As a local I take for granted that I know everything there is to know about the city and its areas that I frequent. So was surprised today by how much I actually didn’t, thanks to one of Taste Vancouver’s Food Tours.
They are geared towards tourists visiting, offering an easy way to explore any one given area without the need to research or open a map. You sign up, pay the fee and are led on a journey around your chosen tour area, which includes small bites and limited sips as well.
In our case, this was Gastown, and the group was assigned to meet at Waterfront Station. Although there are eight designated stopping points on the tour, the tour actually covers a lot more places of interest. As per our informative guide, Dan. There is a basic script he follows, but a lot of anecdotes are all his own. This makes sense, as he honestly made the tour. If you are just considering the cost of the tour for the amount of food and drink you get, the sum might not add up. But if considering the engagement and enthusiasm of the guide, and the tidbits and takeaway, the experience is well worth the cost. And on that note, you may want to bring change to tip. Because if your guide is as dynamic and knowledgeable as our Dan, you will want to show your appreciation.
Your guide dawns a bright neon blue smock adorned with the tour’s logo. Harder to spot this season with the need to layer, so just congregate by the gathering group, close to the first international Starbucks location outside of the US. This is just one of the many interesting factoids you will get from the tour. I won’t be saying much more, as to not ruin the experience. But expect plenty of eye-opening moments and to walk away with a new appreciation for Gastown, (should you take this tour). Not just for those visiting, but also great for locals looking for a fun thing to do one afternoon with friends. On the same line as a staycation, try being a tourist in your own city. Not to mention it is a great form of exercise given the amount of walking and standing you get in.
Below, I will cover the food stops, but point out what we got on this adventure, might not be what you get as they incorporate dietary restrictions and the season.
Starting at the terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway, we moved outdoors to take note of the Vancouver’s Port. The former edge of the water was pointed out and how it connected to Water Street. From there other local landmarks within visible distance were highlighted.
Our first stop was Steamworks, Vancouver’s oldest surviving craft brewery. All their beers are still brewed in-house using steam powered vats. Here, we got a crash course in brewing as we sipped a quarter pint of their Hazy IPA. The building was a great example of the old architecture. It still had its original, old growth Douglas Fir beams from the old Gold Rush era; and featured what little brick the city could muster as we didn’t have the proper soil in Vancouver to make many more.
Our second stop was for food at Guu with Otokomae, located within the same original factory building as Steamworks. I appreciated getting the history of all these beautiful buildings that I regularly pass by, but never took the time to appreciate. And I also appreciated the variety the tour offered. Not just Canadian or Pacific Northwest fare, but a collection of the international cuisine offerings that Vancouver is well known for. In particular, this Guu is the only Japanese Izakaya in Gastown. Here, we sat down and were treated to a large piece of chicken kaarage served with sweet soy and mayo for dipping. This was the perfect morsel to follow our first chug of beer. Crispy, juicy, and delicious.
Next, we took shelter at the foyer of a First Nation’s Art Gallery, making note of the history of the building and its tin coloured ceiling. And taking a pause to give respect to the land we were on and the Coast Salish peoples that have taken care of it for so long.
And what is a tour of Gastown, without a stop at the Gastown Steam Clock? The clock is designed in the grandfather clock style and plays West Minister Chime. Our tour was well timed, so that we could hear the full song that played at the top of the hour, otherwise it is only just the short chime every quarter past. We were all surprised to learn that Vancouver’s most photographed tourist attraction is only 45 years old, but then was reminded Vancouver itself is a young city.
The tour also made note of popular restaurants and what they offer now versus what the buildings were originally erected to be. Many hotels and single occupancy dwellings for those pouring into the city for the Gold Rush. Most interesting for me was to know which buildings survived the Great Fire and still had their original bones.
Our next stop was for more food and drink. Brioche is a long-standing Italian restaurant with Italian roots, given a French name. This is their new location, having moved closer to the heart of Gastown. What appears to be a cafe for pastries, coffees and marzipan is much more. This sleeper hit is a great option for Sicilian style pasta. Our tour guide had called ahead with our drink order and glasses of red and/or white wine were waiting for our tour group. Out of preference and to match the small bite I got the red to best pair with the tender and tasty house made sausage ragu and cheese stuffed coloured tortellini. This was no nonsense comforting dining.
My favourite sightseeing stop was at the corner of the empty lot, where we were given the history of Gastown’s lamps and its first and only one-handed lamp lighter named John Clough. For those familiar with the area, you can guess the corner and the businesses named after this historic memory. Fun fact the fire-fueled lamps that lit the street only lasted as week, as the town was quick to defer to electricity after the Great Fire.
Next it was on to one of my favourite nooks of Gastown, the interesting configuration of shops that includes the Native shoe store and a cafe, that leads into a courtyard and our next food stop: Meet in Gastown. All this use to be an abandoned car factory.
For Meet we did not go into the restaurant, but were given a quick sample of their popular sweet chilli cauliflower and an explanation of Vancouver’s accommodating food scene that includes many vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free and allergy-free restaurant options. Ironically it is located in the old Slaughter District with the town’s first Butcher house nearby.
And I can’t believe there use to be a jailhouse in Gastown where L’Abbatoir restaurant is now. This time capsule is noted with some of the earliest brick work and by the still visible “Gaoler’s Mew” street signs.
From here we made it to the centre of Gastown. Its town square where a maple tree once stood and then followed by the town’s unofficial founder Gassy Jack, given his name due to his pompous nature. And now more recently known for the monstrosities he committed against a young native girl. The statue that was once erected in his memory, while simultaneously marking the town’s square has been since torn down, as Canada continues to work on its reconciliation. I respected that the tour did not glamourize or gloss over this past, but acknowledged it for what it was and where we as Canadians want to go with it. Here, it was nice to see of the Taste Vancouver Tours was presenting Canada/Vancouver accurately to all the out of country visitors.
Next stop was 6 acres, the only English Style Pub that looks and feels like one in the city. Here they do Scottish eggs and have Sunday English roasts. However, today we were here for a drink and some of their poutine. Tour goers had our choice between beer or wine, paired with a thick cut, crispy fry poutine with plenty of peppery gravy and squeaky cheese curds. Because after all, how can you have a Canadian food tour without poutine, and going into its history as a post war food item.
We then moved onto the dessert portion of our tour. At Soft Peaks we got to sample their organic milk soft serve ice cream. It is only available in either milk, chocolate milk, or a twist of the two together. A semi-sweet cool treat that isn’t too sugary. The flavour of each parfait comes from their house made syrups, topping, and drizzles like toasted coconut, sour yuzu marmalade, the popular brown sugar pearls, and the seasonal Mont Blanc. Today we had the organic blueberry over milk soft serve, green tea over a twist, and raspberry over milk chocolate to try. Hands down, this is my favourite option for soft serve in the city.
At Waffleland Cafe I got a taste of my first Norwegian waffle, which is crispier and thinner than the popular Belgium waffle, and it includes a nice cinnamony finish. These waffles are typically shaped like a clover and easy to share when divided into 4 hearts. Like the cafe itself, their dessert had a wonder aesthetic. Dressed with chocolate and served with fresh strawberries and cream.
Our tour ended at the Gastown location of Trees Organics, where we learned of this Israeli family’s immigration success story. They wanted to open and operate their own organic family coffee shop, that made classic cheesecakes, seeing as they found no other cafe doing so. It has since grown to the familiar chain that it is today.
In closing, the tour is more detailed and encompassing than I have recapped here. I wanted to review the food and the value, without ruining the surprise, should you decide to embark on this informative adventure yourself. I liked that our Taste Vancouver Tour showcased the variety of the city and the expanse of our food scene in 2.5-3hours. And thanks to it I have a new found appreciation for Gastown, that I can enjoy each time I visit the area or even just drive past it. The reality is that all this history is out there and easily available via Google, but the reality is I won’t take the time to search and read up on it. Therefore, it was nice to get it here, like this in more regurgitated bites. All alongside food and drink breaks. What a great way to learn more about the city and a fun way to spend the afternoon.
Taste Vancouver Food Tours
415 Esplanade W #26, North Vancouver, BC V7M 1A6