egg white. And don’t miss the retro Habit Lounge sister next door, where disassembled cocktails are served in bento boxes and you shake them yourself. Food at both is of gastropub quality, with Cascade’s wine-braised beef and bubble and squeak recommended.
Regular rave: “They’ve helped relaunch the cocktail in Vancouver. The eclectic young-and-old crowd reflects the changing mix of Main Street,” says Andrew Petrozzi.
If Gassy Jack steps from his barrel for a night out, he should nip up the stairs a few doors in along Powell Street. He’ll find a high-ceilinged, renovated heritage space studded with sash windows overlooking the spot where his saloon once stood. Popular with fashion-forward hipsters, the cozy, chat-warmed room glows under its eye-catching stag’s head chandelier, while the drinks list is built on perfectly executed cocktails: a winter-warming Penicillin (blended scotch, peated scotch, ginger, lemon and honey) may not be strictly medicinal, but it cures most ills. The nosh here is aimed at sociable sharing, focusing on Asian-fusion tapas like pork gyoza and green tea noodles.
Regular rave: “It’s intimate, not overly pretentious and they’ve narrowed it down to the cocktail classics,” says Kathryn Greer.
Under an illicit-looking red lamp at Main Street and 3rd Avenue, descend a graffiti-lined stairwell and push through the heavy door at the bottom. Vancouver’s most amazing small bar isn’t much bigger than a railcar and its mood lit, David Lynchian décor includes bleached antlers, junk shop pictures and a small neon crucifix. Warmly hospitable, you’ll find great cocktails (go for the Bramble) and choice bottled beer like Blue Buck Ale and Boris stubbies from Quebec. Cozily tucked into your underground bunker, consider a comfort food helping of gourmet mac and cheese or the “unburger,” a bulging slice of meatloaf on a baguette.
Regular rave: “Nature at bay, no windows, low lights and a glowing cross — topped off by a hot bartender with a Danzig T-shirt,” says Glenn Drexhage.
If you’re thinking only Vancouver’s newest bars are hot, consider this rocking trad legend. Built 70 years ago for railway employees — hence the model train trundling around the ceiling — generations of locals have climbed the carpeted stairway and discovered a laid-back spot that welcomes everyone from office workers to tie-dyed bohemians. They come to chat at rickety tables, sip microbrews from dimpled glasses and hear eclectic nightly live music from beat poets to accordion rappers. Libations from Crannog, Phillips or Tree Brewing lure the beer nuts, while a fuel-up from the hatch (go with the nachos) meets those late-night grub requirements.
Regular rave: “You see hipsters and pensioners, venture capitalists and blue collar workers, lawyers and musicians, couriers and doctors: everyone is welcome and can feel comfortable here,” says Dominic Schaefer.
Stella’s Tap & Tapas Bar
You’ve woken with a Tom Waits voice and a head that feels like a melon on a toothpick. Welcome to the aftermath of a night out worshipping at the altar of the world’s best ale-making nation. Belgian brews from Leffe and Stella Artois are on draft in a barroom lined with light, pilsner-hued wood. But it’s the multi-page bottled list that’ll do you in. Try fruity Mort Subite Kriek, coppery Chimay Rouge and dark X.O., a brooding, end-of-the-night beer made with cognac. And don’t forget that other nutrient group: moules et frites is recommended, but a cone of crispily addictive fries (served Euro-style with mayonnaise) is always a good idea.
Regular rave: “If you like beer, this is the place to come. But it’s best if you don’t have to get up the next morning,” says Kevin Smithe.
If you go:
Alibi Room 157 Alexander Street
Cascade Room 2616 Main Street
Diamond 6 Powell Street
Narrow Lounge 1898 Main Street
Railway Club 579 Dunsmuir Street
Stella’s Tap & Tapas Bar 1191 Commercial Drive