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The Food in Front of the Business

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Story by Ian MacNeill

Once upon a time the writer Isaac Asimov bravely answered the question: why is there life on earth? He answered by saying that it was because all of the ingredients were available. Given the proximity of the sun, the size of the planet and the mixture of gases at its surface, the emergence of carbon-based life forms (creatures like us and the food we eat) was virtually inevitable.

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Similarly, although with demonstrably less import and considerably less courage, is the question asked: how did Vancouver become one of North America’s hottest culinary destinations, rivaling the likes of Toronto, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Los Angeles? We’re not saying Vancouver is “better” in some measurable way than any of these other culinary epicenters – it’s all about taste after all and hubris deserves no respect — but it’s definitely the kind of city you don’t mind finding yourself stuck in when your tummy starts rumbling.

Or to put it another way, if you had to toss a six-sided coin to decide which city to eat in you probably wouldn’t care which facet turned up. At any rate you could answer the question the same way Asimov did, by asserting that Vancouver’s rise to its current lofty status was inevitable, because all the ingredients are here. Ther primary ingredient, the one that really made it all possible, was money. Truth is if you want good cooking in town you have start with pots and pots of money, and that’s something Vancouver has in abundance. All you have to do is simmer gently and let the aroma waft out over the continent and they’ll come: the chefs, the designers, the managers, the promoters, the dreamers.

Oh, there’s a supporting cast, including a diverse immigrant community with its own rich, culinary traditions; access to lots of fresh ingredients; a responsive and imaginative agricultural community in our backyard; access to fresh food from around the world; good local wines and amazingly low restaurant prices by international standards. Civilized liquor laws and Expo 86 also contributed. But the magic ingredient was money, and if it’s any consolation, it’s precisely what made it happen in New York et al as well. Vancouver has always had good food—the supporting cast alone made that possible—but what we’re seeing now is a new kind of sophistication, says Jason McRobbie, editor of BC Restaurant News.

“Everybody is going upscale in terms of their product,” he says.

Taking a run at selling that sophistication is Emad Yacoub, president of the Glowbal Restaurant Group, which owns four of the hottest restaurants in the city. A transplant from Toronto, Emad came to town like a hired gun; he was brought in to “fix up” Joe Fortes back in the ’90s. While here he met his wife, Shannon Bosa, and after a brief return to Toronto the two of them decided that the end of the rainbow was located somewhere near Yaletown.

“We felt there was lots of opportunity here,” he says. “We also understood the market and felt it was on the edge of exploding. There was lots of good food in Vancouver, but the atmosphere was very stale. Nobody was pushing the envelope. We knew there were all these 27- to 45-year-olds—stockbrokers, doctors, lawyers, single people—making lots of money who wanted to have some fun in their lives.”

Yeah, that would be us.

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Anyway, the result of all this thinking was Glowbal Grill and Satay Bar on Mainland, which quickly set a new kind of standard with its creative, inspired cuisine, good service, reasonable prices and imaginative décor courtesy David Nicolay and Robert Edmonds of Evoke International Design. (These two absorbed inspiration from Yacoub in return; they’re now the proud owners of Habit on Main Street.) Vancouverites packed Glowbal so it was only a matter of time before the Yacoubs and their partners Sean Riley and Jack Lamont went looking for more space. That led to Afterglow, a chic restaurant lounge at the back of Glowbal; COAST, a seafood restaurant on Hamilton; and more recently Sanafir, a Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant on the Granville strip.

Yacoub laughs when you ask him what the heck he was smoking when he made that last decision. “All my friends laugh at me,” he says. “But they also say that if I last a year they are going to move in next to me.”

Quel surprise. 

As if that weren’t enough, Glowbal has also gone into the catering business, and doubtless made a few members of the chafing-dish and folding-table crowd nervous in the act; one of Glowbal’s first weddings was for 800 guests.

“And you pulled it off?”
“Of course. There’s no reason people can’t enjoy the experience in their own homes.”

Where this is all going is anybody’s guess, but the smart money says that if Vancouver’s mania for densification (read: big-time development) continues unabated, more and more hungry mouths with bulging wallets will continue presenting themselves for seating. This will attract yet more restaurant, lounge and catering entrepreneurs, who will continue talking nervous investors into handing over the great wads of money necessary to open and operate a restaurant until it finds its feet, this in a business where only two in five start-ups have a chance of lasting more than three years.

For Vancouver diners, this is of course a good thing.

The only fly in the soup is prices. It seems natural that all that talent and money will lead to the same thing that buggered the NHL two years ago: rampant greed and spiraling prices. Then again, maybe not. As sophisticated as Vancouver diners are, we also have a reputation for being—how to say this nicely?— thrifty. If only more Vancouver diners could appreciate how affordable a premium restaurant meal is here compared to overheated Manhattan, home of the $20 Caesar salad. However, the market has its own dynamic; it’s probably safe to say that there will be some bracket-creep over the next few years, especially if the economy can keep from tanking. But that’s just the way it is, as we’ve also discovered by watching professional sports. If you want to make the playoffs you have to be willing to pay for the talent.

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