Two nights ago I was sitting at the bar at Bistro Wagon Rouge, tucking into their French Onion soup for the umpteenth time, feeling surprised (also for the umpteenth time) at how little my first impressions of it had changed since I first saw it, falling immediately for its charming interior and simple, unfussy (but still very French) menu. Over the years I’ve come to recommend it to just about everyone who asks me for restaurant guidance, if only because it has never let me down.
Once home nice and sated, I looked into Scout’s archive and saw that Bistro Wagon Rouge had opened exactly five years ago, just before Halloween, 2013. Owner Brad Miller, who’d found great previous success with Red Wagon several blocks southeast, had shown me around the space just a few hours before he would serve his first customers.
Here’s what I wrote about it later that day:
Bistro Wagon Rouge, as it’s cleverly called, is located at 1869 Powell Street in the old Dockers Diner spot at the foot of Victoria Drive. Miller took possession of the space at the start of the summer and has since transformed it while maintaining much of the original (chequered floor, banquettes converted from booths, old photographs, et cetera).
He’s added in a lovely zinc bar that runs the length of the space, as well as a heavy shelving unit, both of which look like they’ve been there since the end of the Third Republic. The look and feel was achieved with the help of restaurateur/friend Stephane Gagnon of Les Faux Bourgeois fame and a UBC architecture student named Pamela Troyer, who also moonlights as a server at Jules Bistro.
As far as food concerned, we can expect a lot of bistro greatest hits out of the gate. “We’re going to start conservatively,” Miller says. “and then get a little more eclectic as we move forward.” As it stands now, the menu sees items like frisee with lardons, french onion soup, escargot, steak tartar, pate plates, beef bourguignon, steak frites, cassoulet, moules, and the like, which is to say that if you don’t have an appetite going in, you can trust that the intoxicating smells of these dishes will sort you out on the double. The drink options are good and French. The wine list is short and sweet, and the cocktails, aperitifs, and beers sing a jazzy version of Le Marseillaise.
It’s easy to forget – what with the success of his casual diner serving reubens and burgers – that Miller worked at Bistro Pastis, Au Petit Chavignol, and West before striking out on his own. He’s been punching well beneath his weight class at The Red Wagon, and while I don’t expect him to get befuddled by cassoulet and terrines, I do imagine that he’s stoked to be back in the very familiar milieu. Such familiarity usually translates well on the plate, and subsequently to the customer, who will no doubt be pleased by the affordable prices (in the $8-$18 range).
The gallery below shows what it looked like that day. Those familiar with the place will see how little it has changed. They’ve long since dialled in and honed the menu to an exacting science, and though the food hasn’t gotten any less conservative (still with the beef bourguignon, steak frites, cassoulet, moules, etc.), I don’t think anyone minds in the least.
We wish them another five successful years (with the caveat that they don’t go by so damn fast).