London calling: Vancouver’s best pubs
It’s 9.45 p.m. at the tiny, brass-trimmed bar of a dark, creaky-floored old pub. A roaring hearth is crackling in the corner, baking the winter-frozen flanks of nearby patrons and projecting shadows across the ceiling like a walk-in magic lantern. Perusing the shiny taps and chatting with a barrel-bellied barman, I plump for a chestnut-brown Chiswick Bitter then decamp to a candlelit corner.
Within minutes, I’m debating the merits – or otherwise – of pear cider, utopian socialism and last night’s Queen Park Rangers soccer game (don’t ask) with two well-oiled friends I’ve been regularly drinking with since high school. It’s one of several similarly animated conversations playing out across the glowing room, a laughter-studded babel that warms the regulars just as much as the flaming fireplace.
Not surprisingly, this isn’t Vancouver. I’m back in the UK for a fleeting visit to my birthplace, dipping into a centuries-old neighbourhood pub scene that was the sociable foundation of my formative years. I’ve missed it ever since.
But my giddy and abiding pub love isn’t just nostalgia. These multigenerational gathering places are the community halls of many UK towns. Serving the same regulars (and their children) for decades, their regional ales predate our hipster-driven craft beers, while their ever-welcoming vibe facilitates face-to-face “likes” without the need for Facebook, which apparently still lacks a button for buying a round for your friends.
The absence of a pub culture like this was the cloud hanging over my 1990s move from England. Vancouverites, it seemed, preferred winding-down with spa treatments, while I pined for dark rooms bristling with conversation and the clink of dimpled pint glasses. Canada’s “pubs” were more like restaurants than community halls, where dining was the key activity and hanging out all evening over a few brews was discouraged by the lame beers and tip-hungry servers.
But after a few years, something started brewing here. B.C.’s craft beer revolution kicked-off, making ale a focus rather than a sidebar to eating. Bars that used to serve factory-made dross began pouring Driftwood and Central City. And new venues emerged that – even with restaurant licenses – echoed my ideal of chilled out neighbourhood taverns.
Fast forward to now and Vancouver is inching into a golden pub age – and that’s not the drink talking. Several old lag joints have raised their game and a couple of new spots have leapfrogged to the top table, enabling discerning quaffers to turn their backs on humdrum plastic pubs (you know the ones I mean).
The required features? Fine beer and grub that gives grease a good name; dialing down the music and TVs to foster banter; and – most importantly – making everyone from plaid-shirted coolsters to red-nosed CAMRA members feel equally welcome. Encouraging you to reach out and talk to the people at the next table, bars that follow these rules are the antidote to Vancouver’s infamous cliqueyness and sad-ass disconnection – and that’s guaranteed (okay that is the drink talking).
Here then are my meticulously researched recommendations for great Vancouver locals. Those neighbourhood joints that best recall my favoured UK watering holes and, in some cases, surpass them. If you disagree, drop by and debate the point. I’ll almost certainly be sipping on an ESB in a shady corner at one of these on any given night. And I’ll probably by talking a little too loudly about utopianism and the dawn of a perfect pub age.
Like the Cambie, everyone has a half-remembered story about some crazy night at the Rail. But however naked you were, all is forgiven when you stagger upstairs and rediscover this Vancouver nightlife legend. That perilously stained carpet and faint wet-dog aroma still greets like an old, slightly soiled friend – while the bar-only service, proper pint glasses, hot nuts dispenser and trundling model train will make you feel like you’ve never been away.
But rather than relying on nostalgia, the Rail keeps on chugging because it’s one of the city’s most welcoming trad pubs, and it effortlessly gets just about everything right. There’s an excellent B.C. craft beer list – including Tuesday’s guest cask – an unfailingly eclectic roster of nightly live shows from indie bands to poetry slams, and a pub grub hole-in-the-wall counter that hits the perfect booze-complementing grease spot (bacon and blue cheese DeRailer Burger recommended).
Details: 579 Dunsmuir Street; therailwayclub.com
Best time: First Monday of the month’s Hard Rock Miners Sing-a-Long.
Swathed in faded football scarves and populated by expat alcoholics, North America’s British pubs are typically depressing affairs. The alternative is Vancouver’s vibe-tastic Cascade, co-owned by an Oxford chap. Combining sly nods to London boozers – flock wallpaper, Queen Victoria-accented lampshades and that Keep Calm And Carry On glass panel – with chatty candlelit booths and genial good service, missing the Empire is never a requirement for drinking here.
But the reason Cascade is Mount Pleasant’s merriest bar – where local hipsters relax enough to check their irony at the door – is the near-perfect drink and dine selection. Stomach-lagging Sunday roasts head a gastropub menu from Rossdown chicken to Saltspring mussels, while the top-notch beer list runs from Phillips to Fullers and Cascade’s own Main Street Pilsner. It’s complemented by a tongue-tickling 50-plus cocktail menu – check the chalkboards for the latest concoctions.
Details: 2616 Main Street; thecascade.ca
Best time: Monday night’s trivia quiz or Name that Tune.
Storm Crow Tavern
You don’t have to know the difference between Narnia and Neverwhere to enjoy Commercial Drive’s new nerd pub: like any great inn, all-comers are welcome. But if you roll-up in Gandalf robes, no one will bat an eyelash here – especially the red-haired server with replica elf ears. With darkwood tables, medieval beams and steam-punk replica weapons adorning the walls, this “sports bar for fantasy and sci-fi fans” is ideal for communal Game of Thrones screenings. And if it’s a re-run, there are always the board games (anyone for Elfenland?).
Food-wise, it’s all lembas bread all the time – just kidding LOTR fans. In fact, there’s a small, good-value array of mains and $6 sandwiches, a B.C.-focused beer list (East Side Bitter recommended) and a two-bottle wine choice running from red to white. But who needs fancy beverages when the role-playing books are out on the tables and the drunken Eye of Sauron is kicking-off at the bar?
Details: 1305 Commercial Drive; stormcrowtavern.com
Best time: Sunday afternoon, when the board games take over.
Pioneering Vancouver’s microbrew love affair, Alibi’s 50-ish taps make this the city’s most inviting beer room – St. Augustine’s is similarly well-aled but its sports bar racket makes it far less chat-friendly. The tavern’s glowing redbrick interior is striped with rows of candlelit long tables where rotund older drinkers and skinny-arsed hipsters merrily dive into brews together – the former usually necking pints, the latter preferring the $11 four-glass samplers.
After scoffing a BBQ pork belly sandwich – the highlight of a hearty gastropub menu – beer nuts often perch at the bar to chat with Brit co-owner Nigel. Ask for something weird and he’ll find a brain-addling witches brew guaranteed to give you a hangover while you’re drinking it. He might even tell you about plans to open his own Brassneck Brewery in 2013. Until then, you’ll have to content yourself with an Alibi draft selection showcasing B.C.’s best, from Hoyne to Howe Sound and from Storm to Parallel 49.
Details: 157 Alexander Street; alibi.ca
Best time: Tuesday evening’s calm, intimate vibe.
It’s just after midnight and you’re in a windowless, subterranean saloon no bigger than a train carriage. Antlers and a mangy bear head (wearing sunglasses) stud the candlelit walls as you slowly sip a Phoenix Gold pilsner. If you were alone, you’d feel like Jack Nicholson at the hotel bar in The Shining. But since this speakeasy room is hopping with good-time Main Streeters – the sociable kind rather than the ones frowning behind MacBooks – you sink into the private party vibe animating Vancouver’s favourite cult bar.
Jokily hard to find from the street – its only marker is a red light bulb illuminated when open – the graffiti-covered stairwell entrance gives most first-timers second thoughts. But once inside, you won’t want to leave. My chosen nuclear bunker for when the time comes, I’ll join the lightly tattooed regulars here toasting the world’s end and feasting on the bar’s baked mac and cheese. And when it’s time to venture outside, we’ll start at the hidden tiki patio out back – mine’s a dark and stormy.
Details: Corner of Main Street and 3rd Avenue; narrowlounge.com
Best time: Saturday late-night, with the turntable cranked up.
Vancouver dive bars are either plague-infested hell holes or ironically rediscovered saloons where smirking youngsters guzzle Old Milwaukee – or sometimes both. But B.C. was founded on working class taverns and the Princeton – in a time-capsule neighbourhood where cobbles poke through the roads – is the real deal. But visit soon: “East Village” banners flutter nearby, spilling gentrification like a dropped glass of pinot.
Keno screens, a busy pool table and vintage Molson and Labatt signs evoke a 1980s neighbourhood legion without the meat draw. Perch at the bar with the regulars – tough-ass fellas donning Dickies pants for work rather than skateboarding – and you’ll overhear Wild Turkey-fuelled conversations about cars and failed marriages. Drinks-wise, it’s mostly standard lager and some craft bottles: perfect for washing down a shared Princeton Platter of wings, ribs, fries and coconut shrimp.
Details: 1901 Powell Street; princetonpub.com
Best time: Thursday evening live blues with Harpdog Brown and the Bloodhounds.
There’s a speakeasy frisson to Vancouver’s most beloved alt pub – especially if the handwritten door sign points you to the sketchy back alley entrance. But don’t be afraid. Once inside this windowless, cave-like room you’ll feel instantly warmed by fairy-lit movie posters, old pop machines and neon-bright fish tanks rippling with aquatic life. Resembling an explosion at a really good garage sale, you’ve just walked into the physical extension of owner Leo’s eclectic mind.
Perch at the bar with some chips (the only food available) and a Raven Cream Ale – one of several well-priced drafts – and you can quiz him about his love for what he calls the “living room” vibe in UK pubs. Then ask the regulars – friendly young coolsters who view the sofa-lined spot as their den – how they found a place that eschews advertising, is website-phobic and prefers social to social media and you’ll hear just how effective word-of-mouth can still be.
Details: 730 Main Street
Best time: Tuesday night’s chilled vibe.
Transforming an old Copper Tank Grill into a buzzing new local, Portland Craft has been brimming with giddy regulars since day one. But it’s not the décor – a barely-altered interior of comfy booths, log-slice long table and a Post-it Note art installation – that’s changed the bar’s fortunes. It’s the clever invocation of what many Vancouverites regard as the promised land. But if you name your bar after Oregon’s hippest city, you have to provide sudsy substance to back it up.
Portland Craft manages that with a unique-for-Vancouver 20-strong draft list of top-notch western US producers like Rogue, Elysian, Hopworks and Deschutes. It’s the only place in the city you can start with an Immortal IPA and end with a Black Butte Porter, with a pit stop for some beer-absorbing grub along the way (flatbread pizzas recommended). And when it’s nightcap time, weave to the nearby Army, Navy & Air Force Veterans Club for a Crown Royal finale.
Details: 3835 Main Street; portlandcraft.com
Best time: 5 p.m. Friday when the work-forgetting regulars roll in.
Sunday afternoon rays stream through the floor-to-ceiling windows, heating the honey-coloured tables like a summertime conservatory. It’s tempting to stretch out for a catnap, but then you’d miss the reason you came here: the 4 p.m. tapping of this week’s guest cask. Sipping a mildly-floral Central City Saffron ESB, you bask in the sun and chat to your buddies as another timeless afternoon at the Whip – the kind where watches work at half-speed – unfolds.
Socked into a century-old heritage building, this is the perfect comfy local: a shabby-chic interior of dinged tables, dark corners and shimmering chandeliers invites rainy night hunkering, while the narrow al fresco patio encourages basking when unexpected sun peppers the brick façade. Whenever you drop by, peruse the ever-changing artworks on the walls and flirt a little with the tattooed wait staff. They’ll help you choose some great grub – salmon fritters recommended – before you continue your beery amble, preferably including Fat Tug IPA and Black Plague Stout.
Details: 209 East 6th Avenue; thewhiprestaurant.com
Best time: Sunday afternoon.
Studded with lame neighbourhood pubs, the ‘burbs are also home to occasional gems worth jumping in the car for – especially this instantly-welcoming Deep Cove joint. With an effortlessly mixed crowd of dining seniors, blokey barflies and twenty-something lads intent on partying, the inviting interior’s glowing hearth and red-glass candle-holders foster an increasingly cozy ambiance as the night unwinds.
But it’s not just about looks, as the toothless cougar stroking your leg around midnight might say. The Raven is renowned for its 20-or-so deep-dish pizza varieties – pesto chicken recommended – plus a bewildering array of mains running from braised lamb to bulging fish tacos. The beer list is even better, with top quaffs from Storm, Phillips, Driftwood, Howe Sound and – on my visit – Crannóg’s near-legendary Back Hand of God Stout. It’s a selection good enough to make this your local wherever you live.
Details: 1052 Deep Cove Road, North Vancouver; theravenpub.com
Best time: Saturday night’s hopping vibe and occasional live music.
John Lee was born in St. Albans where his favourite pubs include the Goat, White Lion and Six Bells.