Border Bites

Discovering Gastown

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The neighborhood of Gastown is the beating heart of Vancouver BC, the locus where the city began and a vicinity tightly knit with top-tier restaurants, boutiques and interesting corners and alleyways.

Most visitors are satisfied with a photograph of Gastown’s famous steam clock, which expels steam every 15 minutes. But to really understand this fascinating corner of Vancouver, consider a walking or food tour.

We joined costumed tour guide Rowan Jang one evening for the “Lost Souls of Gastown” tour ($25-$28 per person). Dark was descending over the city as we embarked and Jang slipped into the role of a fictional character to relay what life was like in Gastown in the late 1800s.

Back then, Cordova and Dunsmuir streets were the center points of town, and they were filled with inebriated loggers and sawmill workers—we learned there was a brothel well before there was a school.

Everything changed on June 13, 1886, when a 20-minute fire whipped through Gastown’s wood buildings, causing rampant destruction and giving residents just moments to make life-or-death decisions.

But Vancouver rose from the ashes of the Great Fire, and within days new buildings were erected, homes spreading around them. The city ensured all the new buildings in Gastown were made of brick and those same red bricks adorn the gentrified warehouses, cafes and specialty stores today.

The next day we were back in Gastown for a Canadian signature experience: a gastronomic tour of the neighborhood with Vancouver Foodie Tours ($85 person person, plus $30 for alcohol pairings). Our guide, Miguel Alzugaray, escorted us on a four-course meal with drink pairings in four local restaurants, each one remarkable for its cuisine and architectural design.

“Gastown was voted the number-one neighborhood for restaurants,” he told us as we walked to Nicli Antica Pizzeria for authentic Neapolitan-style pizza.

This means the pizza dough is hand-formed, comprised of all natural ingredients—including tomatoes all the way from Italy—and then baked in a wood-fired oven. We dug into a margarita pizza and the Pesto BBT—a bacon, basil pesto and tomato pizza. Both simple in their toppings, the pizzas here are soul-food: nourishing, flavorful and memorable.

At Tuc Craft Kitchen, Alzugaray pointed to the decor: a bar constructed from old warehouse wood and massive decorative chains derived from a train. I sipped on a coconut mocktail, tasted chardonnay with grapes grown in the Okanagan Bench and munched on parsnip fries served with lime coriander ketchup, thinking “it doesn’t get much better than this.”

I was wrong, though. At Meat & Bread, one of Vancouver’s most sought-after sandwich shops, we were served crunchy, slow-roasted pork “porghetta” sandwiches with salsa verde, lunch confections that redefined my understanding of what a humble sandwich can be.

And at Wildebeest our bowls were delivered with crème brulee featuring honey from East Vancouver beehives. The restaurants, packed close together, offer a glimpse of their chefs’ devotion to unique dishes derived from locally sourced ingredients. And each one is a hole-in-the-wall eatery that I’d never have known about without taking this tour.

We ended the tour in the Woodwards Atrium, a plaza where the old Woodwards Department Store, an historic Gastown icon, operated until its closure in 1993. Located on the brink of the Downtown East Side, the light-filled plaza features a basketball hoop, a piano that members of the public can play, and art installations representing Gastown’s distinct history—both good and bad.

This neighborhood has witnessed many milestones in Vancouver’s history and continues to grow and change with each passing year. Just over the border, it’s a rich, fascinating place to explore.

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