Coffee & cuisine, Vancouver
One thing you will notice immediately when you are walking around in Vancouver is how many coffee shops there are! In some parts of town there seemed to be at least one coffee shop in every street corner. If you want to get away from coffee in a plain brown wrapper (Starbucks) then you should be very happy indeed.
Below is a link to the best coffee bars (according to the Vancouver Sun)
If the Canadian east coast is all about Tim Hortons, the west coast definitely is all about Starbucks! Back in 1984, the American coffee chain opened its first location outside of its Seattle home at the Vancouver Waterfront Station. It seems like Vancouverites quickly got hooked on Starbucks coffee because this is probably one of the cities in the world with the highest ratio of Starbucks per inhabitant! I have to admit that while I was in Vancouver, I too quickly picked up the habit of stopping by Starbucks every morning to get a delicious Vanilla latte. In my opinion, their coffee tastes way better than Tim Hortons', and they offer a much nicer atmosphere too: I spent a couple hours reading at Starbucks on a lazy, rainy morning, something I could never, ever do at a Tim Hortons. I guess that's a local custom I could very easily get used to!
Having sushi in Vancouver is such a casual event and it's so commonly eaten in such a nonchalant fashion that it's practically a fast food. Everyone eats sushi in Vancouver; it's a part of the local diet. It's as common in Vancouver as Starbucks. I'm not kidding. There are literally hundreds of sushi restaurants in Vancouver. You can have sushi practically anywhere, anytime.
How did sushi become Vancouver's comfort food? I'm not really sure. It's only been a phenomenon since the mid 1990's or so. Fortunately, due to the vast amount of restaurants offering sushi, prices are competitive and the menu choices are often overwhelming, if not extremely creative.
If you're scared of raw fish, don't let Vancouver's sushi obsession scare you. Most restaurants offer other items, or sushi with cooked fish, chicken, or beef inside. Even the vegetarian options can be rather creative. The traditional kappa maki or oshinko maki still exists, but why go for the vegetarian status quo if you could get yam, asparagus, or mango rolls instead?
Of course, some restaurants are certainly better than others, and when you have hundreds to choose from, it's hard to know which one to go to. Some can be atrocious as they cut corners and obviously don't care about the traditional Japanese high standards when it comes to sushi. So avoid them. But there are many restaurants that do care and offer delicious sushi, so it's best to explore, ask around, and see what suits your fancy.
While it's true that Starbucks is from Seattle, Vancouver might as well be its unofficial home. It was here in Vancouver, just across the border from Seattle, where Starbucks opened their first non-Seattle location back in 1987.
Since then, Starbucks, and coffee shops in general, have taken over Vancouver in a way that has never existed before. In a way, I think that there are more Starbucks per capita in Vancouver than everywhere else in the world. I am not exaggerating.
While it's true that the rest of the world is being colonized by Starbucks, Vancouver is one of the few places where you can reliably find a Starbucks on every corner, and in some places, there are 2 Starbucks located on the same block or at the same intersection (ie: Robson and Thurlow). It is not abnormal to go for a walk in Vancouver and pass by 3 Starbucks within 10 minutes (ie: Robson Street).
If there isn't a Starbucks at an intersection, there is often a Starbucks competitor like Blenz (a Vancouver-based coffee chain). Sometimes there are local independent shops like Tree's Organic Cafe or Delaney's if you keep your eyes out. And for those from Montreal or Ottawa, who are used to seeing Canadian coffee chain Second Cup everywhere, Vancouver has always severely lacked Second Cups, even though they've been in Vancouver since the 1980's. There really aren't that many at all.
And while many non-Vancouver Canadians love to perpetuate the Canadian stereotype that we all "drink Timmy's" (aka: Tim Horton's coffee), this isn't true in Vancouver. Vancouver has never developed a Tim Horton's culture like elsewhere in Canada. This is because Tim Horton's never even existed in Vancouver up until a few years ago. While there are now a few Tim Horton's locations scattered around Vancouver, the only people who seem obsessed with them are often from Ontario.
In the end, since Starbucks has been around in Vancouver long before any other competitors, Starbucks will always be the coffee shop of choice among Vancouverites.
In addition to sushi, another Asian import that Vancouver has become extremely fond of it pho', the Vietnamese beef soup with rice noodles. Every neighbourhood has at least one pho' shop and most East Van neighbourhoods have several. There is a pho' shop for everyone's taste. Some offer a full range of Vietnamese cuisine, some just pho'. Some are big and bright while others are little holes-in-the-wall. Bowls range from $4-6 and a medium bowl will fill most people.
Each pho' shop will have a multitude of options for which parts of the cow you want in your soup. The tendons are favoured by Asians (for whom texture is as important as flavour) and are soft, chewy, but fairly bland. Most caucasians seem to prefer Pho' Tai, which is with slices of raw beef. Cooked beef is another option, if raw worries you.
A good pho' shop will offer a wide range of condiments (hoisin sauce, nuoc mam, chili paste, sri racha), fruits & herbs (lime, basil) for you to add to the soup. There will also be bean sprouts. These aren't usually added to the soup, but are used to cool down your mouth after all the chili paste you've added. For drinks the common choices (aside from pop cans) are lemon juice with sugar and Vietnamese coffee, available hot or iced. The coffee takes a while to make and is more of a dessert. For a hot drink on a cold day I suggest getting them to heat up some soy milk, which is a mainland Chinese thing.
Where's the best pho'? My favourite place has moved (they were always packed) so I don't have one right now. Main St, Kingsway and Fraser St also have high densities of pho' shops and you can be sure that most if not all will be of very high calibre. A visit to Vancouver must include lunch at an East Van pho' shop but if you can't past the touristy areas, Pho Vanh on Main St in Chinatown does a pretty good bowl. Obviously, I haven't tried all of the city's 100-odd pho shops but Pho Hong (Fraser & 47th) makes the best I've had here so far.
Chicago has it's fair share of chain coffee shops and restaurants but I was absolutely blown away by the number of Starbucks that I found in Vancouver, I was beginning to think there was a law on the books that said there had to be one every 15 feet ;-) I forgot to take a picture but there was actually one corner that had TWO Starbucks kitty corner from one another.
Tim Horton's, on the other hand, which is a Canadian chain of coffee/donut shops, were in short supply, the only one near where I stayed was in a gas station. I never did get my caramel filled apple fritter :-(
Generally with Vancouver restaurants, there's a real emphasis on seafood and Asian cuisine (Hong Kong style Chinese, Japanese izakaya, sushi, Korean BBQ, Vietnamese pho, etc) - that's where Vancouver's restaurant scene shines. If you're an American, a Mexican, or someone familiar with authentic Mexican cuisine, you'll probably find that Mexican food in Vancouver pretty disappointing, and the restaurants few and far between, so that's really the only cuisine type I'd specifically avoid (especially if you're coming from a country where Mexican food is excellent) - everything else in Vancouver is generally great though.
Everybody drinks a big mug of steaming specialty coffee (latte) wherever they go. This is an easy thing to emulate, since there's a starbuck's on pretty much every corner. Two at Robson & Thurlow shopping area. You're looking at a $4 cup of coffee.
I recommend the Grande Vanilla Latte myself.
Ok, i'm sure that your going to encounter lots of exotic and fascinating dishes while your in Vancity so be sure to go in with an open mind !!! Although it might look weird or totally gross it probably isn't !! From Kits to Commercial Drive (& beyond) Vancouver is littered with exquisite restaurants that have something for everyone !!! Your best bet is to ask a local if your in search of something specific !! There's so much good food here so don't miss out on this special collection of culinary culture !!! If your looking to whip up your own specialty you can find pretty much everything at either Granville Island, Capers, west Broadway (larch to blenheim), Lesley Stowe's, Chinatown and Meinhardt's just to name a few.
Approach COFFEE ordering with care. If you want to blend in and don't want to look like a nerd, be prepared to specify the size you want in a European language and be ready to specify the heat and fat-content of your drink. Avoid saying things like 'just a coffee.'
Relax and enjoy the view at Granville Island Market. A great place to shop for fresh flowers, produce and fish.