Chinatown, a commercial (and increasingly residential) neighbourhood within the Downtown Eastside, has been one of Vancouver’s most vibrant areas since the City’s beginnings. It got its start as a ghetto on the edge of the Granville Townsite in the late 1880s when scores of Chinese immigrants arrived to work BC’s mines and build its railroads. Despite the institutional racism of the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act and the anti-animated neon signage laws of 1974, it has endured with outside forces doing little to curb its vibrancy. Today it is home to an eclectic mix of traditional and trendy eateries, markets, gardens, temples, and a wide assortment of businesses ranging from tea shops and apothecaries to art galleries and vintage stores. Its future is uncertain, however, as developers are cashing in on its cool cachet and consequently – dramatically – impacting the neighbourhood’s affordability while also eroding its unique character. How much more of this it can take remains to be seen, but the tipping point between its survival and its end feels closer than ever. Chinatown’s borders are debatable, but for the purposes of this guide they are squared by Abbott St. in the west, Gore Ave. in the east, E. Pender St. in the north and E. Georgia St. in the south.
THINGS WE’VE SEEN HEREABOUTS
ESSENTIAL FOOD & DRINK
Bao Bei has been voted to every single Scout 25 since we started ranking Vancouver’s best restaurants. Expect thoughtful, interesting, French-meets-Shanghainese dishes served family style alongside excellent cocktails. Aim for the petit cadeaux and the best pina colada in BC.
A lot of people – especially local Italians and Japanese – would instinctively harumph at the thought of hybridising Japanese and Italian cuisines, but this here is a certifiable revelation. The pastas in particular are strokes of genius. The sexy second-storey eatery was named the Best New Restaurant in Canada in 2016. Excellent bar program. Best seat in the house? Table #43 (aka “The Hot Tub”).
The apothecary-themed cocktails here have been voted by Scout readers as some of the very best drinks currently being made in Vancouver. Unique atmosphere that gets better as the evening ages. Bonus: fantastic little patio with firepit.
Owned by chef Angus An (see also Maenam, Freebird, Longtail Kitchen and Sen Pad Thai), this sliver of a small pan-Asian restaurant is focused on classic noodle preparations like hot and sour pork dom yum and beef laksa. Best seat in the house? The window.
This is the newest location of the popular Korean chainlet (it took over the old Hons WunTun House address in 2017). Aim for the fully loaded hot stone bowls like the Dol Sot Bee Bim Bahb (beef, kimchi, fried egg and rice).
We’d normally balk at the idea of vegan pizza but the stuff here is downright delicious, especially the “Stranger Wings” pizza, which riffs on the buffalo chicken wing flavour. It sees zippily-sauced yet crispy cauliflower florets drizzled with faux blue cheese crema and studded with fried shallots and bright shavings of scallion.
It might be new, but this subtly nostalgic place is straight up old school where it counts with attentive service and expert hands in the kitchen. Try the superbly moist BBQ pork and duck, or the sleeper favourite: curry beef brisket.
Small, charming room that boasts incomparable enthusiasm for local bivalves, of which a variety is served. If you can, try to make it during Happy Hour, which runs 5pm to 7pm, Tuesday through Saturday.
Some of the best ramen in Vancouver. Think classic, deeply flavourful tonkatsu-style loaded with thin, al dente noodles. Go for the spicy garlic “Red” option. Bonus: first round of extra noodles is free. Best seat in the house? Table #23.
Our go-to spot for fried chicken just so happens to use a gluten-free batter, so hooray if that matters to you. What we’re looking for is deliciousness, and they have it here. Even the ribs are sticky fantastic. Secret weapon: cocktails. Best seat in the house? Either Table #51 or #52.
If it’s late and there are no tables anywhere and you just want some hot noodles and maybe some stir fried beef with vegetables, either take-out or eat in at this venerable, no frills, always-happy-to-see-you institution.
We never thought that non-dairy gelato was a possibility until we tried some and were rightly blown away. Umaluma is the bees’ knees, like something out of Willy Wonka. Flavours to try: Drunken Cherry and Double Chocolate Truffle. Oh my…
A simple, unassuming shop offering well made sandwiches (always with excellent bread) and hearty soups. The one we like the most – even more than their grilled cheese – is their ice cream sandwich.
Irrepressibly sunny day-time cafe that caters to a young, health-conscious tribe hooked on 100% plant-based food. Good vibes here (even if it feels like an Instagram stage set during peak times).
Sometimes a basic New York-style slice is all you need between lunch and dinner. These pies travel well too, so don’t hesitate to take a whole one home. Aim for the classic pepperoni or the cheesy “White” with mozzarella, smoked provolone, ricotta, grana padana, garlic and oregano.
The gin and tonic program at this two-storey looker is out of this world. Menu ideal for sharing with tight charcuterie and cheese boards. If you like fried potato dishes try their “patatas” plate, which sees triple-cooked kennebec potatoes tossed in paprika oil alongside a garlic-heavy aioli.
A favourite of local coffee aficionados, this tiny shop within a shop fronts the voluminous Space Lab vintage store. Always superior quality beans masterfully ground and prepared to order.
The Chinatown location of Matchstick is licensed so you can have a cold, local beer with your delicious galette. Or you can just enjoy the coffee, which is some of the best that’s locally roasted. Up to you.
The new and much improved Jade Dynasty is back and the all-day dim sum is where it’s at. Service can feel a little indifferent during busy times. Endure regardless for the har gow and the Singapore pork dumplings.
This is a victualling station for the more deep-pocketed newcomers to the neighbourhood, a place to get your Grana Padano, olive oil and such. Good coffee, too. Best of all: tiramisu.
Your first time at Say Hey will not be your last as we’ve found it impossible not to return to thoughts of their meatball or roast “beast” sandwiches in idle, quiet moments of hungry contemplation.
There’s always something tasty on offer at the smallest Italian food store in the city. Owner Maya Sciarretta makes and retails her own sauces. If you ever see an Penne Arrabiata on special, pounce. The company’s Instagram telegraphs what’s up.
A venerable, positively massive second-storey establishment that specialises in live seafood and dim sum, though the Peking duck steals the show. Feels delightfully stuck in the 90s after a few drinks.
Among the very best restaurants in the neighbourhood. The diverse, Southeast Asian menu is Tolstoyesque in length with the most famous dishes being butter beef, garlic prawns and lemon/pepper wings. Absolutely worth waiting in line for.
Talented bartenders, properly made cocktails and some truly delicious, American-inspired dishes (we’re partial to the “ham grenades”) make this place a solid hangout.
Expect to find good beans and expert baristas at this large, open concept cafe. The quality pastries are a bonus, as is the free (and strong) wi-fi.
New Town is just one of those places that everyone has to visit when they come to Chinatown. The variety of pastries is crazy, but we go for the coconut buns and pork baos every time.
I haven’t eaten the fried chicken since Prime Time moved here from its Gastown location years ago, but I’ll sneak a potato wedge or two now and then and will almost always seek out a vanilla soft-serve ice cream cone when it’s hot enough out.
This is the best Taiwanese beef noodle soup that one can get in Chinatown. Also of note: Ma Po Dou Fu Fan, or minced pork and tofu rice bowl with spicy soybean sauce. Good looking room.
Chinatown might seem like the least likeliest of places to find excellent German currywurst, pretzels and beer, but here you are. A cool space made better by great staff. Pro tip: Leberkase. Where to sit? Table No. 5.
THE COLOUR PALETTE
Blue/Orange facades of Ho Sun Hing Printers & Fresh Egg Mart on East Georgia; the leafiness of Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Gardens; ugly blue LED streetlights; Erin Templeton shop facade; cheese sauce at Bestie; Mamie Taylor’s green walls; Matchstick Coffee’ house “Catalogue” blend; yellow window shutters above Fat Mao; orange awning above New Town Bakery; omnipresent decorative red and gold; freshly horked old man loogie; marinated eggplant with soy, garlic, and ginger at Bao Bei; stinky summer fish gut puddle; the best table in the house (#43) at Kissa Tanto; green signage at Kent’s Kitchen; dead alleyway pigeon tri-colour; dried tokay gecko on a stick.
THINGS TO CHECK OUT
DEAD LIZARDS FOR YOUR PENIS*
$8.99 (AND CHEAPER) HAIRCUTS
PARADES WITH BAGPIPES, DRAGONS, & SIKHS
THE RENNIE COLLECTION AT WING SANG
VINTAGE ODDITIES AT SPACE LAB
THE OCCASIONAL RAT
PRESENTS FOR COOKS
GAMES OF POOL AT THE LONDON PUB
THE VIEW FROM THE KEEFER PARKADE
AMAZING JAPANESE KNIVES AT AI & OM
OUT OF THE ORDINARY BLIM WORKSHOPS
SWEET VINTAGE AT DUCHESSE
TERRIFYING GUTTER PUDDLES
NICE GUYS AT THE SHOP
THE PLAZA SKATEPARK
SUPPLIES FOR LIQUOR LOVERS
A WHOLE LOTTA PIGEONS
LEATHER BAGS AT ERIN TEMPLETON
* the dried lizards (tokay geckos) are a traditional Chinese medicine for impotence, tuberculosis, and asthma.
FASCINATING THINGS OF NOTE
– The oldest standing structure in Chinatown is the Wing Sang Building on Pender, built in 1889 by Chinatown pioneer Yip Sang.
– Market Alley, spanning from Main Street and Carrall between Hastings and Pender, was a turn-of-the-century hotspot for opium production, gambling, and after-hours debauchery.
– Dr. Sun Yet-Sen Classical Chinese Garden was the first of its kind to be constructed outside of China.
– Vancouver’s Chinatown is the largest in Canada and one of the largest in North America.
– A city ordinance was passed in 1937 that prohibited Chinese-owned restaurants from employing white women. In 1939, city council amended the law to permit white waitresses in Chinatown restaurants that served “English meals to English customers”.