Vancouver is synonymous with both natural and urban beauty, thanks to its dedication to smart city planning and preserving green space. The city’s West End is the trendy culmination of these efforts—filled with sleek residential towers, bordered by the mid-city wilderness of Stanley Park, and dotted with enough great places to eat and drink to please everyone.
The center of business and transit in Vancouver is undoubtedly its downtown neighborhood, but further along the central peninsula lies West End, in many ways the true center of the modern Vancouver. In contrast to the picturesque harbors and post-industrial grit of downtown or historic Gastown, the West End seems almost futuristic in its picture-perfect version of modern city living. It is characterized by beaches, pristine towers and dense scatterings of shops and restaurants that exude an upscale sort of bohemia that’s difficult to find anywhere else.
It’s easy to work up an appetite in the West End, especially if you include the adjacent Stanley Park in your travels. Biking and strolling along miles of the bayside Seawall or even venturing into the dense, hilly forests, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better way to spend your day. This is especially true when you complete your outdoorsy trek with a satisfying dinner nearby.
Thanks to its sizable immigrant population, Vancouver is one of North America’s greatest destinations for ramen. Kintaro Ramen Noodle (788 Denman St) near the southeast edge of Stanley Park is the hole-in-the-wall that stands above the rest for their endlessly satisfying bowls of pork, beef and vegetarian ramen. The waits can get long for such an esteemed albeit tight spot, but it’s worth it for just a taste of their rich broth or crispy gyoza.
For Asian authenticity with an added dose of culinary innovation, head a bit further south towards Guu with Garlic (1698 Robson St). The perpetually popular restaurant blends sushi with tapas for a menu filled with small, cheap and innovative twists of East Asian favorites like grilled pork cheek with ponzu sauce, a sashimi salad with subtly-flavored plum dressing and sinful deep fried takoyaki, or octopus balls. Thankfully, the staff are friendly and willing to guide newcomers through the menu despite the busy atmosphere.
For another part of day in another part of town, Acacia Fillo Bar (1103 Denman St) serves delicious eastern European specialties throughout the day, though the savory goodness of their signature dishes is best enjoyed at the beginning of a new day. The cozy family-owned business has familiar café favorites like open-faced sandwiches and English muffins, but the star of the show must be the extensive banitsa menu—that is, Bulgarian pastries made of flaky filo dough rolled up with the filling of your choice, from halibut and spinach to lamb and green onion.
Simba’s Grill (825 Denman St) offers another distinct fusion restaurant in the heart of the West End, this one fusing specialties from East Africa, India and the Middle East for a mishmash of tasty cuisines most North Americans rarely have the opportunity to try. Don’t hesitate to ask questions of the knowledgeable servers, though it’s hard to go wrong with dishes like lamb machicha (that’s spinach) masala or chicken surwa, all of which come in large portions with exceedingly generous spices.
Cultural diversity isn’t the only thing that makes Vancouver cuisine unique. Chef Chris Whittaker’s Forage (1300 Robson St) embraces ingredients and dishes that are distinctly British Columbian, serving farm to table specialties for every meal of the day, including bison rib eye, an award-winning seafood chowder and a foraged mushroom salad. The wood tables and cast-iron pan preparations exude rustic charm, but it’s all about local food prepared with local expertise at Forage.
If you can, always leave room for dessert when dining in the West End, because you may get the chance to sample the main event at the Nero Belgian Waffle Bar (1703 Robson St). A homey café with wood-accented décor, it may just be the perfect place to unwind after a long night. Choose between crispy Brussels-style and softened Liege-style waffles, adorned with the syrup and fresh-cut fruit toppings of your choice.
In truth, the West End is better for dining and shopping than it is for drinking, as downtown boasts the highest concentrations of pubs and bars in the city. Those searching for drinks in the West End will often have to settle for ordering a few cocktails with dinner, but there are more than a few worthwhile bars as well, for those willing to look.
The Blind Sparrow (751 Denman St) toes the line between bar and restaurant wonderfully, making for one of the city’s most rewarding spots to enjoy a happy hour with friends. The menu’s shareable bar snacks range from familiar comforts like fries and oysters on the half-shell, to new experiences like Korean-spiced boar ribs and spicy prawn tacos. Take advantage of daily specialty prices on their local craft beers, many of which come in shareable pitchers, or quietly innovative spins on cocktail classics, like their rosemary gin and tonic.
Exile Bistro (1220 Bute St) similarly balances impressive food and drink menus, both devoted to traditional and modern staples of Pacific Northwest cuisine. The earthy décor matches the omnivorous flavors of vegan and wild game specialties like cedar-smoked potatoes or a fondue that comes with whatever game meat is featured that day. The specialty cocktails outshine the stellar food and service however, as each intricately prepared mixed drink bursts with stylish preparation and distinctive flavor from unusual ingredients, whether it be yam juice, artichoke-infused spirit or bird’s eye chili.
Further south, visitors can find a small collection of lively, upscale gay bars and eateries like the Fountainhead Pub (1025 W Davie St), a gastropub with a lively but casual atmosphere that proves welcoming, no matter your sexual inclination. Whether you’re gathered in the heated patio or playing a game of billiards, be sure to enjoy daily deals on unfussy cocktails and local brews alongside shareable appetizers and generous plates of fresh-caught fish and chips.
Robson Street runs along the northeastern border of the West End, nearly every block of it lousy with attractive shopping spots for clothes, housewares, cosmetics and so much more. No stroll through the West End would be complete without at least a quick browse through the city’s most prestigious shopping district.
One of Canada’s most celebrated retail brands, Roots (1001 Robson St, 1153 Robson St) has a few locations along Robson Street alone. The proud Canadian brand boasts the seemingly contradictory title of environmentally conscious leather-goods store, but their selection of men and women’s clothing goes far beyond that one rustic fabric. Simple yet distinct design is their specialty, and their shops are lousy with great-looking tops, pants and accessories of all shapes, sizes and colors.
Look for the colorful window display at the busy intersection of Robson and Thurlow, and discover another rewarding selection of clothes for men and women at Plenty (1107 Robson St). The shop boasts some of the biggest international names in fashion for reasonable prices, as well as plenty of unique pieces from lesser-known designers you’ll want to get acquainted with. As with Roots, Plenty stocks a huge selection of minimalist clothes and accessories that still command attention, sold for reasonable, occasionally steep prices.
If you’ve had your fill of the upscale retail shops littering the West End, the Used House of Vintage (1008 Robson St) may be just the antidote you need. Like any good thrift store, the shop is a lovable mishmash of lightly-used garments overflowing with classic style, quirk and vibrant color. Alongside the overflowing selection of cheap, stylish gems, enjoy a winning soundtrack of funky jams and suitably vintage décor—much of it for sale.