Those folks at Tourism Vancouver know how to keep the good times rolling after the holidays. Today (January 6), they released the menus for the 2014 Dine Out Vancouver Festival—and browsing through them is considerably more alluring than the thought of kale and beans for dinner.
For anyone who’s been wintering in Mexico for the past 11 years, Dine Out Vancouver takes place annually in January. Restaurants offer three-course dinner menus at one or more of three price points: $18, $28, and $38. Many restaurants offer set lunch options as well. A record 263 restaurants are participating in this year’s festival, which runs from January 17 to February 2. Most restaurants are now taking reservations, and prime slots fill up quickly. So how do you choose where to book?
The Georgia Straight called up Lucas Pavan, the festival’s coordinator, to get some insider tips. “Where to go really depends on the person,” he says. He notes that some people narrow down the offerings based on price, while others zero in on places they’ve never been before. Still others use Dine Out as an opportunity to rekindle a relationship with an eatery they used to frequent.
According to Pavan, at least 40 restaurants will be participating in the Dine Out program for the first time this year. Many of these opened in the last year, such as the Chinese restaurant Bambudda, the pasta place called Ask for Luigi, and PiDGiN, the Downtown Eastside spot that blends eastern and western influences and was the target of anti-gentrification protests. Other new participants include local chains like Romer’s Burger Bar and Cactus Club Cafe, which have jumped on the festival bandwagon.
Last year, Pavan says, high-end restaurants like the Five Sails, Chambar, Joe Fortes, Black + Blue, Bacchus, and West recorded the largest number of reservations.
If history is any indication, restaurants that won the Dine Out Vancouver Festival Best Bite Awards last year may be a good bet. At the end of the 2013 festival, diners voted Nando’s on Davie tops for $18 menu (this year’s menu includes a glass of wine), Salmon House on the Hill for $28 menu, and Oru at the Fairmont Pacific Rim for $38 menu. Best B.C. VQA wine pairing went to Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro, and best B.C. craft beer pairing went to Bitter Tasting Room. Yew Seafood + Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver won for best service, and the Smoking Dog Bistro took best experience overall.
Since Dine Out is all about set menus, my advice is to take a close look at the ones being offered by the restaurants you’re attracted to. You may want to try that hip, big-name restaurant, but do you really want to eat squash soup as a starter? Perhaps a lesser-known place with a dish that really excites you is a better option. Look at the restaurant’s regular menu too, and consider whether the set menu represents a good-value opportunity, or whether you could just as easily dine there à la carte on another, less busy evening.
It’s worth noting that several completely vegetarian restaurants, including Graze and the Parker, are participating this year.
Options that look promising? In the $18 category, Atithi Indian Cuisine entices with entrée choices like sablefish or lamb Bengali curry. Near Kits Beach, Hapa Izakaya offers a four-item Dine Out small plates menu with choices like ebi mayo and spicy pork ishiyaki. (Hapa’s Yaletown, West End, and Coal Harbour locations are offering different $28 menus instead.) Near the Vancouver/Burnaby border at Max’s Restaurant—a casual spot that’s an outpost of the chain in the Philippines—entrée options include pork adobo with pickled spinach and flame-grilled chicken with java rice.
In the $28 category, I’d bet on Ask for Luigi in Railtown. All the choices here look good, including beef carpaccio to start, handmade pappardelle with Bolognese sauce as a main (with J. C. Poirier at the helm, this ain’t no ordinary spaghetti and meat sauce), and olive oil cake to finish. This restaurant is sure to be popular, and it’s not taking reservations, so show up and take your chances.
For those who don’t have a sweet tooth (or are sticking to their New Year’s resolutions), Commercial Drive’s Merchant’s Oyster Bar is mixing things up with a three-course $28 savoury menu. Options here include oysters on the half shell to start, beef tartare to follow, and steelhead trout for the main event.
Pavan notes that in recent years, restaurants have increasingly been thinking outside of the appetizer-entrée-dessert box. “As restaurants see what other restaurants are doing, they start getting more creative and moving away from the standard format,” he explains. The most notable example is Bella Gelateria, which is offering a menu consisting entirely of sweet, cold treats: for $18, two people can pick three of the five items on offer to share.
Continuing on, the $38 category includes plenty of places to wield a steak knife. Choices at downtown’s Black + Blue include a grilled vegetable napoleon followed by pepper-crusted beef tenderloin and carrot cake. Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House offers shrimp ceviche followed by New York steak and chocolate lava cake as one way to go. On the lighter side, Miku has an array of seafood sushi or an entirely vegetarian menu with vegetarian sushi.
Peruse the menus and then hit that reservation button. If the place you want is booked, don’t despair: Pavan says it’s worth calling the restaurant to see if they have any extra seats set aside. Also, consider dining at 9 p.m., when tables won’t have to turn over as they will with the 7 p.m. seating, so you won’t be rushed. Or, you might choose a Sunday or Monday night. Fridays and Saturdays, of course, fill up first, and “Thursday is almost the new Friday,” Pavan says.
If the set-price meals just don’t appeal, take a look at the festival’s culinary events, which combine food and entertainment. The events were revealed last December, but new ones have been added as recently as a week ago, such as Vancouver FanClub’s Night Circus, which is billed as “Tony & Tina’s Wedding meets Cirque du Soleil with more than its share of sexy”. Street Food City III brings together 15 to 20 food trucks on the north plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery from January 22 to 26. There are no set menus, no set price points—just ample opportunity for good eating.