A Few Reasons to be Proud in Vancouver

by Robert Israel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday June 19, 2009

The sunset cast a butterscotch and tangerine glow over English Bay, in Vancouver, British Columbia. In the distance, the snowcapped mountains towered above the city, shadowy, jagged, mysterious.

In Vancouver it is possible to breakfast in one of the parks that hug the coastline, to bike along the seawall, to eat lunch while sunbathing on the beach, and then to ski in the nearby mountains - all in the same day. And, later that same evening, to dine at a fabulous restaurant, where abundant harvests from the sea and nearby farms are prepared by chefs who specialize in nutrition and imagination.

While Vancouver boasts mythical splendors, there is also trouble in paradise, and Vancouverites are aware of that, too. Amidst a frenzy of growth - the city is preparing for an onslaught of Olympians in winter, 2010 - there is an impatience to forge ahead. Yet, that impatience (and construction) is just the price a city pays for ambition, and if it all comes together, Vancouver will be even more spectacular than it is now.

So, join me as I pay an uproarious visit to Vancouver's gay village, explore one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods, and sample a few of the city's many cultural offerings, hotels and restaurants.

Davie Street, Delilah’s and West End

At two o'clock in the afternoon the gay bars and pubs are already packed along Davie Street, a busy artery that snakes its way through Vancouver's West End and down to Yaletown (a trendy newer neighborhood; more about it later).

I joined Angus Praught, owner of Gayvan.com Travel Marketing, a longtime Vancouverite, for dinner at the fab Delilah's Restaurant and Bar on Comox Street, which boasts a killer martini. Praught publishes a comprehensive guide to the vibrant gay scene in the West End. He was in the midst of describing it to me when he was interrupted by the personage of one very glam Carlotta Gurl de Vander Vogue, a drag queen who commands (and usually gets) immediate attention.

"I know you can't take your eyes off me," Carlotta Gurl (Carl McDonald from Labrador) declared, and, unsolicited, proceeded to accost me. After several uproarious songs, costume changes and lewd dancing, Carlotta Gurl returned to our table. She lifted her skirts to reveal her well toned derriere. Then she straddled me, caressing my earlobes with wanton abandon. Lest her molestation escalate further, she rose to greet her (adoring) audience. But something was amiss: the spotlight was inoperable. No problem: someone produced a flashlight. Carlotta Gurl instructed her new assistant on how to hold the beam on her fabulous face and fluttering eyelashes. A pale light outlined her ruby lips as she mimed a song by Cher, and finished to wild applause.

While plans are busily underway for Pride Day on August 2, it hasn't been a smooth ride. According to published reports in Xtra West, the local gay newspaper, a total of seven Pride directors have resigned from the Vancouver Pride Society in six months, making the management of this city-wide celebration a rocky one, indeed.

Unlike Toronto's Pride Day activities where a paid executive director sits at the helm of the yearly event that attracts hundreds of thousands of celebrants, Vancouver relies on volunteers. Tempers flare on the board, according to the newspaper, leaving disorganization (and bad feelings)in its wake.

Yet, despite these public squabbles, Praught assures me that this year's celebration will come off without a hitch.

"In Vancouver, the community rallies in times of trouble and in times of celebration," Praught said.

There have been several incidents of trouble: on March 13 of this year, an alleged incident of gay bashing took place at the Fountainhead bar in the West End. The victim is Ritchie Dowrey, 62, who, according to published reports, still suffers from severe brain damage as a result of an altercation with a man who allegedly yelled anti-gay epithets while severely beating him.

"Two public rallies have taken place this past year, one this past spring called the 'Enough' rally, and one this fall called 'Join Hands for Justice,'" Praught told me. "In both rallies, thousands of people, gay and straight, took to the streets in support of the gay community, demanding an end to violence against gays."

Next :: where to stay, eat, and play

Yaletown and the Opus Hotel

Follow Davie to just about where the street meets the harbor and you're in the heart of Yaletown, a trendy newer neighborhood bustling with bars, nightclubs, restaurants and the Opus Hotel (Opus also has a sister property in Montreal).

In the case of the Opus, it's build it and they come, in droves. The Opus is a stylish hotel, and it blends contemporary design with the warm feeling of family and exquisite service. It was one of the first spots in the reclamation of a warehouse district that has now become a vibrant neighborhood. A new light rail station - scheduled to open on Labor Day - will take travelers from Vancouver Airport to the heart of the city (and steps from the Opus) in less than a half hour. And the hotel itself is home to Elixir and the Opus Bar, both sought-after night spots.

"The months of construction have been daunting," Annabel Hawksworth of the Opus staff told me, "but it will soon come to an end, and the convenience of having the railway station down the street from the hotel will be worth it."

On a tour of Vancouver property, she shows me rooms done up in a cozy palette of color - deep blues, oranges and mauves, to mention a few - all with warm features, lots of light, and fresh flowers. On Saturday night, the joint is jumping: the line for entrance to Elixir snakes around the corner. German, French, and Japanese can be heard amidst the din, as foreign visitors mingle with the locals. Service is remarkable here, and special features include chauffeured use of a sleek BMW that can be dispatched to take guests to any location within the city at no cost, and free use of the hotel's bicycles. Just down the street, it is easy to board the Aquabus to Granville Island - where the city's marketplace and artisans greet tourists and shoppers.

Sutton Place Hotel and Downtown Vancouver

A twenty minute walk up Davie Street brings you to Burrard Street and the cosmopolitan Sutton Place Hotel, in the heart of Vancouver's downtown.

"In the ten years I've lived in Vancouver," Peter Bruyere of the Sutton Place staff told me, "the city has grown tremendously. Ten years ago this place was somewhat sleepy. Not anymore. The downtown area is thriving. New restaurants have taken root here. And the hotel, which includes a residence with complete hotel amenities, is the chosen destination for many of the film stars who stay here while filming television and movies."

Sutton Place - which has sister Canadian properties in Toronto and Edmonton - has an old world charm, long, well-lit corridors, spacious dining rooms and a bar, a swimming pool, a spa, shops and many other services, all under one roof. From the top floors, the view is commanding: the mountains can be seen among the many high rise apartment homes which all have terraces overlooking the teeming streets.

Three Recommended Restaurants

At Sutton Place Hotel, you are also within minutes of wonderful restaurants, just a short walk or drive away. I visited three of them.

Exit from the Sutton Place's rear French doors, and you are on Haro Street, which, after eight blocks, leads to the tranquil and verdant outdoor patio and fine dining at L'Altro Buca restaurant.

L'Atro Buca was once the original site of Delilah's restaurant, and now features very tasty Italian dishes, such as tagliatelle Bolognese, spaghetti vongole, a scrumptious bistecca alla Florentina and braciole di maiale Calabrese, a grilled pork chop with garlic, fennel, chili, vinegar peppers and fried onions.

"The recession has ushered in a change in dining habits in Vancouver," explained Shannon Heth of the L'Atro Buca staff. "Diners in Vancouver differ than those in Montreal, for example. Here, they tend to favor good food, good service, of course, but choose a more reasonable amount of time to spend at dinner, rather than the more European approach - which is more expensive meals served at a more leisurely pace."

L'Atro Buca certainly fulfills this description, and more. Seated in the outdoor patio, the waiter brought the dishes with well-timed attentiveness, and suggested a scrumptious grappa as an after dinner drink that crowned the meal.

Another recommended restaurant a five minute walk from Sutton Place Hotel is Cin Cin Restaurant and Bar (pronounced chin chin) on busy Robson Street (which is also a busy shopping mecca). A wood-fired oven is the centerpiece of the open kitchen at the rear of the restaurant. The dining room is expansive and busy. Ricardo Ferreira, restaurant director, encourages me to try their tasting menu, prepared by executive chef Francois Gagnon. This turns out to be excellent advice. The food selected is all local fare. My favorite: steamed spot prawns (only available during the last weeks of May and into June, and caught fresh in the coastal waters off Vancouver), served in a garlic wine sauce that are totally scrumptious, washed down with a glass of Burrowing Owl pinot gris, vinted in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley.

The third recommended restaurant in Vancouver is a short cab ride from the Sutton Place and has earned a reputation over many years as the destination for sushi. Tojo's Restaurant is located on 1133 West Broadway. My guide at Tojo's is Nathan Fong, a food columnist at the Vancouver Sun. Tojo serves us saki from his private reserve. His kitchen staff attends to our every wish. My favorites: organic local braised shitake mushrooms, which Tojo insists have curative powers. King crab is wrapped in nori and has a unique toasted flavor. Another favorite: sable fish served in parchment, with king mushroom, asparagus and burdock root. The selection goes on, the tastes to the palette are exciting, and one leaves the restaurant convinced one has been in the presence of a master.

Next :: Vancouver's Pulse

Vancouver’s Pulse

To feel the pulse of Vancouver, hop on a bike and take to the seawall. The residents take to the beaches and each beach along the way is crowded with diverse groups, all of them enjoying the splendid sunshine, the coast and the blue skies.

I attended Bard on the Beach and enjoyed a wonderful performance of Shakespeare's "Othello." At the Yale on Granville Street one night, a local blues band wailed away while a couple dozen people, including myself, danced the night away.

During the day, visit Granville Island for local produce and wares by B.C. artisans. Take a harbor cruise and soak in the city's skyline. It's a place of awe.

There is so much more to see and do, and those mountains in the distance - the magnetic pull of them - will await another visit. Yes, I insist on another visit, to see how the city fares when it finally calms down all of the construction that results from Olympic fever (a new Olympic village that hugs the seawall is expected to be completed by the fall).

But my hunch is that Vancouver can never return to its sleepy days. Those days are destined to live in the long ago and used to be. Vancouverites have a fever to succeed, expand and prosper. Now that the fever has been unleashed, it will always be raging.

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.