nimaginable as it may seem now, solid neighbourhood restaurants were once a rare commodity in Vancouver. Sure, there were dearly-missed spots like Monsoon and Refuel and Aurora Bistro—but nothing in terms of sheer numbers relative to nearby cities like Seattle and Portland, where neighbourhood restaurants like The Walrus and The Carpenter proliferated on every block.
These are spots with little pretense, yet are rich in character; places that you could roll into on a Wednesday evening wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and a pair of Converse and wave to the line cooks as you post up at the bar. Where the fixings for your favourite drink are always available, where you invariably bump into friends who live five minutes away. And, most importantly, where you can get top-notch food that’s soulful and beautiful without being too precious. Thankfully, time has brought with it welcome change, and chefs like Andrea Carlson, J-C Poirier, Gus Stiffenhofer-Brandson, and Tess Bevernage have redefined what it means to enjoy a good meal at your local.
“When I opened Burdock & Co in 2013, we were 100 per cent going for a neighbourhood place—because I’d spent my entire career in the formal fine dining realm,” says chef-restaurateur Andrea Carlson. “Back then, farmer’s markets weren’t what they are now. My entire impetus was to make impeccable produce from smaller-scale farms like Glorious Organics more accessible by establishing a direct connection to growers that farmed such incredible stuff.”
Sharing food was the key component at Burdock, which sits on a cozy corner on Main Street; Carlson wanted to create a casual dining experience that was more communal, more hospitable, more accessible, and more joyful.
Seven award-winning years and one global pandemic later, the idea for Bar Gobo serendipitously began to crystallize. “My partner Kevin [Bismanis] and I used to have a vision for what Burdock was going to be: Burdock Bread, Burdock Bistro, Burdock Bar,” Carlson explains. “We always wanted to have those three components. And when this bar opportunity came around with Peter [Van de Reep, sommelier] and Neil [Hillbrandt, chef], it made perfect sense as a potential offshoot of our whole business model.”
Tucked away on the edge of Chinatown (very near Carlson’s beloved eatery-grocer Harvest), Bar Gobo is a welcoming, decidedly unfussy neighbourhood wine bar. “Gobo” means “burdock” in Japanese, tapping into Carlson’s original restaurant concept—and reflecting her farm-forward ethos. “That’s my total driving force. If I can’t work with the calibre of produce and ingredients that I feature on my menu, I literally will not do this any more,” she asserts. “It’s all about products direct from the farm that translate into a great fresh-of-that-moment plate of food for people.”
Carlson has handed Bar Gobo’s culinary reins to chef de cuisine Neil Hillbrandt, who performs nothing short of wizardry in a pocket-sized open kitchen. Spring asparagus are napped in an airy cloud of shio koji beurre blanc and sprinkled with toasted buckwheat groats to add an earthy crunch, which Van de Reep accompanies with a 2020 Noëlla Morantin Stella Maris Sauvignon Blanc from France’s Loire Valley that’s fresh, vibrant, and textural. And a 2020 Roberto Henriquez Pais Verde from the Bio Bio Valley in Chile is the pairing for Totten Inlet mussels in fermented tomato dashi. “Electric cherry Kool-Aid,” Van de Reep affirms of the wine. “Slightly chilled. So delicious.”
J-C Poirier’s vision of a neighbourhood restaurant centres around the je ne sais quoi that vaults a restaurant from being good to being truly great. “I don’t think it’s enough to just have a good meal and good service. You need to feel something when you’re dining at a restaurant, and that’s where soul comes in,” Poirier reflects. “It’s all the little things around you—from the lighting and the artwork on the wall to the music playlists—that contribute to creating a magical dining experience.”
“You need to feel something when you’re dining at a restaurant, and that’s where soul comes in.”
His own efforts to create this kind of place have been recognized both locally and nationally—his restaurant St. Lawrence on Powell Street was the first in western Canada to crack the top five of Canada’s 100 Best, and has remained there for the past three years.
Poirier weaves his heartfelt sense of personal nostalgia into every aspect of St. Lawrence. His menu seamlessly juxtaposes the dishes of his childhood in Quebec alongside the classic French dishes that formed the backbone of his culinary training and early years in the restaurant industry. Cretons extend the sense of Quebecois hospitality to start every meal, while warm buckwheat bread is a tip of the hat to the grain that’s so popular in Quebec. “Then there’s the things like escargots in puff pastry with herb and garlic butter—this dish brings back so many childhood memories, and I think it really screams St. Lawrence,” says Poirier. “These two, along with the rice pudding, will always remain.”
In the heart of Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, executive chef Gus Stieffenhofer-Brandson has established a different yet equally poignant sense of place at Published. After three rounds of pandemic lockdowns, he burst out of the gates with a vengeance, leapfrogging from 88th on Canada’s 100 Best to number-one in the country in 2022. Published’s national ranking has clearly made it a destination spot, with reservations booked well in advance, but Stieffenhofer-Brandson prides himself on their neighbourhood roots. “I think a place like Published becoming an approachable neighbourhood restaurant before becoming a destination was really important to us,” he says. “Through the takeout and patio days of the pandemic, we definitely solidified our connection with the surrounding South Main residents. Lots of regulars would walk down the block to pick up dinner or chill over a drink.”
Stieffenhofer-Brandson hits culinary heights with the impeccably presented snacks course from his chef’s tasting menu, but he offsets these flights of fancy with a cheeky a la carte dish of chips and dip—a nod to his dad’s “secret recipe” of sour cream and French onion soup mix. “Sure, our onion dip is definitely a lot more layered than that—with fermented scallions, shallot confit, Manitoba pickerel, and tons of herbs,” he says. “But at the heart of it, it’s also just chips and dip that’ll forever remind me of Saturday movie night with Dad.”
Also incorporating childhood memories is chef-restaurateur Tess Bevernage, who taps into the unique cultural and culinary history of the Hawaiian Islands at Commercial Drive’s Hānai. Her family escaped the bitter chill of Quebec’s harsh winters and decamped to O’ahu when she was six months old; dishes like kālua pork, huli huli chicken, and butter mochi figured prominently while she was growing up.
Bevernage and her husband Thomas Robillard partnered with Miki Ellis and Stephen Whiteside of East Vancouver spots Dachi and Elephant to create the whimsical Hānai; its soft interior colour palette of cream, terracotta, pink, and deep green is straight out of the Pegge Hopper paintings that adorn the walls. “The majority of the colour scheme and the overall vibe is largely informed by the flora and fauna of Hawai’i,” Bevernage says. “I like to think of it as creating my own little piece of home here in Vancouver.”
The philosophical Venn diagram of Bevernage’s French heritage and her childhood in O’ahu intersects at Hānai’s casual hospitality and grace. Food was the cornerstone of every Hawaiian gathering, she explains, and “potluck style was quite popular. It’s such a beautiful way for everybody to bring their different cultures onto one table. I really appreciate casual meals that let you enjoy food without pretensions behind it.”
Hānai’s somen salad is a signature menu item that recalls Bevernage’s high school days. “The cafeteria only featured it once a week, and I had to book it as soon as the lunch bell rang to grab one of the 10 coveted portions,” she recalls. Her version builds on this cold noodle dish with the addition of cubed Spam, kamaboko, shredded purple cabbage, sliced cucumber and radish, and tamago, along with a dressing made from huli huli hen broth, shoyu, sesame, and mirin. “Even just having the noodles and the sauce makes me think of those moments—a happy feeling of just being so excited to eat something that is, in essence, very simple,” she says. “After all, it’s a cold noodle salad with not a lot of technique behind it. But it's something so emotional that it just makes you feel good.”
Which is exactly what a great neighbourhood restaurant should do.