A down economy, scared-cheap clientele, and the looming threat of the HST. The restaurant industry has had better years than 2009. And although the number of restaurant openings last year can’t rank next to the full-bodied vintage of 2007 (when more than 200 new dining spots appeared within a single year), there were enough new stars on the horizon to keep our hopes moderately high and our palates very happy. Here are my picks for the top 10 new restaurants of 2009.
No need to wait for the fair this summer. Glowbal Restaurant Group has created a sleek, chic funhouse, where drinks like the Candy Collins ($7) utilize the in-house cotton candy machine, and the ubiquitous bread basket has been replaced by gargantuan Kobe beef meatballs wrapped in bacon and slathered in tomato fondue. The chandeliers are worth a visit all by themselves, but you’ll return for dishes like mac-and-cheese balls ($8) and the shake-n-bake chicken ($17).
1257 Hamilton St. | 604-629-8800 | www.society-grg.ca
Phoenix rising might be a good descriptor for this restaurant. After a catastrophic fire in December of 2008, Habit literally rose from the ashes last fall with a new look, a new menu, and a loyal new following. The dark, sexy room is perfectly in keeping with its South Main environs, and the menu is so casual that you even make your own martinis (ingredients are served bento-box style). Brie-and-carrot perogies ($11) and salt cod cakes with wild rice-sunchoke pancakes ($12) are just a couple of reasons to drop by.
2610 Main St. | 604-877-8582 | www.habitlounge.ca
This little hole-in-the-wall on the edge of Denman says “comfort” from the minute you step onto the tiled floor and take in the warm red of the banquets and bar chairs. The Italian trattoria menu is equally cozy, and is perfectly matched by the almost-exclusively-Italian wine list that offers practically everything by the glass, and all bottles under $75. The ricotta pizza ($14) with roasted tomatoes, olives and onions is a treat, as is the chicken liver crostini ($6) with capers and deep-fried onion threads.
781 Denman St. | 604-568-4554 | www.nookrestaurant.ca
7. L’Altro Buca
Chef Andrey Durbach has long been known to Vancouver diners for his food at Pied-à-Terre, La Buca and Parkside. When the latter experienced the first shocks of the recession, Durbach and partner Chris Stewart shut it down and “rebooted” as L’Altro Buca, with La Buca’s menu, but a whole new vibe—not to mention lower price points. Green pea and mint agnolotti with braised lamb cheeks ($19.5) is a customer favourite, as is the housemade duck prosciutto with sliced scallops ($12.50).
1906 Haro St | 604-683-6912 | www.altrobuca.ca
6. Market by Jean-Georges
It’s a sign of the times that a superstar chef like Jean-Georges Vongerichten decided to open a restaurant here rather than in Toronto. Market, at the swank Shangri-La Hotel, is a drop-dead, knock-you-off-your-feet, shimmery-gold bombshell of a room, yet the price point is better than some places with more pretension and less substance. The menu is highly local and über-inventive and the wine list is surprisingly accessible for such a high-end joint. Soy-glazed short ribs with apple-jalapeno puree ($24) and the black truffle pizza with fontina cheese ($15) are must-tries.
1128 West Georgia St | 604-695-1115 | www.shangri-la.com
Another example of a restaurant “reboot,” Refuel is the new, lower-priced incarnation of chef Robert Belcham’s and sommelier Tom Doughty’s fine-dining Fuel. (This one is so new, in fact, that you’ll be reading my review next week.) The new Pacific Northwest menu doesn’t sacrifice on quality or provenance, despite the lower price points, and the ingredients continue to be sourced from local suppliers. Buttermilk-fried Polderside chicken ($18) and dry-aged Pemberton Meadows beef burger ($14.50) are just a couple stand-outs.
1944 West 4 Ave | 604-288-7905 | www.refuelrestaurant.com
4. Au Petit Chavignol
Charcuterie has experienced quite the renaissance over the past couple of years, but it was this “little goat” that elevated the craft into edible art. The small, poured-concrete room is surprisingly inviting and warm, as is the stand-out wine list, with its endless by-the-glass and cheese-friendly selections. It’s not just the duck rillettes ($12) that make the buds water, however, as the kitchen is fully operational and turns out wonders like the croque madame ($11) and the gruyere-and parmesan-crusted mac ‘n’ cheese ($9).
843 East Hastings St | 604-255-4218 | www.aupetitchavignol.com
The final (and best) reboot on this list, Maenam is the second child of chef Angus An, born in the former Gastropod space. Instead of the former molecular gastronomy-influenced menu, Maenam burst forth with fresh Thai flavours and excellent price points in a room made for loud laughter and happy eating. The housemade naam ($8)—fried, fermented Thai sausages with garlic and chili threads—are a carnivorous wonder, as is the Muslim oxtail soup ($14 for two) with orange zest and Vietnamese mint.
1938 West 4 Ave | 604-730-5579 | www.maenam.ca
2. Mis Trucos
Despite the name, there are no tricks on chef/owner Kris Barnholden’s menu, just good Mediterranean-based eats served tapas-style. The room speaks of warmer climes as well, with its bright windows, white palette, and light wood tabletops. All wines are available by the glass, and $8 cocktails like the cohombro o pepino or sangria go down much too easily. Don’t miss the piperade of Serrano ham with slow-cooked egg ($7) or the white truffle and lobster risotto ($14).
1141 Davie St | 604-566-3960 | mistrucos.ca
1. The Pourhouse
What do you get when you mix two bartenders (Jay Jones, Brian Grant) with a chef (Chris Irving)? A winning combination, that’s what. Gastown’s newest dining spot features a retro, 1930s speakeasy feel. Is it a coincidence that this was the era of the Great Depression? Maybe not. A solid drinks program that leans on bourbon and gin is bolstered by the kind of down-home food we haven’t seen since our childhood—think campfire trout ($18) and roasted tomato soup with grilled cheese ($10). The room marries old-world class (white linen tablecloths, heavy silver cutlery) with new world comfort (check out the big-ass bar front and centre), and I have seen dockworkers as comfortable here as Yaletown swanksters. I’ve gone back several times for the grilled squid ($12), large, tender, juicy steaks topped with garlic, chili threads and fresh green onion. That and the cold rice pudding with caramelized figs make for one outstanding house where the food is anything but “poor.”
162 Water St | 604-568-7022 | www.pourhousevancouver.com