Drinking and Eating at Vancouver Izakayas
A raucous crawl through Japanese small-plates-and-beer joints
It seems like everybody in Vancouver’s Guu with Garlic restaurant is yelling. Patron to patron, over beer and fried shrimp. Server to patron, as people walk in the door. Servers to chefs, and chefs to servers. It feels like we’re on-board a careening watercraft in a 90-knot storm. Only instead of being blasted with salt water, we are being showered with free plates of marinated shark’s fin and octopus with wasabi because of a few messed-up reservations.
Guu with Garlic is one of the most popular restaurants in this Canadian city serving what’s become the hottest dining trend here: izakaya (pronounced “ee-zah-kai-ah”). That is, Japanese small plates in a publike atmosphere. Izakayas started in Tokyo years ago as holes in the wall where office workers could chug beer and sake before they went home to dinner with their families. The seafood salads, hot fried things, soups, and noodle dishes that served to tide patrons over might be cooked by a guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Then newer, fancier izakayas opened with more inventive dishes. But raucous drinking was still the game. In Japan, it isn’t uncommon for office workers to hit several izakayas, a practice called hashigo sake (literally “ladder drinking,” or barhopping), before catching the train home.
Recently, American food critics began heralding the arrival of the izakaya to the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York. But to experience a true izakaya scene outside Japan, Vancouver is the place to go. Why the trend has taken off there is a matter of speculation. Some argue that the city’s enormous population of Japanese students provided a ready-made customer base as the restaurants began opening in the mid-1990s. Others say that the comparative ease of getting a Canadian work visa guarantees an influx of talented young Japanese chefs eager to make something beyond sushi. Japanese and Korean students are still heavily represented among the patrons, but you’ll see all kinds of people dining at izakayas.
Here are our four favorite Vancouver izakayas, conveniently located near one another downtown, should you opt for a crawl. (If you’re eating dinner at only one, you might tell your server you’d like to order omakase style, which literally means “in your hands” but in this context is more along the lines of “chef’s choice”: The chef picks a variety of dishes for you for a fixed, reasonable price. Many Japanese chefs consider such a request an honor, and will treat you to the best food they can make.) Nearly all the izakayas offer full cocktail bars, as well as beer and sake. A few offer wine. But if you’re planning a crawl, stick to beer: You’ll feel better the next day. And don’t forget to wear your fashion socks (see sidebar), because you might be asked to take off your shoes in certain areas of some restaurants.
Photographs by Chris Rochelle
Some izakayas have tatami-mat seating areas where you’ll be asked to remove your shoes. Shop online for fashion socks before you go.