The long awaited Bells and Whistles softly opens tonight at 3296 Fraser Street (off East 17th Avenue). I was there last night as the 120 seat restaurant and bar held a friends and family service to break in the kitchen, the POS systems and the staff. Owned and operated by the same crew that gave us Wildebeest, Lucky Taco and Bufala, the new restaurant aims to be a fun, beer-forward, sports-friendly neighbourhood joint with an elevated diner-meets-sports-bar menu. The official launch – with both lunch and dinner services – is set for Thursday.
I was at one of the staff tastings so I was pretty well familiar with the dishes when I walked in last night. I thought they nailed it the first time around so what I experienced yesterday was just pleasant confirmation of my original estimations. Good burgers? Yes, and a connoisseur’s variety of them. Garlic fries? Oh boy, so good! Chicken wings? Yup, crunchy ones lit with pineapple and sriracha. There are salads, too, and hardly token ones; of note are the KFC (Korean fried cauliflower), old school Wedge, and the intense, anchovy-bomb Caesar. It’s the kind of food that sports fans regularly indulge in, only it’s done at a higher level. Big league stuff. Consider the exquisitely layered all-day breakfast burger with its pork sausage patty, golden brown hashbrown, fried egg and melted cheese on a rosemary-garlic oil-fried sesame seed bun. It’s a goddam work of art.
This should surprise no one. Owners James Iranzad, Josh Pape and Nick Miller like sports as much as they like food; they combine the two so regularly that I not only respect their opinions on who does the best chicken wings in town but also who the Canucks should take in the first round of the draft. Honestly, it seems a little odd that Bells and Whistles wasn’t their first restaurant together instead of their fourth.
They’ve certainly got the right chef for it in Alessandro Vianello. The guy is as ego-free a cook as they come. A lot of people in his position would be tempted to add too many decadent or decorous flourishes to the familiar; fancifying nachos with foie gras, for example. “Elevating” is a dangerous game. It can too easily go too far. The invisible line that transgressing chefs so often cross in this respect is always drawn by the diner, never the chef. Vianello appears to understand that intrinsically.
These types of foods – popcorn shrimp, fried chicken sandwiches, onion rings, etc. (all on the Bells and Whistles menu) – require fealty and honesty from the kitchen preparing them, not gold leaf and caviar. All they require to achieve awesomeness is a cook who has the capacity to ignore the purely masturbatory temptation to “improve” upon the simplicity of the original. To resist that instinctual, egotistical urge and instead construct the very best versions of what came before is downright artful. As long as that philosophy continues to be observed here, guests will be the better for it.
The beer list – Nick Miller’s first baby (his second is due in February) – is also really well put together (ever the polymath, Nick is also responsible for the great branding/identity job). There’s commendable variety and local representation on the beautifully lettered slats, everything from the cultish (eg. Superflux’s sought-after Happyness AIPA) to the tried and true (eg. Brassneck’s delicious Old Money). The cocktail list is short and sweet with drinks that are as familiar as the menu items (eg. Moscow Mule, Margarita, etc.), and the wine list is even shorter (there’s gold on it, and all of it’s local). If I could selfishly add anything to the drinks mix it would be good milkshakes. They would suit the place like a baseball mitt, and only “pretty fucking good” ones would need apply.
Also worth appreciating is the work of designer Ricky Alvarez of Tinto Creative. Sports bars tend to have several aesthetic components in common, be they a penchant for framed jerseys and sports memorabilia; a persistent blue glow coming from way too many television screens; staff uniforms designed in the fevered imaginations of unfulfilled misogynists; dark corners collecting the corrosive plaque of spilled Budweiser and rotting jalapeno poppers; music so shitty you start to bleed out of your ears … you get the idea. Thankfully, this isn’t the case here.
Bells and Whistles is bright and clean with just two – albeit huge – projector screens. The staff uniform is a branded T-shirt, and instead of sports iconography on the walls there is a clever installation of 68 hanging beer growlers and a paste-up wall by local artist Alex Usow, aka Rhek. Oh, and there are hanging plants. The room is actually two rooms: one is dominated by a horseshoe-shaped bar with surrounding high-top seating, and the other is set with picnic tables and low seats on a corner banquette. There are sports references built into the design here and there (the bar top is a parquet wood tribute to the Celtics’ iconic floor at Boston Garden, which was disassembled in 1999), but I’m glad Alvarez doesn’t hit us over the head with them. Bonus: ski-ball and coin-operated basketball games in the bathroom hallway (because of course).
Bells and Whistles is a welcome addition to the Fraserhood and East Van, not only as a venue for watching the game but also as a place to enjoy quality craft beers alongside familiar, indulgent, nostalgic foods done better than memory serves. Is it original? No. It’s very likely that you will recognise everything on the menu. What makes it so special and significant is how much better those things are here. Honestly, even the soft serve ice cream is superior. Indeed, the chasm between this place and the ubiquitous, sports-showing social kitchen restobars that Vancouverites have come to accept as the standard is dizzying in its depth. So it’s a relief to have this place as an option. For my part, I know where I’ll be when the puck finally drops on the Canucks’ season this Saturday night — at the bar with a Fat Stevens chicken sandwich (OMG, yes!) and a glass of Parkside’s Dusk PA. Take a closer look…