Restaurants have always been magical to me, not only for the food they share but the spaces they open for me to explore the world. I have marked both big milestones and quiet, meaningful moments while dining out.

But the life of a Vancouver restaurant is particularly precarious and fragile.  Most don’t own their premises, and enormous development and rent pressures mean that even in the best of times, a local favourite can disappear before we know it, leaving a keening void.

Pre-COVID, there was nothing I loved more than taking out-of-town visitors to my favourite restaurants, both for the fantastic food and to show them real life in Vancouver; 2020 presented astonishing challenges that hastened the end of many places dear to my heart. Though life, of course, continues, things will never taste quite the same again.

Vancouver’s Chinatown was the centre of my family’s Chinese culinary life. As our tastes evolved, restaurants followed, from tiny chop suey and wonton houses to dim sum palaces and banquet halls. Goldstone Bakery and Restaurant opened in 1986, with a huge menu reflecting Hong Kong café classics—Western comfort foods (brought to Hong Kong by the British) run through a Cantonese lens.

I loved their baked pork chops served over a bed of fried rice, fluffy pineapple buns sandwiching slabs of cold butter, and macaroni soups with, of all things, Spam!  For my parents’ generation, these dishes were their first taste of aspirational Western-style foods, and Goldstone’s value-driven menu meant that everyone could share in this experience.

Baked pork chops at Goldstone Bakery and Restaurant. Photo by Lee Man.

But with razor-thin margins, once the flywheel of daily operations was stopped by COVID, it proved impossible to restart. The loss to many Vancouverites feels immeasurable.

Gigi’s Pizza & Spaghetti House was the first restaurant I went to without parental supervision, a group of teenagers having a grown-up birthday lunch on our own. The meal was a blitz of North American–style red sauce dishes. Puffy-crusted pizzas under mounds of melting mozzarella, lasagna bubbling with meaty Bolognese, thick buttery garlic bread. The staff treated us with a deference that felt like a coming of age, a gentle lesson on how to conduct ourselves in a restaurant.

Though the big, punchy flavours were not what I grew up with, the spirit of generosity and celebration needed no translation. Red sauce houses, like the local Chinese buffet parlours, have all but disappeared as newer and more “authentic” restaurants have opened. But it was restaurants such as Gigi’s that opened my palate to new flavours, while showing me the joy of sharing food is universal.

There is nothing better than being a restaurant regular. One of my weekend rituals was settling in with a bowl of Vietnamese bho ko beef stew at Au Petit Café: tender beef, melting tendon, and chunks of carrots in a cleanly rich tomato broth scented with star anise, lemon grass, and fish sauce. Heaven. What brought the dish together was the perfectly steamed jasmine rice, revealing a kitchen that paid attention to the right details.

I loved going early with my brother, before the lunch crowd, so we could enjoy our iced coffees in companionable peace. I will miss the charming eccentricity of owner Do Minh Trinh, watching him juggle takeout orders on his Bluetooth earpiece while chatting with regulars. You were never quite sure who he was speaking to, but he always had a smile on his face.

In 2008, when Campagnolo opened on a forlorn stretch of Main Street, the venture seemed both excitingly visionary and foolhardy. But diners followed chef Robert Belcham’s rustically sophisticated cooking. Thin-crust Neapolitan pizzas, buoyant fresh pasta, and funky house-cured meats were rarities in Vancouver before Campagnolo.

MONTECRISTO Summer 2015: Robert Blecham

Campagnolo chef Robert Belcham at work. Photo by Kavin Wong.

The excitement and optimism of Campagnolo was invigorating—reflecting a time when chefs such as Angus An (Maenam), Joël Watanabe (Kissa Tanto), and J-C Poirier (St. Lawrence) were also starting new ventures. Other restaurants and businesses have since moved to the same block of Main Street, creating a hub of vital creativity. The honest and heartfelt cooking of Campagnolo may be gone, but its transformational legacy remains intact and as exciting as ever.

Royal Dinette was an unexpected hothouse flower, a Donnelly Group property breathed to life by locavore iconoclast David Gunawan. Royal Dinette proved that the downtown business crowd was ready to embrace deep seasonality, funky fermentation, and handcrafted flavours. And while the restaurant industry grapples with issues of abuse and barriers, Royal Dinette’s kitchen and bar provided a staging ground for talents such as Jack Chen (The Observatory), Eva Chin (chef de cuisine at Kojin in Toronto), Diageo world-champion bartender Kaitlyn Stewart, and sommelier Shiva Reddy.

Souffle at Royal Dinette. Photo by Leila Kwok.

Evenings at Royal Dinette felt golden, basking in the afterglow of beautiful meals that effortlessly reflected the diversity that makes Vancouver special.

Saying goodbye to restaurants is not just about losing favourite dishes, though that is hard enough. But it is coming to the heartbreaking realization that some stories have come to their end and, in this horrible year, we often didn’t even get to say goodbye.

But rather than playing it safe and retreating, Vancouver restaurants have doubled down on their visions with authenticity and integrity, even as they continue to face steep challenges. Social isolation has made me long for places of connection deep in my soul. I am hopeful that we can soon experience the simple, unfettered joys of dining out and watching life unfold again.


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