Vancouver’s Gastown creates a safe, social outdoor oasis for the return of cocktail culture this summer. It makes perfect sense for the neighbourhood founded on the bar that helped build a city.
Under some welcome umbrella shade on the Jules Bistro patio, live music wafts over from a nearby performer, the all-day-happy-hour Chambord kiss of French Martinis flow for $14, while cocktailians sip under vintage lamposts festooned with lush flower baskets. It almost feels like the “before times.”
As life slowly returns to normal this summer, Vancouver’s Gastown—the neighbourhood where the city started, and where our most famous bar ever was started by its namesake, nicknamed Gassy Jack (aka John Deighton) more than 150 years ago—has embraced pandemic conditions to enhance its reputation as patio central.
A summer Patiotown program has more than 500 outdoor seats—some of them heated and covered, others curbside pocket patios—in an eight-block radius, the densest patio district in Vancouver. “We hope that some of the additional patio opportunities born by the pandemic will last in the long run,” says Walley Wargolet, the new executive director of the Gastown Business Improvement Society (GBIS).
In a summer without the hordes of cruise-ship passengers that help power the economy, the area has met less vehicle traffic and available spaces with innovation—from outdoor live-music hotspots to picnic plazas and pop-up shops. It’s a taste of what could come if the ambitious Gastown Tomorrow project (an exercise in having local creatives envision how the neighbourhood laneways, streets and spaces could be reimagined) becomes potential reality. Here’s where to sample Patiotown at its best.
While the list of Patiotown places also includes many coffee shops and restaurants, the front-seat people-watching patios like Steamworks, the Cambie, and Local (with Guilt & Co.’s patio wrapped around the corner, and indoor nightly live music there from 7 p.m.) are top places to grab a beer and gaze. But the list also includes tucked-away gems like Meet’s fairy-light inner courtyard patio, cozy pop-up patios at drinks dens like the Alibi Room and Smith’s (the new Irish pub in the old Irish Heather space), and of course no session would be complete without a Gastown Gimlet at Pourhouse’s sidewalk pop-up patio.
Shop + Sip
Empty storefronts look like opportunity in Gastown, where innovative entrepreneurs like designer Anna Kosturova have reimagined available space creatively. Her Surf Lounge pop-up shop at 33 Water Street sets the tone for the designer’s tie-dyed surf-lifestyle world with lush plants and pineapples, a loungey hammock and wicker furniture, plus a chance to try the hottest summer tropical drink: Plenty hard kombucha, in juicy flavours like grapefruit hibiscus and mango-pineapple-coconut. At just 5% ABV and 99 calories, with 1 gram of sugar, you can crush a can and still possibly wiggle into tiny crocheted shorts or a halter top.
Drain a Putt and a Drink
In late August, premium vodka brand Grey Goose rounds out summer with a 9-hole mini-golf course in the lot east of Waterfront Station (555 West Cordova St.). Each Smooth Putt ticket rewards you with a refreshing Grey Goose cocktail after your round.
Not only was Gastown founded on Gassy Jack’s famous tavern, it’s a neighbourhood ripe with history from the Prohibition era, when illegal booze runs and intrigue coloured the area. Forbidden Gastown’s Forbidden Vancouver evening walking tour takes small groups through the rum-runners, mobsters and so-called “blind pigs” (speakeasies) in an entirely outdoor tour. Guide Glenn Tkach says, “Ironically, a lot of people enjoy learning about Prohibition before going out to have drinks.”
Maple Tree Square (where, Water, Carrall, Powell and Alexander Streets meet) has a car-free summer plaza, a seating area marked by generously shading black umbrellas emblazoned with red GASTOWN lettering, where you can eat takeout while taking in nearby live music and the scene. Raise a toast to the Gassy Jack barrel-mounted statue while you’re there.
The city’s artists have no-doubt struggled this past year, and the Gastown Unplugged live outdoor music program gives them places to thrive. Four venues (Maple Tree Square, Abbott Street, Cambie and Water Streets, and Richards and Water Streets) are smartly situated to flavour the whole ’hood with sounds on Thursday nights, with performers announced on Instagram.
For a complete list and neighbourhood-based maps of Vancouver patios, follow @patiovancouver on Instagram.
—by Charlene Rooke