PATIOS, PICNICS AND PARTIES PREVAIL IN LOWER LONSDALE THE SHIPYARDS DISTRICT
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.