If you haven’t been re­cently, con­sider vis­it­ing North Van­cou­ver’s fastest grow­ing ur­ban neigh­bour­hood where a new al fresco cul­ture has emerged and the ac­tion is non-stop.

Vancouver Magazine - - Feature -

Dur­ing the sleepy win­ter months, Lower Lons­dale The Ship­yards Dis­trict has been busy trans­form­ing it­self into an ur­ban wa­ter­front and vi­brant so­cial gath­er­ing space with new at­trac­tions and en­ter­tain­ment, just in time for sum­mer. Sub­se­quently, this ‘hood’s evo­lu­tion has in­spired a new cul­ture of restau­ran­teurs of­fer­ing up more funin-the-sun seats to please fans of al fresco din­ing and drink­ing.

Lower Lons­dale The Ship­yards Dis­trict just may be­come your fa­vorite new hang­out, so hop on the 12-minute Se­abus from Van­cou­ver, and whether you pre­fer a pa­tio or a pic­ture-per­fect pic­nic perch such as the pier, the park, or the new Me­gabench, take in­spi­ra­tion from our list to get you started.

RESTAU­RANT ROW This unique one-block stretch at the foot of Lons­dale Av­enue boasts an eclec­tic col­lec­tion of five side-by-side in­de­pen­dent restau­rants that now all fea­ture ex­panded pa­tios. From Gusto di Qu­at­tro, to Bur­goo Bistro, Ana­toli Sou­vlaki, The Dis­trict Brasserie and Raglan’s Bistro their well-crafted food and drinks won’t dis­ap­point and, if you visit all five, you’ll feel like you’ve trav­elled the world.

SEA­SIDE HOT SPOTS If wa­ter’s edge din­ing is for you, then pull up a chair at Pier 7 where the breath­tak­ing views are the per­fect com­ple­ment to an up­scale seafood meal. At Tap & Bar­rel’s epic wa­ter­front pa­tio, West Coast ca­sual fare is served up along­side bar­reled wines and beer on tap. If in­no­va­tive lo­cal craft beers and tasty Bowen Is­land Pizza ex­cites you, you’ll want to hit up Green Leaf Brew­ing’s pa­tio.

A MAR­KET WITH A VIEW Pre­fer pic­nics to pa­tios? Try the gourmet food ven­dors at Lons­dale Quay Mar­ket. Build your own meal with freshly baked bread from Cobs Breads, char­cu­terie from Bowen Is­land Pizza, a salad from the Wa­ter­front Salad Gar­den, sea­sonal fruit from Lons­dale Green Gro­cer and hand­made sweets from Olde World Con­fec­tions. Find your per­fect al fresco spot and en­joy the ac­tion. ETH­I­CAL EATS Lower Lons­dale, re­ferred to by some lo­cals as the Ship­yards Dis­trict, is ex­plod­ing with eth­i­cally-minded restau­rants. From its 2nd floor lo­cale, Café by Tao fea­tures or­ganic plant-based raw ve­gan cui­sine, Wind­sor Meats on Lons­dale Av­enue is guided by a com­mit­ment to cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity and high-qual­ity in­gre­di­ents and, one block north, Ocean Wise West Coast seafood dom­i­nates the menu at Fish­works.

DIN­ING IN THE GAR­DEN Some restau­rants are trans­form­ing their out­door pa­tios by swap­ping flow­ers pots for raised gar­dens beds full of the yummy pro­duce that will end up on your plate. With the help of North Van­cou­ver’s LifeS­pace Gar­dens, Lift Break­fast Bak­ery and Bean Around the World are lead­ing the way.

The Project

Savio’s suc­cess—the trio re­paid their debt from the restau­rant in an un­heard-of 15 months—en­abled the team to start cast­ing about for other projects. They toyed with the idea of an­other ver­sion of Savio, an off­shoot that would be dif­fer­ent but would share some of the brand’s DNA. But their care­ful plan­ning was in­ter­rupted by a phone call from are­al­tor ac­quain­tance who spe­cial­izes in the restau­rant in­dus­try. A build­ing at the north end of Com­mer­cial Drive had just been sold and the new own­ers, fa­mil­iar with the Savio jug­ger­naut, wanted them as the new an­chor ten­ant. The kicker? The build­ing—631 Com­mer­cial—housed Nick’s Spaghetti House, one of the few re­main­ing icons of Van­cou­ver’s early din­ing scene.

The team’s im­me­di­ate ques­tion: what was hap­pen­ing to Nick Feli­cella, the 86-year-old pro­pri­etor who opened the epony­mous spot in 1955? They had zero in­ter­est in see­ing an icon shoved aside as part of Van­cou­ver’s gen­tri­palooza. But a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions with the oc­to­ge­nar­ian put their minds at ease. Nick wasn’t be­ing pushed out: he was, af­ter 62 years of ser­vice and with no de­scen­dants will­ing to carry on the restau­rant, ready to move on to re­tire­ment. Phew. Stanghetta lives in the neigh­bour­hood and had been tak­ing his daugh­ter to Nick’s for old-school spaghetti and meat­balls for years. He couldn’t fathom that the lo­ca­tion was avail­able. “There were so few prop­er­ties with real char­ac­ter in this town,” he re­calls. “And this one falls right in our laps. Icouldn’t be­lieve it.” Per­rier also lives near the Drive and was like­wise smit­ten. “I hon­estly thought we had a chance to bring back some of the vi­brancy to this sec­tion of Com­mer­cial.”

But on things op­er­a­tional these two cede to the ex­pe­ri­ence of Grun­berg, who says he thought about the op­por­tu­nity for all of two se­conds. “My test is sim­ple: would I feel sick if we didn’t get this?” he says. “I thought about it, and I re­al­ized I’d feel sick if we didn’t get this.”

Stanghetta nods in agree­ment. “In all se­ri­ous­ness,” he says, “one of the driv­ers for do­ing this is that if we didn’t do it and some­one else comes and fucks it up, then this

piece of his­tory would be gone for good.” So within 48 hours they had signed a let­ter of in­tent. And handed over a$30,000 de­posit.

The Plan

Tak­ing over Nick’s meant an im­me­di­ate ad­just­ment to the plans for a Savio off­shoot. In the early stages, it’s Stanghetta’s job to fig­ure out the story that will guide the team through the cre­ative process. With Savio, it started with an im­age of a fam­ily of foxes and mor­phed from there. But Nick’s was no re­gional Ital­ian spot but rather that unique hy­brid that is the “red sauce” joint—a lit­tle dash of Naples, a pinch of Cal­abria and a huge heap­ing of North Amer­ica as in­ter­preted by the Ital­ians—like Nick—who im­mi­grated here start­ing at the turn of the last cen­tury. Stanghetta be­gins by gath­er­ing lit­tle pieces of in­spi­ra­tion that would help him en­vi­sion the place: Ray Liotta sneak­ing in through the back door of the Copaca­bana in Good­fel­las, avin­tage ad for Hunt’s tomato paste, a match­book from a long-ago Bos­ton restau­rant and, in­ex­pli­ca­bly, ashot of a blue vin­tage ro­tary phone. And the cover of arecord by crooner Lou Monte called Pepino, the Ital­ian Mouse. He also went so far as to hire his­to­rian

2 John Atkin to cre­ate adossier not just on Nick’s but on the en­tire Ital­ian-Cana­dian ex­pe­ri­ence in Van­cou­ver from 1900 on­ward so he could both hon­our and tap into that au­then­tic­ity as they moved for­ward.

But un­like Savio, which was a blank can­vas, Nick’s came prepack­aged with a sto­ried past. Like the hand­painted mu­rals of ran­dom scenes of “Italy” that adorn the din­ing room’s wall. On one of the early walk-throughs, some­one asked Stanghetta what would be­come of them: “Are you kid­ding? We’re keep­ing ’em,” he an­swered.

Monte, born Luigi Scaglione, had suc­cess with a se­ries of Ital­ian-Amer­i­can–themed nov­elty songs in the 1950s and early ’60s. In ad­di­tion to “Pepino,” he recorded the Christ­mas carol “Do­minick the Don­key,” which has, oddly, be­come a Van­cou­ver Christ­mas tra­di­tion started by for­mer news an­chor Steve Dar­ling on Global BC.

The Hur­dles When de­cid­ing whether to move on Nick’s, one of the is­sues the gang wor­ried about was Nick’s com­pact foot­print and its mere 77 seats. But they had an an­gle—next door to Nick’s is an op­er­at­ing con­ve­nience store, so the guys be­gan to en­vi­sion acom­pan­ion spot to the restau­rant that would be per­fect as a wine bar. They ne­go­ti­ated with the land­lord to take that space as well.

Ex­pe­ri­ence had taught the team that one of the keys to suc­cess is min­i­miz­ing de­lays on the front end. The city is rife with sto­ries of restau­ra­teurs whose un­do­ing was de­lays oc­ca­sioned by de­vel­op­ment or liquor per­mits. “That’s why we made sure

3 that we bought both the liquor and the busi­ness li­cence from Nick,” notes Grun­berg.

But the ink was just dry­ing on the lease when word came back from the city: the con­ve­nience store space, that re­cently had housed an ac­tive, legally op­er­at­ing busi­ness, was not in fact zoned com­mer­cial. It was res­i­den­tial. The long-time op­er­at­ing cor­ner store was, it turns out, only zoned for liv­ing in. Even cra­zier, the city’s mas­ter plan for this sec­tion of Com­mer­cial ex­plic­itly calls for more com­mer­cial frontage—which should have been aben­e­fit, but be­cause plan­ning and li­cens­ing are dif­fer­ent de­part­ments…it was a ma­jor prob­lem.

Grun­berg re­calls dis­cussing whether they should just walk away and cut their losses, but the idea was very quickly dis­carded. “We weren’t walk­ing away,” says Stanghetta.

In­stead they mo­bi­lized to get a build­ing per­mit ap­pli­ca­tion in stat that called for a dif­fer­ent use of the space, and in so do­ing they got a bit of a break: the city would agree to grand­fa­ther­ing the ex­ist­ing use—a con­ve­nience store—for the spot. So the idea of a wine bar would have to be shelved, but they could move for­ward with an Ital­ian gro­ce­ria con­cept: a store filled with the best stuff, per­haps branded by them, that might one day—with the city’s bless­ing—morph into a spe­cialevent space. Ideal? Not re­ally. But damn the tor­pe­does.

The Tast­ing The un­fin­ished Nick’s space still has ayel­lowed lunch menu taped on the wood lam­i­nate wall, at­es­ta­ment to just what a kooky hy­brid the spot had be­come by the end. There’s a list of “Daily Spe­cials,” but they’re the same ev­ery day: baked lasagne with ground beef, ri­cotta and moz­zarella cheese for $18.50, et cetera.

It’s this sort of dish that Per­rier wants to hon­our—to a de­gree. This won’t be a place of note-per­fect Lig­urian re­gional dishes but rather a place that digs deep into the red-sauce mys­tique. And while the menu is Per­rier’s do­main, his part­ners have plenty of opin­ions.

“Oh, we’re 100 per­cent keep­ing the cheese­cake,” says Grun­berg in ref­er­ence to Nick’s sta­ple dessert. And Per­rier is on board with keep­ing up Nick’s tra­di­tion of Sun­day night prime rib. “We’ll def­i­nitely lose money on that, but I don’t care. It’s stay­ing.”

But for the rest, it’s Per­rier’s job to craft a menu that chan­nels red-sauce themes with­out be­com­ing kitsch. So ev­ery week, the team gets to­gether mid­day at Savio and Per­rier tests out po­ten­tial menu items. “When we were do­ing Savio, I had to do all this in my home kitchen,” he re­calls.

At this stage no one ap­pears to be con­cerned with the ul­ti­mate cost of things. Stanghetta notes that one of the hall­marks of late-in­car­na­tion Nick’s was that prices had crept up quite a bit—like that $18.50 for alunchtime lasagne—so they have a lot of room to cre­ate cool things with­out rais­ing prices.

“I don’t cost things,” says Per­rier. “I just fo­cus

on great in­gre­di­ents.” And Grun­berg gruffs: “If we wanted to just fo­cus on mak­ing money, we’d be open­ing a pizze­ria.”

The first dish out is some Ital­ian bread, still warm from Savio’s oven. Per­rier an­nounces that the goal is to cre­ate adenser, spongy tex­ture to soak up red sauce, and every­one seems pleased with the re­sult. The only ques­tion is whether they’ll make it in-house (more ex­pen­sive) or out­source to be made to their specs (cheaper). And there’s no talk of adopt­ing the new tra­di­tion of charg­ing for bread: “We’re def­i­nitely go­ing to give it away,” says Per­rier.

Next up is per­haps the most im­por­tant dish for a spot open­ing in the old Nick’s: spaghetti and meat­balls. Per­rier hur­ries out with a plat­ter of noo­dles crowned with three base­ball-sized orbs of ground beef, pork and ri­cotta. The ri­cotta is Per­rier’s fix to an ear­lier at­tempt that was deemed too dense by the brain trust, and the fix gets a big thumbs-up from the as­sem­bled. On closer in­spec­tion, the noo­dles are thicker than nor­mal. “It’s ac­tu­ally spaghet­toni—a lit­tle big­ger,” says Per­rier. “The funny thing is that spaghetti isn’t ac­tu­ally meant to be served with meat sauce. These noo­dles have a lit­tle more heft to go with the meat­balls.”

An­other round of thumbs up. The af­ter­noon plays out with dish af­ter dish—a side of rap­ini and raisins, a clas­sic chopped salad, aveg­e­tar­ian por­to­bello parmi­giana—with com­ments bandied back and forth.

It ends with a huge slab of the afore­men­tioned New York–style cheese­cake, made with cream cheese and ri­cotta and with a crust of gra­ham crack­ers mixed with crushed bis­cotti. This ver­sion has straw­ber­ries, but Per­rier plans on fol­low­ing the sea­sons with the top­pings. This is his sec­ond at­tempt, and every­one is lov­ing it. The only com­ment comes from Grun­berg: “I’d like it to be taller,” he says about the al­ready-tow­er­ing slab of rich­ness. Per­rier looks down at the plate. “At a cer­tain point, physics is in­volved, Paul.”

And while there is some con­struc­tive cri­tique, for the most part the mood is ex­cited, summed up by Grun­berg clap­ping his hands to­gether at the end of the tast­ing and declar­ing, “I can’t wait to start serv­ing this food.”

The Name

It’s early March and Phoebe Glas­furd is ready to move for­ward. She’s dy­ing to move for­ward. The de­signer is one half of the Glas­furd and Walker brand­ing pow­er­house, which many de­scribe as the yin to Stanghetta’s Ste. Marie yang be­cause they work so closely to­gether.

4 Back in late 2017, there was a vague thought that the restau­rant would have been en­ter­ing into some sort of soft open­ing by now, but that’s so far from re­al­ity as to be laugh­able. Far, as in they don’t even have a name yet.

“I re­ally can’t start with­out aname,” she sighs. Once she has the name, she’ll start craft­ing her brief, which, like Stanghetta’s de­sign plan, will lean heav­ily on the con­cept of sto­ry­telling to drive the vi­su­als. “I imag­ine vi­gnettes of what might hap­pen in this space,” she muses, and from this she’ll work it up into a pre­sen­ta­tion that will en­com­pass ev­ery­thing from sig­nage to menus to sta­tionery. “But Ineed aname.”

Across town the fel­las, for their part, are re­ally sweat­ing the name. They’ve nar­rowed it down to two but as yet haven’t reached con­sen­sus.

Up first is Pepino’s Spaghetti House, loosely in­spired by the nov­elty song of the same name. It’s catchy, play­ful and mir­rors the throw­back nos­tal­gia of the restau­rant’s con­cept. The other is the rather un­con­ven­tional Spaghetti Mouse, a ref­er­ence to Nick Feli­cella’s sec­ond-most­prized pos­ses­sion af­ter his restau­rant: athor­ough­bred he picked up in 2003 for $21,000 that went on to win $929,850, the most ever by any B.C.-bred horse. It hon­ours Nick and ref­er­ences when the spot was a big hang­out for horserac­ing fans.

It’s clear that Stanghetta thinks that Pepino’s will be eas­ier to work with and re­quires less ex­pla­na­tion. Per­rier and Grun­berg seem to be lean­ing to­ward Spaghetti Mouse, but they won’t do it with­out Nick’s bless­ing.

And no one can get ahold of Nick.

The Out­look

Back at Savio, same cor­ner booth. The open­ing is now look­ing like sum­mer, but if there are any nerves around the ta­ble, no one’s ex­press­ing them. They just seem ex­cited to have this place open. They’re talk­ing about pos­si­bly cre­at­ing a cus­tom line of Ital­ian dry goods for use in the shop; they’ve got some pos­i­tive news from the city about the po­ten­tial for spe­cial-use per­mits in the store space. Things are on the rails…for Pepino’s.

5 “Hon­estly,” says Grun­berg, “life is too fuck­ing short.” He sur­veys the room. “I lost my old man not that long ago, and I want to build a place where I would have wanted to go have a meal or just hang out with him.”

Great wine, fair prices, spaghetti and ribs. It’s not even open, and the place feels like it’s al­ways been here.

Their first project to­gether was 2010’s Bao Bei, where, as luck would have it, they both be­came fast friends with the open­ing GM: Paul Grun­berg.

The team ul­ti­mately de­cided that, given how im­por­tant it was to Nick to re­tire his name, Spaghetti Mouse would have also been too close for him—and the 86-year-old is just hard to get a hold of. So it’s Pepino’s, which pays homage to the thor­ough­bred, tips the hat to the old spot, but is also distinctly their own. And it’s cool.

The OG Red Sauce Joint The mu­rals from the orig­i­nal Nick’s will stay, says Stanghetta.

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