Travel

48 Hours in Vancouver with Rhys Pender

The Master of Wine shares his tips on where to find the best food and drinks in British Columbia’s vibrant coastal city

view of Vancouver, Canada
Photo credit: iStock.

Rhys Pender became Canada’s youngest Master of Wine, at age 35, in 2010. Today he is one of the country’s most in-demand wine consultants. When not advising other people on their wine projects, judging international wine competitions, or leading wine education seminars, the Australian-born Pender tends organic vines in his adopted British Columbia homeland and makes wine with his wife, Alishan Driediger, at their Little Farm Winery in the Similkameen Valley town of Cawston, four hours east of Vancouver.

Pender’s wine travels regularly take him around the world, but he also frequently travels to Vancouver, which is like a second home to him. With its diaspora of cultures and cuisines—and abundance of fresh seafood—Vancouver, he says, is a food lover’s dream. “After a busy day of teaching or tastings, it’s a great place to head out for a pint or cocktail and a good bite,” Pender says. His insider picks will help you live like a local and make the most of your 48 hours in Canada’s Gateway to the Pacific.

Planning Your Visit

To start getting a sense of this captivating coastal city—and to home in on specifics like location details, lodging prices, and upcoming events—Pender suggests checking out online publications like Tourism Vancouver, TripAdvisor, Where magazine, and Scout magazine.

Getting There

Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is a major hub serving both international and domestic destinations. Flying time from New York is about five hours, from Chicago four hours, and from Los Angeles three hours. From the airport, hop on the Canada Line train (every few minutes), which reaches downtown in just 25 minutes. Seattle is a two-hour drive to the south, while Whistler Resort and ski mecca is two hours to the north.

Where to Stay

Pender often stays in Coal Harbour at the Marriott Pinnacle. “[It’s] close—but not too close—to the convention center,” he says. “I like to walk a lot. From here you can get to all kinds of different neighborhoods in 15 to 20 minutes. And you can walk, run, or cycle on the seawall [that surrounds Stanley Park and extends around to Kitsilano Beach Park].” His favorite place to stay, however, is the boutique Listel Hotel in the more residential neighborhood of the West End, close to English Bay and Stanley Park. “I really like the Gallery or Museum floors, where you can wake up to French press coffee at the door, plus there’s sparkling water on tap on each floor.” The stylish rooms all feature cherrywood furnishings and original or limited edition art.

Where to Eat and Drink

Vancouver is known for its laid-back lifestyle and lack of pretentiousness, so dining out is always a relaxed affair. A vibrant wine-by-the-glass culture yields many good British Columbia (B.C.) wines, which have started gaining international recognition. Most restaurants offer daily specials that emphasize local and seasonal ingredients. The menus are often à la carte, driven by sharing options and West Coast tapas-style small plates. During happy hour (usually 4 to 6 pm), food and drink specials also abound.

Pender’s work often has him attending winemaker dinners and emceeing wine events in high-end restaurants, but he also enjoys exploring Vancouver’s lower-key options. “When it’s my own time,” he says, “I like to go with friends to more casual places—and not spend a whole bunch of money.” He craves Asian food the most, emphasizing that Vancouver offers many varieties.

Hokkaido Ramen Santouka

This place on lower Robson Street is really popular for its Hokkaido-style shio (salt) ramen noodles. “I’ve tried a number of ramen places, but I always come back here,” says Pender. “You pretty well always have to line up, but I don’t mind because I know it delivers.” 1690 Robson St. (Also 558 West Broadway)

Phnom Penh

This humble Chinatown go-to has been getting rave reviews since it opened some 35 years ago, after its owners fled Cambodia for Canada. Pender says the salt and black pepper squid, curry frogs’ legs, crispy chicken wings, and green papaya salad are all worth the trip. 224 East Georgia St.

Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House

Just off Robson, this brass-and-wood-trimmed emporium draws a lively crowd to its giant horseshoe-shaped bar and hidden rooftop patio lounge. “It’s always fun for a classic prawn cocktail with fresh horseradish and a glass of decent bubbly at the bar,” Pender says, “and maybe a few, freshly shucked local oysters.” 777 Thurlow St.

Bistro Wagon Rouge

Off the beaten path near the port of Vancouver, this former longshoremen’s diner has been transformed into a cozy French bistro. Pender loves the old-fashioned dining room and the classic dishes the bistro serves up, like cassoulet, steak frites, French onion soup, rillettes, and duck confit, and he adds, “It’s just great value!” 1869 Powell St. (No reservations)

Forage

Chef Chris Whittaker creates the inspired dishes on Forage’s nose-to-tail menu with sustainable ingredients that have been foraged or sourced from small, local farms. The drinks menu also spotlights local producers, with an array of wines, beers, ciders, and spirits from around B.C. Next door,  Timber gastropub offers up local brews and bites with shameless Canadian kitsch. “Being part of the Listel Hotel, both are very handy,” says Pender, “and they’re great [places to hit] for a quick glass of wine and a small plate between events.” 1300 Robson St.

Places to Visit

The city’s western shores (about a 20-minute drive from downtown) are home to the University of British Columbia and the Museum of Anthropology (MOA), a must-visit on any Vancouver 48-hour itinerary. In a dramatic Arthur Erickson–designed building overlooking the ocean, MOA features a breathtaking collection of Northwest Coast First Nations art, as well as ongoing exhibitions, guided tours, and more.

Easily reached from downtown by False Creek Ferries, the once very industrial Granville Island now enjoys a new lease on life, with a bustling public market at the heart of a thriving community of theaters, galleries, boutiques, and restaurants, as well as Canada’s only Artisan Sake Maker.

Tucked away in the leafy center of Stanley Park, the Vancouver Aquarium is home to a diverse array of aquatic life, superbly displayed in several galleries. The aquarium is world renowned as a driving force in marine research and ocean conservation.

The historic quarter of Gastown lures visitors with an assortment of lively spots close to downtown. Pender favors l’Abattoir for its great wines and cocktails, Sardine Can for sherries and tapas, Revolver for coffee, and Nicli Antica Pizzeria for “excellent thin-crust pizza paired with some perfect, juicy Italian reds.” He also recommends wandering further east, to Railtown’s Ask for Luigi, for fresh pasta—the pappardelle and oxtail risotto, in particular—and no-nonsense wine “like dry Lambrusco served in tumblers.”

Main Street, especially around the hip Mount Pleasant area, is a true coffee mecca, with multiple options for a stellar cup of joe. Pender is a fan of JJ Bean, where the Neate family proprietors pride themselves on freshness and quality, roasting green coffee in small batches throughout the day. This fashionable hub is also the epicenter of Vancouver’s burgeoning craft brewing scene. Visit the taprooms of Brassneck and Main Street Brewing and throw back a pint, or grab a bite at one of the area’s many fine eateries. “I also like to check out the interesting natural wines at Burdock & Co.,” says Pender, “and [the vegetarian fare at] The Acorn.”

Side Trips

Vancouver features a wide array of both urban and natural pleasures. The wilderness that surrounds the city is both easy to get to and worth the diversion. Head to Horseshoe Bay for a ferry ride and pub lunch at Doc Morgan’s on Bowen Island, suggests Pender. Or hop the SeaBus passenger ferry across the harbor to North Vancouver and visit Capilano Suspension Bridge or the scenic village of Deep Cove. In winter, the ski hills Cypress, Grouse, and Mount Seymour are just minutes away. All offer night skiing, with breathtaking panoramas.

Ultimately, though, the ever-popular Seawall is Vancouver’s Las Ramblas on the ocean’s edge. “On weekends, you’ll find the whole city there,” Pender says. “Sometimes me too!”

Tim Pawsey is a Vancouver-based journalist whom you might spot at any one of the haunts mentioned here or hopping a flight overseas to explore another wine region. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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