Just a few hundred miles up the road from my home in Portland, Oregon, the city of Vancouver, British Columbia is an excellent place for vegans. I hadn’t visited since before the pandemic. So on a recent trip, I went to check out both new developments and mainstays of the Vancouver vegan dining scene. Here are a few places to try if you have the chance to visit what many folks claim is North America’s best city.
Nuba, which considers itself Vancouver’s first modern Lebanese restaurant, combines old-school cuisine with organic and local ingredients. It’s not a vegan restaurant, but a large portion of the menu is plant-based.
The Nuba empire started in 2003 with one little 15-seat restaurant. Now, there are four locations, with perhaps expansion on the horizon. I visited the Yaletown location on a Thursday night and it was packed. Without a reservation, you were pretty much out of luck. I got a vegan mezza sampler, the highlights of which were the lentil and rice dish called mjadra, the falafels and crispy cauliflower with lemon and sea salt. I asked the general manager what made the falafel and cauliflower so good. Both are family recipes.
He told me that they add a bit of jalapeno to the falafel, but would not divulge the secret of the cauliflower. The house-made ginger beer was excellently spicy. I thought I was done until I found out they had vegan baklava. Four kinds! An Iranian bakery makes it special for them: cinnamon, rosewater, pistachio and cashew. Yes, reader, I ate them all.
Cofu Pressed Sushi
I’d heard about this newish place and been eager to try it for a year. Two of my favorite things together: vegan sushi and mocktails. Cofu makes oshizushi, or pressed sushi. They put sushi rice and layers of toppings into a mold then compress it, which makes a very cute little sushi rectangle. While it wasn’t familiar to me, oshizushi is nothing new. It dates back to 18th century Osaka, Japan. They also use black rice instead of white.
I was a little skeptical of Cofu’s decision to serve sushi with its own sauces rather than the expected ginger and wasabi. I ordered the Sahi plate, which the server told me was their most popular sushi sampler. It had plant-based versions of smoked salmon, short ribs, portobello and marinated radish with raspberry, accompanied by cilantro cucumber and wild carrot sauces. The cilantro sauce was especially good, as were the smoked salmon and short ribs. But I could do without raspberries on my sushi.
The mocktail menu featured a martini and other cocktails made with Lyre’s white cane spirit, non-alcoholic beers and plum wine. In retrospect, I wish I’d tried the Kawabata, made with white cane spirit, lime and ume shu. But even in an N/A form, lunch just felt too early. So I got a nobunaga, which is just a ginger beer. Cofu is on Granville Island, known for shops dominated by local craftspeople. You can take the cutest little ferry to get there.
Nightshade is a very pretty restaurant in Vancouver’s Yaletown area, full of plants, with blue lights behind the bar. The hostess told me it felt like wonderland when she first walked in and she knew immediately she wanted to work there. I got a tasting menu and stuffed myself more than necessary, but it was so delicious.
Chef Chanthy Yen does innovative takes on international recipes, but not so innovative that they’re unrecognizable or weird. He obviously knows what he’s doing, having been Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s personal chef, as well as holding other high positions. In between courses of mini rounds of naan topped with chana masala served with ghost pepper/mango chutney and an amazingly creamy risotto with white asparagus, Yen stopped by my table to chat.
Nightshade just opened last January, and already it’s won the coveted Michelin Bib Gourmand Award. This honor goes to restaurants that not only have superior food, but cost what Michelin deems to be a reasonable price.
“Having the Michelin award means we have to turn it up a notch,” Yen told me. “We can’t get stagnant.” The honor has also brought farmers out of the woodwork who want to supply Nightshade. “We have foragers who work just with us.”
They send him photos on Instagram of their foraged finds — things like miner’s lettuce, Japanese knotweed, gorse flowers and wild garlic — and he bases specials around the items the day after they arrive. Nightshade also makes everything from oat milk to hot sauce in-house.
In addition to five or so courses, I also managed to pack in a coffee crème brulee made from coconut and toasted oatmeal and two mocktails. The N/A margarita with lemongrass was delicious. I also ordered one called “An Italian Indecent Proposal” because it sounded so unusual: Lyre’s Coffee Original Liqueur, Lyre’s Italian Spritz, espresso, Thai chili and candy heart bitters. Between the coffee mocktail and the dessert, it was enough caffeine to keep me up past my bedtime. But it was worth it.
The chefs at The Acorn push the outer limits of what you can do with vegetables. It’s a zero-waste kitchen that uses stems, skins and scraps from fruits and vegetables, repurposing them into components of the menu. The menu sports a long list of purveyors. Ninety-nine percent of everything The Acorn serves is grown, harvested or made in British Columbia and western Canada. Some items are even personally foraged by the chef. The Acorn is well known as a Michelin-recommended restaurant.
I got the tasting menu, which was small plate after small plate of beautifully arranged, mysterious food. The server told me the ingredients of each, which felt like a weird dream where the language just isn’t computing in your brain. I kept saying things like, “What? Candied reindeer lichen?!” Yes, the server reassured me, candied reindeer lichen. I felt like I was on psychedelics. Vegans can expand their mind with items like salal berry and spruce compote, hazelnut financier, 00 Durum, stinging nettle alkaline noodle and smoked garlic skin.
Earnest Ice Cream
My favorite vegan ice cream parlors in Vancouver have disappeared since the pandemic. But Earnest Ice Cream has at least six vegan flavors and they are very good. I can vouch for the vegan peanut butter chocolate pretzel and the vegan tahini brownie. With four scoop shops around town, be sure to Google “vegan ice cream near me” and you might get lucky and find one just around the corner.
West End Guesthouse
I stayed three nights at West End Guest House, a big Victorian house in a residential neighborhood. It’s furnished with lots of antiques and art, might have a benevolent ghost and will cook you a spectacular multi-course vegan breakfast. For example, you could get a vegan muffin, then a bowl of fruit, then a plate of avocado toast, vegan sausages, fried mushrooms and tomatoes. One day, the host even gave me a special little sack full of dark chocolate-dipped coconut balls in case I got hungry while out sightseeing. That is living the vegan high life.
Photography by Teresa Bergen