Restaurants across B.C. were hit hard in 2010 by a double whammy of the recession and the new HST, both of which drove down numbers of diners.
People were naturally more cautious about spending a few extra dollars for a meal in tougher economic times, and were certainly going to be more cautious when they were paying more tax on their meal (12 per cent as opposed to five per cent before HST was introduced July 1).
But there's no reason you can't still treat yourself a little in these straitened times. Take a common-sense approach: Look for the daily deals that many bars and restaurants advertize on their websites or in house. Many places offer a different deal every day. It's often cheaper to eat your main meal at lunch, and many establishments lure in customers with bargains during the quieter late-afternoon to early-evening spell before 6 p.m.
There are now other ways of harnessing the power of the net to get yourself a good deal. You may have heard of a rather popular social network called Facebook. Many bars and restaurants have fan pages that you can join, and notify you of daily deals that aren't readily advertized elsewhere.
Same goes for Twitter: Follow your favourite hangouts and you can be among the first to know of any offers happening that day. Some places even fire out tweets with a password that'll net you a free drink or appetizer. There are also dedicated Twitter accounts that retweet deals from various sources. Some good local ones to follow are @GroosterVan, @604DailyDeals and @VancouverPicks. The newest phenomenon in the social network sphere is an application called Foursquare (foursquare.com), which allows you to "check in" to venues you visit, using your cellphone. As well as allowing you to share info and tips on an eaterie with your Foursquare friends, checking in can give you instant access to exclusive deals. You also get points every time you check in, with high scorers rewarded for their loyalty.
For even easier access to deals, sign up for Groupon (groupon.com). This city-specific website sends a different special offer to your email inbox every day. If the certificate they're offering grabs you, you can purchase it online and use it immediately, or often up to a few months after. More certificate-based dining deals are available at letsgofordinner.com, where you can buy half-price coupons — up to as much as $40 in value — for many great Vancouver restaurants. As with all certificates, make sure you know the conditions and any blacked-out dates that may apply.
In addition, check the listings for any annual food festivals that might be happening across the Lower Mainland. Many restaurants in a certain city or area offer set-price dinners during these annual celebrations of food. Dine Out Vancouver (tourismvancouver.com/visitors/dining/dine_out_vancouver) is the largest and most well known. It's a fortnight of inexpensive dining that really brightens the dark, damp days of late winter, and has started expanding beyond the city's boundaries. Dine Out Vancouver 2011 takes place Jan. 24-Feb. 6.
Even if you haven't hunted down a special deal (or had one sent to you), on a global scale, Vancouver is still one of the cheaper cities for food. And on a local scale, there are plenty of options for good-quality, inexpensive dining experiences.
Perhaps the best deal in the whole of Vancouver can be had at Bon's Off Broadway (2451 Nanaimo St., Vancouver, 604-253-7242). Bon's is a traditional greasy spoon that really hasn't seen much love in a while, let alone a lick of paint — but who cares when you're paying just $2.95 for a giant plate full of bacon, eggs, pan fries and toast? The all-day special has achieved something of a legendary status, but it's not the sole reason to visit Bon's. Omelettes and pancakes round out the brunch options, but there's also a full menu featuring sandwiches, burgers and pasta, among other entrees — all very competitively priced. You'll almost certainly have to wait for a table unless you arrive super-early — but it's worth the end result, if you consult any of the records on the thousands of hangovers cured here.
Some more great greasy grub — in the classic diner vein — can be found on the fringes of Gastown at Deacon's Corner (101 Main St., Vancouver; 604-684-1555; deaconscorner.ca). You'll have to dig a little deeper than at Bon's, but the portions are enormous and the biscuits and gravy may one day achieve the legendary status of the all-day special. Another bonus for your hangover at Deacon's is that it's licensed, so you can apply hair of the dog as needed via beer or cocktail. Sandwiches, burgers, salds and soups round out the menu.
Most of the area's best inexpensive food can be found at ethnic eateries.
Say "Chinese cuisine" and one of the first places Vancouverites think of is Hon's Wun-Tun House (various locations; hons.ca). Since the original location in Chinatown opened in 1972, Hon's spread across the metro area to Richmond, New Westminster and Coquitlam. The mini-chain fell on hard times earlier this year when it required creditor protection and the outlet in Richmond was closed. But Hon's other locations are still doing a roaring trade. While it originally prided itself on authentic Hong Kong wun-tun noodles, Hon's has now become the realm of the potsticker — and at $6.55 for 12 pieces, you can see why. The menu is huge and only the occasional item goes above the $10 mark.
"It's a community style, because we're not going too high, expensive, or too fancy," says Chinatown branch manager Sam Ng. "So you have the price that's close to the market value or lower. The customer has a memory so we don't want to make the price too high."
Ng's restaurant, on Keefer Street, is probably the most atmospheric of the Hon's outlets.
"The taste is a different style from other restaurants," says Ng.
"[Customers] like the old-style [taste] because when you're eating you're thinking about when you're younger. Because we opened a long time ago and then people time to time come back here - it's something like the MacDonald's argument, people who come here as kids come back as adults.
"Here we are close to the market in the community, so the taste is coming from this style, this particular community, and is hardly changing. . . . people like our style, they like dreaming of the old feeling."
The HST has had a negative impact on Hon's business, says Ng, but not a drastic one. "Customers are coming but they eat not too much. Sales are a little bit down but not extremely." If anything, Hon's is likely to have weathered the HST storm better than most other eateries, due to its affordable menu.
One relative newcomer with perhaps an eye on emulating Hon's original success is Posh (various locations; 303-posh.com), billed as the "first exclusive Japanese sukiyaki restaurant in North America." The traditional Japanese hot pot has caught on in B.C.'s southwest, with branches of Posh now operating in Richmond, Vancouver, Burnaby and Victoria.
The sukiyaki experience costs $12 at lunch and $16 at dinner, while there are also teriyaki options for less than $10.
If it's cheap and cheerful Malaysian food you're after, head down Main Street to Hawker's Delight (4127 Main St, Vancouver; 604-709-8188). Again, as far as presentation goes, leave your inhibitions at the door (along with your bank cards — it's cash only). This is more like a street-food cart than a restaurant, with basic, limited seating, but you can get a good meal for less than $5, including nasi goreng (fried rice), mee goring (fried noodles) and curries.
Lebanese is one of the most overlooked of all the Mediterranean cuisines, but Nuba (various locations; nuba.ca) has proved that it can be delicious, inexpensive and incredibly successful. Since opening its original cafe on West Hastings in 2004, Nuba has opened another two locations, and moved to a larger premises on West Hastings to operate as a restaurant. If you stick to mezze dishes — for example, hummus, taboulleh, falafel — nothing tops $10, even in the restaurant, which also offers more expensive grilled meat fare.
The dishes are simple but incredibly fresh-tasting, the ingredients high-quality, and there are many vegan options too.
La Taqueria (322 W. Hastings St., Vancouver; 604-568-4406; lataqueria.ca) moved into Nuba's original narrow-room location and it brought some fantastic, authentic and inexpensive tacos to downtown: Four meat or fish tacos for $9.50; four veggie tacos for $7. There's usually a special filling or two on the go, and plenty of sauces and pickles you can help yourself to.
It's still possible to get a fine dining experience on the cheap in downtown Vancouver — if you don't mind being something of a guinea pig for the superstar chefs of tomorrow. The Art Institute of Vancouver's Culinaria restaurant (609 Granville Street; Vancouver; 604-639-2055; aivculinaria.com) has lunch sittings weekdays and dinner Wednesday to Friday every week, which offer culinary students the experience of a high-pressure restaurant environment. The menu is very reasonably priced considering the quality of the ingredients and the undoubted skill of the students, considering they've made it this far. And even if something hits a bum note, you've got a story to tell when you recognize that same chef on television in five years' time.
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