Cast a hungry eye over a map of downtown Vancouver and the names Gastown and Railtown will hardly invite closer inspection. Nearby Chinatown may fare no better in tempting your tastebuds, conjuring up unhappy visions of chop suey, lazy susans and too many gilt dragons. You'd do well, though, to take a hearty appetite on an exploration of this triumvirate of inner-city districts. Seemingly against the odds, you'll find suave cocktail lounges, chic Asian eateries and the city's most innovative and lively dining scene.
Years ago, you'd have been right not to venture here. Gastown and Chinatown had the dubious distinction of being among Canada's poorest postcodes. Parts, in truth, remain shabby and haunted by the homeless, but fine early Victorian architecture has been revitalised, the edgy and arty have moved in, new businesses have appeared, and nowhere is the area's newfound, youthful reimagining better showcased than in its restaurants and bars.
The changes have been a long time coming, and slow. They actually started in the 1970s in Gastown, Vancouver's original settlement, which was spruced up for tourists, provided with galleries and cafes, and adorned with a steam clock that toots and puffs for passing amusement. It took more than that to entice Vancouverites, however. Far more recently, Gastown has finally become a more rounded urban destination, led by a growing restaurant reputation.
The variety is impressive. Gastown's Blood Alley alone is home to Salt Tasting Room, where flights of wine can be paired with tapas or open-faced sandwiches, and Tacofino, a growing chain dishing up some the city's best fish tacos, stuffed with Pacific cod, salsa fresca and chipotle mayonnaise, alongside other Mexican-inspired modern nibbles. Nearby L'Abattoir is a consistently lauded French restaurant that, despite its name, emphasises fish and seafood, though its duck roasted in orange and lavender might have you surreptitiously licking your knife.
If it's meat you're after, then the gamey menu at Wildebeest offers rabbit saddle, grilled bison with capers, and lasagne made with venison and goat. The surrounds are austere industrial-chic apart from a glittering chandelier, and the cocktails inventive: rum with tonka bean, cognac with pear and maple vinegar, gin with horseradish.
Even the humble pizza parlour is being reinvented in Gastown, where Nicli Antica Pizzeria presents itself in sleek white tiles and exposed brick, and has waiters dashing about in long aprons and two-day stubble. It sticks to traditional, Neapolitan-style pizza with sparse toppings and edges blistered from the oven, but strays into inventiveness with ingredients such as roasted green chillies, jalapeno honey and black kale.
Save room for dessert at Mosquito, a dramatic, neon-glowing bar that matches champagne cocktails and sweet wines with gorgeously plated desserts. Try the Thai basil and raspberry chocolate bar; a chocolate souffle flavoured with smoked Chinese tea; or the utterly decadent peanut-butter chocolate bar with caramelised popcorn and gelato.
With Gastown buzzing, it was only a matter of time before adjacent 1880s warehouse district Railtown got caught up in the action. It acquired all the must-haves of any newly resurgent inner-city neighbourhood: a boutique brewery, Alibi Room, with food offerings such as charcuterie plates, beetroot salad and goat's cheese polenta; a wine bar, Urban Winery, with 36 British Columbian wines on tap; and a South American restaurant, Cuchillo, tempting with the likes of buffalo short rib with black-bean tortilla, and house-made chorizo verde scotch egg.
No surprise that the hipsters eventually sashayed onwards to Chinatown. Chinatown had an almost city-centre location and low rents and had been rather neglected since the 1990s, when wealthier Chinese newcomers had shifted focus to the suburban "new Chinatown" of Richmond. Today you can see a neighbourhood in the midst of a transformation, still gritty and old-fashioned in places, sleek in others. Pyjama-clad retirees still practice tai chi in pocket-sized parks and shop for traditional medicines and lacquered ducks, while a younger generation works in facelifted office blocks, art galleries and fusion kitchens.
For the sightseer, Chinatown's chief attraction is Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, with its clipped bonsai, miniature lake and viewing pavilions. For the food lover, the most interesting ongoing change is the rise of experimental, shared-plate, pan-Asian eateries. Many are run by second-generation Canadians more in tune with contemporary East-West tastes than their immigrant parents or grandparents.
Black-and-white photos of early immigrants and a Chinese shabby-chic decor grace Bao Bei, but the cuisine offers something new, with tapas-style dishes influenced by Taiwanese, Shanghainese and Vietnamese flavours. The best bites are homemade-style comfort foods such as sticky rice cakes rich with pork and mushrooms, steamed buns, and a satisfying fish noodle soup afloat with juicy prawn balls.
Another great exemplar of the new wave of Chinatown eateries is Torafuku, opened by food truck owners Clement Chan and Steve Kuan. Very much on trend, it's crammed with a youthful clientele and occasionally somewhat confused older Chinese-Canadian folk. The open-kitchen woks flare, chopsticks and tongues clack, the waitresses have torn-off jeans and tattoos.
The low-cost, small-plate dishes change with the season and offer the big flavours you expect from food trucks, but with more sophistication. Ramen is reimagined with glazed duck leg or clams; sweet-and-sour pork is crunchy with peanut brittle. Flavours wander from Korea to Japan and Vietnam. The bar serves interesting cocktails such as gin with ginger and lemon, and vodka infused with chai.
Chinatowns are seldom associated with bar life, but in Vancouver locals might well head to Chinatown for drinks. Cocktails at The Union incorporate Asian flavours such as Japanese plum wine, mango or passionfruit puree, lemongrass and pandan syrup. As well as classic Canadian pub dishes, you can order bahn mi (Vietnamese-style sandwiches) and pad Thai noodles. The Keefer Bar also mixes Asian-themed drinks such as a Geisha with gin, grapefruit and sencha tea, accompanied by nibbles that include edamame beans, spring rolls and pork-and-shrimp dumplings.
In another novel trend, Chinatown isn't just about Chinese or even Asian food any more, either. In one of the trailblazers, Mamie Taylor's, a youthful crowd comes for cocktail-friendly modern American cuisine such as spicy fried chicken or slow-roasted pork with charred avocado. Stuffed animal heads draped in hats and scarves gaze down from the walls.
Bakeries show the same trend. Gone are the traditional Chinese coconut buns and custard tarts, with the likes of The Pie Shoppe providing sweet temptation with alternatives such as chocolate-pecan tarts and Earl Grey custard pies. Some argue that, as a result, Chinatown is losing its distinct, historical ethnic character, while others celebrate the new diversity and resurgence of a neighbourhood that was in dire straits just a decade ago. One thing is certain, however: you won't leave hungry.
Air Canada flies direct to Vancouver daily from Sydney, with domestic connections from Melbourne. Phone 1300 655 767 or see aircanada.com
Luxury Metropolitan Hotel is a short walk from Gastown; its restaurant Diva serves excellent British Columbian regional food and offers some 500 wines.
Vancouver Foodie Tours has various city tours, including a three-hour 'Gastown Gastronomic Tour' with 12 tastings.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Destination British Columbia.