he weirder the better,” Tannis Ling says with a smile. She’s thinking back to her eating habits as a kid, contrasting them against her own four-year-old son’s.
“Every parent’s main goal is just to get them to eat—and not just eat, but eat all the good things,” she says, seated at a booth inside an empty Nancy Go Yaya: her now-closed Singaporean restaurant concept. “My parents were always taking us for sushi and Korean food and everything that Vancouver had to offer. But at that time, people weren’t eating sushi or pho or anything like that. I was always looking for that new thing and wanting to try all the different things.” Her obsession with food, she surmises, started that young—and it hasn’t waned since.
Ling is the visionary behind popular restaurants Bao Bei and Kissa Tanto (the latter of which she owns with chefs Joël Watanabe and Alain Chow), both located in Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood. When she opened Bao Bei in 2010, there was nothing like it in the city; it brought classic Chinese dishes to the setting of a sultry late-night bar.
“The idea for Bao Bei had always been in the back of my mind,” says Ling, who spent a decade bartending before opening her own restaurant. “I was always thinking, ‘Why isn’t there a place to eat Chinese food in an atmosphere like the restaurants I had been working at: loud, fun, good wine, good cocktails?’ At that point, you could only eat Chinese food in Chinese restaurants, which as we all know means large tables and bright lighting—and it’s fun in its own way, but not in that intimate kind of way that I like to dine with my friends. So I just decided I was going to do it.”
Bao Bei excels in its simplicity. With homestyle Chinese dishes (the fried rice with pork belly and fermented chili is the stuff of dreams, while the marinated eggplant with soy, ginger, and garlic is pure unpretentious bliss), well executed cocktails, loud music, and a rustic, cozy-yet-sophisticated room, this is a place it’s easy to lose track of time in. And that’s how it’s best experienced: with friends, when the night stretches out before you and tomorrow does not exist.
Next came Kissa Tanto, in 2016, which merges Japanese and Italian cuisine in a way that is at once elevated and playful. “I walked by this space one day and I looked up—I’ve always been obsessed with really old things that have lots of patina, things that have a lot of character and history—and was really intrigued by the whole feel of the building,” Ling remembers. “So I got in touch with the landlord and negotiated the lease, and then Kissa Tanto happened.”
Kissa Tanto’s whole fried fish has become a hallmark dish, while the Tajarin (butter-roasted mushrooms, miso-cured yolk) really sings as an intersection of two cultures. The room here is more speakeasy, more sexy; there are pink booths, blue walls, and plenty of texture. It’s hard to get a table, and there’s good reason for that: this is a place of escapism, of understated luxury.
In 2018, the space below Kissa Tanto became available, and after some debating, Ling—along with Jian Cheng and, once again, Alain Chow—decided to take it.
“The original concept was a tapas bar-style restaurant with quite a heavy focus on drinks,” she says. “We were planning on just jamming in as many people as we could, shoulder to shoulder—which is how it is in Europe, where people were just hustling for a spot and it’s loud and sweaty. And then COVID hit, which that style of dining was not conducive to.”
So they changed course and came up with Nancy Go Yaya: a Singapore-style eating house and cafe open for breakfast and lunch, serving the likes of nasi lemak and laksa. “I’ve always had a huge obsession with Singaporean food, and nobody’s really doing it in the city of Vancouver,” says Ling. “So we wanted to do a little passion project.” With lineups often down the street, Nancy seemed like it was a runaway hit. But with the rising cost of ingredients, low liquor sales, and hospitality staff shortages, it proved to be more of a challenge behind the scenes. They decided to try opening for dinner, as well, but the clashing concepts under one united moniker proved to be confusing for guests. In July of 2022, Ling and her partners made the tough decision to close down.
“It was hard,” she admits. “We had put in so much effort and so much work and so much money.” Still, she is thankful for how it all shook out. “I’ve learned more in this short period of time than I learned opening the first few restaurants; everybody says you learn more from your mistakes and you learn from your successes. It’s been quite humbling for me.”
The ghost of Nancy will live on, though, because Ling and team are already planning what will open in its place. And while she won’t reveal anything about the concept just yet, she confirms that it will be an evening spot, and that “it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to provide people with the same sense of escape that they get when they go to Bao Bei or Kissa Tanto.”
Escape is what the best restaurants provide. Eating out is a privilege, but it is not superfluous; rather, it is the stuff of community. There’s nothing quite like walking into a loud restaurant. There’s energy there—there’s a pulse.
“It’s a place to socialize with your friends, to get away from your job or the worries of your life and just just have fun,” Ling says. “I think that restaurants provide a place for that. And, obviously, good food that you can’t cook at home.” Even now, even years after first falling in love with food, even after this guttingly expensive city chewed up her latest baby and ruthlessly spit it back out—she still loves the restaurant industry. She still believes.