The pandemic may have set the coming of Cold Tea back by a few months, but with patience and perseverance the modern Chinese/Vietnamese dim sum restaurant on the edge of the Granville Strip is now open.
Tsui Hang Village at 1193 Granville Street was woven by circumstance into the cultural fabric of our city. Over its 35 year-run, the Chinese restaurant (especially its 3am takeout window) was a beacon to club-goers and late-night wanderers looking for flavourful sustenance after last call. Though its egg foo yung and chow mein were certainly appreciated, it was the restaurant’s (alleged) service of ‘cold tea’ that it arguably best known for.
If you’re unfamiliar with that term, this is how Scout’s Vancouver Lexicon project defined it back in 2013:
Cold Tea | codeword, hospitality | Service industry code for cold beer covertly served in teapots after a restaurant’s last call for alcohol. The service of ‘cold tea’ was once fairly common practice in Vancouver and something of an open secret at a handful of Chinese restaurants.
Located in what used to be a Royal Bank branch, the 4,600 sqft restaurant space was quickly picked up when it closed late last year. Its replacement is the project of a foursome of friends: former Hapa Izakaya and Tap & Barrel GM, Ron Cheng; his brother and former Minami barkeep, Joe Cheng; Bodega on Main and The Parlour owner, Paul Rivas; and the former Head Chef of The Parlour and Frankie G.’s, Thien Vuong.
Brothers Ron and Joe were kind enough to give me the nickel tour an hour before they softly opened on June 2nd.
It’s a voluminous space with high ceilings, intact vaults, plush seating (especially for larger groups) and a good looking bar. I’ve seen photos of it all set and it looks good, or at least much better than in the state of undress I’ve depicted in the shots above and below. When it’s full (or as full as can be right now) I bet it’s on the lively and loud side, and I’m looking forward to giving it a proper whirl.
Cold Tea was vaguely on my radar this past winter. I was reluctant to follow-up for a couple of reasons. First, the address: I think it’s fair to say that the modern iteration of the Granville Strip hasn’t been Vancouver’s best foot forward when it comes to excellence in food, drink and hospitality. (Concentrating so many bars into one so-called “Entertainment District” so the consumption of alcohol could be policed was a stupid idea when it was first dreamed up and forced upon us in the 1990s, and it remains a stupid idea today). Second, the name: Given the definition of “Cold Tea” and the heritage of Tsui Hang, it’s a very appropriate honorific — but there was a problem. As a judge at Canada’s 100 Best, I already knew of a celebrated 10-year old bar with the same name. There was a “Cold Tea” in my old Toronto stomping grounds. Granted, it’s very different than the Vancouver project of the same name (more of a speakeasy-style boozefest with snacks and a DJ), but since I still field messages from a Scout Magazine in Manila and another in Massachusetts, it nevertheless kind of rubbed me the wrong way.
What eventually turned it around for me was reading the effort and imagination that clearly went into Vuong’s menu (seriously, read it) and the small fortune that these guys, all first-timers with the exception of Rivas, spent getting their 130 seat room ready for launch, only to see it delayed several months due to the arrival of Covid-19. Having had time to give the origins and circumstances surrounding the name choice more consideration, I don’t mind as much anymore. I’m pretty confident it was Vancouver that introduced Toronto to the concept of serving beer in teapots after hours — a practice that not only goes back to before the counter-culture of the 1960s (and the heyday, for example, of Chinatown’s legendary Green Door restaurant), but also – very importantly and specifically – to the somewhat hallowed ground of 1193 Granville Street. If we’re talking about appropriation I think it might be best to call it a tie game and move on.
With all that aside, what is our food scene gaining here and why does it matter? I know this might sound odd and counter-intuitive, but Vancouver could always use more dim sum restaurants (if only so the revered style can be improved upon in ways we can’t yet imagine). So I’m totally on side from a conceptual perspective. Adding quality cocktails (the list inspires some confidence) and plenty of atmosphere (love that abacus wall and mural by local artist Sace Forand) are definite pluses, but what makes Cold Tea particularly interesting to me as a diner is how the chef is introducing Vietnamese flavours and traditions to the mix, not only mounting, for example, rice with both Lemongrass Chicken and Char Sui, but also mixing banh mi sandwiches with a selection of bao. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Vuong’s food before, but – as I alluded to in a previous paragraph – if he and his team can cook half as well as they can design an intriguing menu, this will be food worth anticipating. I say this with no small amount of hope in my heart because I like dim sum operations with traditional carts, and I’m told Cold Tea will roll that way – perhaps even with a few tableside cocktail options – once Covid-19 is gone.
Cold Tea is just entering their soft opening phase of sit-down services. Take-out remains an option, too. The hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 3pm until late. Take a look at some of images below and forgive them the mess. They weren’t quite set up for service when I walked in to wish them good luck…