I travel to one of North America's finest cities to unplug. Here is where you will find me doing just that.
Spending time in British Columbia is something like hitting the reset button on my life. Canada's most visually arresting province also happens to be one of the most special places on earth, according to me, and a whole bunch of other people, a relatively unspoiled region that a good chunk of America can reach in a couple of hours by plane, not that most will ever consider doing so. The evangelizing travel writer in me finds this tragic. The rest of me is quietly thrilled.
Until a few years ago, I had contented myself with short stays, spending as much time as possible immersed in British Columbia's various small towns and breathtaking wilds, which are nearly endless. In 2015 I came back for six weeks, mostly hanging around Vancouver, where you can hike through pristine mountain landscapes within twenty minutes or so of downtown, then come back down the hill and go for some of the best dim sum you'll eat in your life, made with fresh off the boat British Columbia seafood. I did not know it was possible to live so easily, so beautifully, in a big city. The deal was sealed.
With each visit now, I have tried to spend more time. In 2016, I managed four, unforgettable months, which flew by like four weeks. This year, I nearly squeaked to two months. It's never enough. I'm not Canadian, and I doubt I ever will be, but in Vancouver, now, and I hope for years to come, I am home. Here I can just be, more effortlessly than any other place I have ever lived. Here, I forget about everything else. As far as I know, I have been here all my life, and that's just fine.
This is not just me, I can assure you. There's something about this place—it's in the water, the air, the trees, the perfect cappuccino, in the bottom of your ramen bowl. Despite the fact that for Canadians it is more expensive to live here than it is for Americans to afford San Francisco (Bay Area residents make better money), despite the fact that Vancouver struggles mightily with the same things that bedevil too many West Coast cities, beginning with an acute lack of housing for normal, everyday folk, Vancouver, despite its many faults, often appears to manage this strange collective zen, something I never fully appreciated, until I slowed down and settled into the local rhythm.
The longer I am here, the more I walk, cycle, and ride the region's perfectly decent public transport (there's no Uber here, and I'm fine with it), the more I feel myself relaxing in a way that no longer seems possible in chaos-drunk America, at least not right now. All those surveys a few years back were right, and still are, even if the costs have climbed astronomically—for quality of life, there are few cities better in the world than Vancouver.
Here, I lose the will to get worked up over much of anything. I hike the trails that are all over and go everywhere, I shop the local market, I stay at home and cook, enjoying late-night summer sunsets, or listening to the winter rains, tapping on the roof. Inevitably, because all of that quiet can get to you, even if it is much needed, I will go out—to an endless supply of good cafes, for lazy breakfasts with other people who work when they get around to it, for some of the best Chinese cooking on the continent.
Unlike in other cities, I am not bothered by how new or important the place is, or who is going there, or who the chef is—all that matters is, do I feel comfortable, did I like the food, and would I come back, ideally again and again. Over time, I have assembled a lengthy list of favorites, most of them very affordable—here are just 10, submitted for your approval. If you are in Vancouver now, or are visiting any time soon, come hang out. It'll be fun.
This lively, all-day restaurant with the cassoulet, the flatbreads and dips, the lavender lattes, and all of the other Instagram-ready dishes, is about as Vancouver as it gets, a very visual hive of self-conscious energy, of people pretending they're not checking one another out, people taking selfies, or pictures of their food (guilty as charged), and the whole thing is just right. Vancouver expends a great deal of energy trying to create good-looking restaurants that do not always feel essential to the surroundings—here, in this sometimes hyperactive downtown hangout, I know exactly where I am, and I wish to never leave.
Because there are so many good cakes and breads and rolls and sweets packed onto the very long counter at this exceptional Gastown bakery, and because so much of it seems different from the last time you will have come in, and because the nice people behind the counter are always so eager to help, you will perhaps, as I do, feel eternally rushed into making a decision. I have yet to go wrong, so there's that—most recently, I zeroed in on a crème brulee bun, which was exactly what it said it would be, and now I can't stop thinking about crème brulee buns. Beginning life in an industrial park not far from the slopes in Whistler, and now a firm favorite at the heart of Vancouver, too, there are newer bakeries in town, but I really don't care. Note: They have added a shop in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighborhood, as well as one in the heart of Whistler Village.
A fast ride from the heart of Vancouver on the Canada Line train, south suburban Richmond is famously home to one of North America's finest Chinatowns. After years of eating my way through the city's various strip malls and indoor malls, dim sum palaces, and one very cool converted donut shop serving Hainan chicken, there are two places I want to return to, again and again, and this simple little BBQ shack buried in a parking garage along No. 3 Road is absolutely one of them. Eric Leung, the actual BBQ master, moved his family to Canada from Hong Kong, back in the early 1990's—his son Anson is now diving headlong into the operation, ensuring that we'll have this place at least for another generation, or at least I hope so. Everybody starts with the pork, but don't miss the duck, or the free-range chicken, and always ask if there are ribs, because sometimes they haven't sold out yet, and that will be your lucky day.
Salted caramel ice cream is everywhere these days, but if you are interested in living at the height of the genre, the Pacific Northwest will be a fine choice. Here, you will find Molly Moon's, which is in Seattle, which has been doing it longer and better than most. Also, just up the road, so to speak, you have this brash young upstart, at least relatively speaking, where they are doing unbelievably solid work. While Earnest expanded relatively quickly, the quality has not flagged, thank goodness. Since you're here, try the London Fog, a clever homage to the regionally popular hot beverage of the same name—it's an Earl Grey tea latte with steamed milk and vanilla syrup, and it will perk up even the darkest Northwest morning.
You should not need any prodding to spend time in the tamed wilds of Vancouver's Stanley Park, but if it helps, know that afterwards, you will be perfectly placed to take advantage of the cafes and dumpling houses and noodle bars of lower Robson Street, all standing by to refuel you, after a few hours of gulping down fresh air and stuffing your face full of nature. Of a handful of decent ramen shops down this end, Marutama—a direct import from Japan—is perhaps the best. Here, the specialty is a creamy chicken broth ramen, served with, among other things, home made noodles, and aosa, or sea lettuce, renowned for its health properties. There are two other locations in town, but for whatever reason, this one is the best.
Visually appealing café spaces are a dime a dozen in this town, but many of them fall down on service and quality. This Gastown roaster is still quite young, but it has been quietly doing some great work, without seeking much of the spotlight, in very close proximity to some of the city's most energetically ridiculous, see-and-be-seen coffee shops. A civilized air, a warm welcome, and the almost Scandinavian design of the space (the seating arrangement is quite unique) make this a happy home away from home, smack in the middle of one of the city's busiest neighborhoods.
Richmond's Lansdowne Centre is something of a dead mall, awaiting, like so many other underutilized plots around here, wide scale redevelopment. But there is treasure within, past the massive parking lots, and the shuttered anchor stores. The food court is a modern Canadian hybrid of dismal fast food and soulful Asian cooking; this tiny stall on the outer flank is home to some of the best Shanghai-style soup dumplings you will find in this town—better than other, flashier restaurants where xiao long bao are sold. They are just a few bucks for six, and it will take a little time to get them, but it is always worth the wait.
We may be north of two borders here, but this is still the West Coast, and Vancouver has plenty of tacos. The question is, how many of them are worth eating? Guadalajara-raised Marcelo Romero's little West Hastings shop opened in 2009, serving everything from al pastor to lengua on homemade corn tortillas, and while there are other options now, this is still one of the best spots for a quick fix, as there are La Taquerias all over, these days—even in the provincial capital of Victoria. The downtown location on Hornby Street is just a short walk from many hotels; there's a pretty decent happy hour, too.
Talk about unexpected thrills. My love affair with this relatively high-dollar restaurant at the Parq Vancouver, the splashy new hotel/casino complex just behind BC Place, began on the sun-drenched, upper-level patio with a Campari and soda, on one of those summer evenings where you get that almost Mediterranean light, and you get it for hours and hours. (If you only know Vancouver in the dark months, you have to come back and experience this—it's spectacular.) Created by Vegas expats Elizabeth Blau and Chef Kim Canteenwalla, The Victor is a big, bold, surf and turf spot with a sushi bar, straightforward in its mission but not dull in the least, featuring quietly competent cooking, the sort that you long for more of, in so many Vancouver restaurants at this price point. The Dungeness crab cake is essentially all crab, a 10 oz. rib cap steak was one of the best steaks I've had in a long time, and priced nicely, too. The sides—pretzel-crusted onion rings, macaroni and cheese waffles—sound ridiculous, but do try them, they're fun. (Dessert is a must, as well.) A recent review in a national newspaper spent much of its time raging against the restaurant for "not getting Vancouver." I'm still laughing about that one—this place fits modern Vancouver like a glove.
Beginning back in the 1920's, way out on Granville Street in a part of town where people now pay millions of dollars for houses (that's a lot of Vancouver now, actually), Nat Bailey's humble drive-in restaurant, White Spot, grew to become one of the most iconic British Columbia brands, a place for normal people to pile in for burgers and fries and salads and pale ales, all at reasonable for Canada prices. White Spot is fine and good, in the way that going to a family chain restaurant can be, once in a while, but the best thing they do—the burger—was so popular, a spin-off restaurant chain was created, called Triple O's, and you will find it in random locations (a lot of time, in gas stations) around the province, and if you are hungry for a good cheeseburger, you will always stop here, and be blessed. The garlic parmesan fries (made with local Kennebec potatoes), the chicken tenders, and the onion rings do not slouch here, but do not get too terribly distracted from the reason you have come—that burger, a hefty thing made with very good, always fresh Canadian beef patties, cheese, the usual veggies and a lot of the house sauce. In N' Out lovers, beware—you might like Triple O's Double Double better. I sure do.