Over the past year as I’ve settled back into Vancouver, I’ve found myself saying “I haven’t been there in a decade!” a lot. And that’s not an exaggeration. Living abroad for 8+ years with only brief visits back, I’d usually only have time on these short trips back to see close friends, eat at a handful of favourite restaurants, and spend time with family. That meant that I hadn’t visited many sights, neighbourhoods, areas of Vancouver for a loooong time.
I’m writing this post to share my favourite recommendations for Vancouver. I will admit the list of restaurants and bars is not the most up-to-date or hip, but they are some tried and true favourites. I’ll be adding more to this Vancouver and British Columbia section as I rediscover more of my own backyard!
*Note — these are lists and recommendations made without any updates based on Covid closures/restrictions, etc., so please call in advance to double check.
I generally recommend visitors come in the summer. July & August are the two peak summer months, and the second half of July through to mid August are the hottest weeks here. Even in June and early July, Vancouver can be chilly and rainy…there’s a reason we’re known as Raincity, so timing your visit for the prime weeks will give you a better chance of seeing this city in its best summer light.
Summer is all about the outdoors here. Spend a couple days exploring the neighbourhoods in town, then get out of the city and head to the mountains and islands!
THE NOTABLE NEIGHBOURHOODS
Gastown –– Cobblestone streets and flower baskets hang from the lamps of this historic part of town. If you want a fuller history, read my brief synopsis of historic Gastown here and sign up for a walking tour (when they resume). Gastown is full of restaurants and bars and little boutiques that will tempt your credit cards. This neighbourhood is great for wandering around on a sunny afternoon. Browse around and find yourself a nice patio or bar to enjoy a few nibbles and bites. Note that Gastown is close to dodgetown (what I call the ever-growing sketchy part of town), so you will see some crazies and sad looking people walking around. Some recommendations in Gastown:
- Diamond Bar — a cocktail bar with lots of class and good drinks. This establishment was around before I moved away in 2010, which says a lot about its popularity and longevity in a fickle bar scene.
- Purebread — multiple locations across the city, this cafe is a pastry lovers paradise. The toughest part is choosing what you want from the amazing selection of brownies, scones, and pastries.
- Salt Tasting Room – A cellar-like vibe and the perfect place to go for a charcuterie board and a glass of wine.
- Gringo – tiny little taco bar tucked in an alleyway. Across the way is Tacofino, another tacqueria with multiple locations (and food trucks) all over town. I love Tacofino’s Gastown location for its decor and back patio.
Chinatown — Full of history and tales of the hardships that Chinese-Canadians have had to endure, Chinatown today is a sad shadow of its former self. Main and Hastings is now (and has been for way too long) the epicentre of the drug and homeless problem in Vancouver — a problem that has now spread far and wide to other parts of Downtown, Chinatown, and Railtown. I highly recommend Vancouver Detours’ Chinatown tour (when they restart after Covid) to get an in-depth look at Chinatown’s history.
- Phnom Penh – the line ups at this restaurant will give you a hint at its popularity. Serving Cambodian / Vietnamese food, their bestsellers are the fried chicken wings, butterbeef (think beef carpaccio in an Asian vinagrette), and beef luc luc.
- Fat Mao – I discovered this noodle shop on a cold day when the 30 minute line up at Phnom Penh across the road was extremely unappealing. So we hopped into this little shop and discovered a GEM! My two favourite items on the menu are the hot and sour pork noodles and the Tom Yum Goong noodles. Both are spicy, tart, sweet, and flavourful — all at the same time!
- DD Mau – Walking into this Vietnamese restaurant feels like walking into an old shophouse in Vietnam’s Hoi An. I love the atmosphere and more-than-just-pho menu here.
- Chambar – technically considered Crosstown, this Belgian-inspired restaurant has been around for years. A beautiful venue, great for a date night or celebration.
- Jam Cafe – Next door to Chambar, Jam Cafe is super popular for its extensive brunch menu. I love brunch, but I hate lines, so I’d avoided this place until recently. Personally, I think Vancouver is lacking in good brunch options, which is why the few good ones that are around get very busy.
- Sun Yat-Sen Gardens — not a food establishment, but a classical Chinese Garden. Peaceful oasis in the city that allows you to feel like you’ve stepped into China.
Railtown — I’m not sure what the formal boundaries are of what is often being called Railtown, but it’s the area that is East of Gastown and Downtown Eastside, formerly Japantown, into East Van. I don’t come here often, mainly because it is really dodgy and sad, full of junkies, but there are lots of good restaurants and up-and-coming places in this area. The Mackenzie Room, St. Lawrence, and Ask for Luigi are all highly rated restaurants located in this area. I’ll get here to explore, eventually…
Yaletown – my current hood. The stereotype of Yaletown is botox and purse puppies, and though there is definitely a fair share of that here, I like Yaletown for its convenience, access to water, and cleanliness.
The two main streets of Yaletown with the boutiques, restaurants, and bars are on Mainland and Hamilton, between Nelson and Drake. The best part of Yaletown is to wander down to the water by Marinaside (Davie and Marinaside) and follow the jewel of Vancouver — the Seawall. The path hugs False Creek and heading East/South takes you to the Olympic Village area; West takes you towards Sunset Beach and English bay.
- Rodney’s Oyster Bar. Great for fresh seafood, oysters, and their famous caesars (lots of fresh horseradish). There are two locations in the city (the other is in Gastown) but the Yaletown one is the original. Rodney’s takes a twist on the tradition of restaurants hiring young hot waitresses, opting to hire hunky men instead 🙂
- Robba da Matti— Italian, known for their fresh pasta. If you’re craving carbs and glass of red, this is the place to go.
- Bartholomews — one of my newer recommendations. This bar has been chicly decorated in dark, moody tones and is a great place for a date.
- Small Victory — my favourite bakery. Their brioche cinnamon bun is my guilty pleasure. The tasteful decor also make this a nice little cafe to sit in and people watch.
English Bay / West End – the bohemian, eclectic part of Downtown, this area is home to lots of heritage apartments, ethnic restaurants, and the LGBTQ heart of Vancouver. During the summer, you’ll find all the locals and suburban visitors at Sunset Beach and English Bay enjoying the sand and sun. Up from English Bay, you’ll find a bunch of restaurants and bars on Davie and Denman to satisfy your post-beach hunger or thirst .
- Kintaro – one of my favourite ramen places in town. I always go for their vegetable ramen. It literally is served in a bowl the size of a sink and I can only finish half (the other half actually tastes half decent the next day). You can choose how “fatty” you want the soup base to be. Vancouver is a ramen obsessed city, so be ready to be told that the “BEST” ramen is at so-and-so place. My other favourite ramen shop is a chain called Marutama. There is a location in the Westend and all the way at the other end of Robson, towards BC Place Stadium as well. I first discovered Marutama in Singapore and have fallen for their thin chewy noodles and super creamy spring onion filled chicken broth base.
- Kingyo – another classic Izakaya place that’s been around forever. Good for sake and shared Japanese style tapas.
- Sura – one of many Korean restaurants along Robson. These guys do a great lunch set and I love the side dishes.
Olympic Village – I can’t even recall what this area used to be like before they started building dozens of condo towers in prep for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. This was the area where all the athletes were meant to stay during the games; plans were to turn them into market condos afterwards. For the first few years after the Games, it was a bit of a ghost town, not much life or excitement happening in the area, but now, it’s one of the most popular areas to live and has a number of cool restaurants and breweries.
- Brewhall — probably my favourite of the breweries around this area. It’s huge, with big wooden bench seating where you can actually still strike up conversations with strangers at a bar. Good beer and good pizza, and a good burger + beer special on Mondays. If you stay late enough, they usually start playing old school pop music on the big screen. And yes, after a few beers, it is always fun to sing along to Backstreet Boys.
- Nook – An Italian place with multiple locations across the city. A solid option for Italian and pizza.
- Earnest Ice-Cream — it’s always a debate in this city, whether you’re a Rain or Shine fan or an Earnest fan. I am an ICE CREAM FAN and Earnest is the original hipster ice-cream bar. I secretly harbour dreams of having my own gelato shop (a la Gelato Messina in Sydney), so always feel joy and envy when I go. London Fog and Salted Chocolate Rye Cookie are two of my favourite Earnest flavours.
- Beta 5 – A little chocolate / cream puff shop right smack in the middle of industrial avenue, but if you’re looking for a beautiful box of chocolates to gift or want to bring some impressive desserts to a party, this is the place.
Mount Pleasant – Young and hipster, this area centres around Main street from about 16th down to the Olympic Village area. Main street is littered with restaurants and as you head north on Main towards the Olympic Village, there are boutique breweries and cafes tucked in off the side streets. Here’s your best best on finding some vintage clothing and craft brews.
- Anh & Chi — One of my favourite restaurants in Vancouver. I adore Vietnamese food and this place is not your average Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall. The story is that son and daughter took over the Vietnamese noodle shop from their parents and did a complete makeover-transformation to turn it into a Vancouver dining hot-spot. I love the ambience, the menu, and the bathroom decor in particular. I always order the DIY Streetside Platter, which is a basket of grilled meats and fresh herbs and veggies, served with dried rice-paper noodles that you dip into a bowl of hot water to soften, and then wrap your own rice paper spring rolls. So good and so fun to eat.
- Sing Sing – with a fusion menu and extensive beer list, this bright sunny bar is a great place to meet up with friends or take a date.
- 49th Parallel – Local cafe chain with great coffee and delicious donuts.
Kitsilano – where I briefly lived for a summer, just before moving to Australia. Kits is the original hippie heart of Vancouver, though these days it’s more about health boutiques and outdoor gear shops than hemp stores. The main shopping drag is West 4th Avenue between Burrard and Vine Street. Kitsilano beach is where the buff bodies of Vancouver come out to sunbathe on a sunny day and Kits outdoor pool is popular with locals.
- Maenam – Don’t come here expecting a cheap Pad Thai take-out shop, Maenam is the closest thing thing to Sydney-style Thai food that I’ve experienced in Vancouver. They even have a cook book out if you want to attempt some of the recipes at home.
- Unchai – Another Thai place, this place is a tiny hole-in-the wall with fairly limited hours but good flavours and value.
- Rain or Shine Ice-Cream – the other gourmet ice-cream shop in town. Grab a scoop on a waffle cone and chill out at the little street side seating area to people watch.
If you want more beach and less people, head further west on Cornwall/Point Grey or West 4th Avenue and eventually find your way to Jericho Beach or Spanish Banks. Usually quieter than Kits, the beaches around Point Grey offer beautiful views of the North Shore mountains and awesome sunsets. The road by Spanish Banks actually continues all the way into the University of British Columbia. If tan-lines are not your jam, you can join the nudists at UBC’s famous Wreck Beach too.
Look out for more Vancouver and BC posts here soon!