A haven for Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 19th century, this area is no longer just the heart of the Chinese Canadian residential community. A timely influx of cool new businesses looking for cheap rent has supplied the foot traffic needed to keep traditional Chinese restaurants, curio shops, and markets alive. The lively contrast is a win/win for visitors and residents alike
The food at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie ( 163 Keefer St.,604688-0876. Bao-bei.ca) surpasses the conversation-starting décor. Artful small plates (Humboldt squid with fiery Chinese sausage, tender bamboo, and wilted bok choy; beef tartare topped with quail egg and a side of crisp-fried taro chips) reinvent the cuisines of Taiwan, Shanghai, and Sichuan. Potent cocktails like the Guizhou Donkey, with ginger beer and a lemongrass shochu kick, will make you feel as hip as the youthful waitstaff. This is Chinese fusion at its best.
The last of Chinatown’s dim sum palaces, Floata Seafood Restaurant ( 400–180 Keefer St., 604-6020368. Floataseafood.com) offers a huge lunch menu that ranges from well-made classics (steamed rice rolls and shrimp dumplings) to more daring fare (jellyfish and pig’s trotters). Deep-fried won tons are light and crisp, and come with a drizzle of sweet and sour. Try the moist steamed sponge cake (locals always choose the edge pieces). The clientele is an animated mix of old-timers, tourists, and local businesspeople.
Family-run Phnom Penh ( 244 E. Georgia St., 604-682-5777) is an institution. You could spend hours perusing the encyclopedic menu of Vietnamese and Cambodian dishes, but do what your neighbours are doing and order the melt-in-your-mouth butter
beef (thin slices barely seared then topped with cilantro and a pungently limey fish sauce) and deep-fried garlicky chicken wings with a kicking lemon-pepper dipping sauce. Cambodian-style dry egg noodles topped with pork, prawns, green onion, and garlic oil are the real deal—enjoy them as they are, or add broth to taste.
Housed in a former Chinese takeout joint, Bestie ( 105 E. Pender St., 604-620-1175. Bestie.ca) brings Berlin street food to a lineup of hungry hipsters. The 25-seat design-conscious restaurant excels at currywurst (sliced sausage with curried ketchup) made from B.C.-bred beasts, and suds by Vancouver craft brewers. Every sausage in the rotating selection has a satisfying snap; sides like beets with dill and horseradish sour cream demonstrate that the deceptively simple menu offers more than fast food.
The most compelling boutique among chic storefronts lining the 200 block of Union Street, Charlie & Lee ( 223 Union St., 604-558-3030. Charlieandlee.com) has a thoughtful mix of independent international labels and local design for men and women. The common theme? Energetic colour and attitude. Standouts include frocks by Myne, Fleet Objects homewares, and Illesteva sunglasses.
Step inside the Peking Lounge ( 83 E. Pender St., 604-844-1559. Pekinglounge.com), a trove of Chinese antiquities tucked away among the fishmongers, herbalists, and curio shops. The browsing experience is as pleasurable when you pretend it’s a museum as it is when you drop serious coin on a Qing Dynasty vermilion lacquered cabinet.
Stop by The Modern Bartender ( 28 E. Pender St., 604-684-1747. Themodernbartender.com) and you may come away with a bag full of vintage mint julep cups, tonic syrup, and bottles of proper, bracing ginger beer. Owner Rocket Rod is a self-professed tiki geek (he runs The Shameful Tiki bar on Main Street), so alongside the shelves crammed with bitters, tinctures, syrups, mixers, tools, glasses, books, and accessories (even little oak barrels for aging spirits), there’s all manner of tiki paraphernalia, even midcenturymodern bars and stools.
Peek through apertures in the tall white walls and discover the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden ( 578 Carrall St., 604-662 3207. Vancouverchinesegarden.com), a breathtaking and tranquil reprieve from urban life. Modelled after the scholars’ gardens of 15th-century China, it was the first of its kind outside of China and uses four elements—weathered rocks, jade green water, mystical plants, and organic architecture—to achieve the Taoist balance of yin and yang. In summer, visitors can help feed the koi fish, attend open-air concerts, and even score a quick foot massage by walking barefoot across the pebbled courtyard.
Chinatown is best explored without itinerary. Begin at The Chinatown Millennium Gate ( E. Pender St. at Taylor St.), built in 2002 in homage to Beijing’s Inner City Gates. From there, wander north and east (sensibly—eyes open). Grocers, fishmongers, bun shops, and herbalists line the streets; around them, a growing list of newbie haunts (Mamie Taylor’s, The Union, Ask for Luigi, The Emerald, The Imperial) points to area revitalization.
Bob Rennie’s meticulous restoration of Chinatown’s oldest extant building birthed Rennie Collection at Wing Sang ( 51 E. Pender St. Renniecollection.org), an internationally renowned private-collection art gallery. Solo shows feature contemporary kingpins like Martin Creed and Mona Hatoum. Free tours can be booked online.
Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden
Charlie & Lee
TASTE TH IS Opium Sour KEEFER BAR A heady mix of bourbon, poppy seed tincture, tamarind, and grapefruit evokes historic Chinatown and gets your legal buzz going. 135 Keefer St., 604-688-1961. Thekeeferbar.com
Chinatown Night Market
New Year parade
Butter Beef at Phnom Penh