Those of us who work for Rock City Eats have had the good fortune to get to travel and eat food in cities around the country. Whether it’s as close as Dallas or as far as Washington, D.C., or even to the nearby tourist trap of Branson, some of our favorite pieces to write are dining guides in cities outside of Arkansas. It’s cool to get to see a glimpse of another city’s culinary scene and share that with would-be tourists from Little Rock.
But I really can’t do that for my most recent trip, which was to the splendid city of Vancouver, British Columbia. That’s largely because the vast majority of readers here won’t ever find themselves in southwestern Canada. It’s not exactly a common destination for Arkansans. So instead, I’m going to share my own guide for dining while on vacation in a big city. And I’ll give you some examples from Vancouver for each point listed.
Here, then, is my foodie’s guide to dining in a new city:
1. Ask a friend who has been there
This is pretty self-explanatory. Asking a friend or family member who has traveled to your vacation destination can help you find places you might have missed or avoid places that could be a letdown. It’s pretty much my first step in planning a trip to ask my Facebook friends where I should go to eat. For this trip, a friend recommended the wonderful Bella Gelateria, which I certainly would have missed. My affogato (vanilla gelato swimming in a shot of espresso) was a perfect refresher after walking for several miles. I went back later for the lemon gelato made from buffalo milk, which was also quite good.
2. Find what the city is known for
This is also something you can do weeks in advance of your trip. Get online and find the dish or dishes that define your vacation spot. It might be sourdough bread in San Francisco or barbecue in Austin. Make sure you get at least one dish while you’re there. For me, this had to be poutine. While Vancouver itself is not necessarily known for this French fry, cheese curd and gravy dish, it is very commonly associated with Canada. I found myself at Fritz, just a block from my hotel, ordering the poutine with smoked pulled pork. It was as good as it looks, with the cheese curds softened from the heat and the pork surprisingly as good as you could find in the South.
3. Find what the city does surprisingly well
This might require you to actually be there and ask around. Each city has something it does much better than you might think. For Little Rock, I think that’s beer and cocktails. For Vancouver, it is unquestionably brunch. There are (literally) dozens of restaurants that only open for brunch service, and nearly every restaurant opens up by 8 a.m. People in Vancouver are serious about their brunch, and more than a few restaurants wowed me in that department. Café Medina’s fricassee champignon, with shredded mushrooms and arugula, was a big winner. And Twisted Fork Bistro served up one of the better frittatas I’ve ever tasted, with kale, potato and spicy corn salsa. Whatever it is, look for the city’s hidden gem and make sure you experience it.
4. Eat (super) local
Ok, it kind of goes without saying that eating at Olive Garden or somewhere similar on vacation is lame. You should, of course, be trying out restaurants you can’t eat anywhere else. But in this step, I try to take it a step further and seek out the restaurant serving true local produce and meat. There are very few ways better to experience a city’s food scene, and that was the case at The Farmer’s Apprentice in Vancouver. Every day, this restaurant prints up a new menu based on what the farmers have brought to market, meaning you will rarely see the same dish more than once. This was truly a special meal, with whole radishes dipped in chilled brown butter and served just so, as well as sprouted lentils served with the season’s first asparagus. The kicker was a gorgeous halibut served with baby bok choy in an heirloom tomato broth that was one of the best bites of the trip. I’ve never been disappointed seeking out the restaurant serving up the freshest dishes, and that trend continued here.
5. Don’t forget the beverages
It’s no secret that some of the hottest parts of the nation’s culinary profile are not in food but in drink. Practically everywhere you go, you’ll be able to find a top-notch craft brewery or small local distillery. There is some considerable buzz around Vancouver’s beer scene, and while I wasn’t blown away by everything I tried, there were some fantastic brews in the city. In particular, 33 Acres impressed me with its easy-drinking IPA that opted for bright, citrus flavors instead of bitterness. Don’t imbibe? Check out the city’s coffee and tea makers. In Vancouver, I was really happy with the care shown to my cold brew at Revolver Coffee, where roasters work with beans from around the world and carefully measure and grind all drinks to order. In many cities, you can also find great local soda companies or wine makers. Make sure you consider what’s in your glass as well as on your plate when you plan your trip.
6. Leave the beaten path
Easily my favorite step in a new city, this is the one that challenges you to really find something new for yourself. For me, that meant taking a train to a different part of town and walking around until I found something interesting. That happened to be Dock Lunch, a quiet neighborhood bistro that was down to serving its final dish by the time I got there. But it was well worth it. The chicken mole tacos were superb, with a mole sauce that was shockingly delicate to my American senses. The roasted peppers still came through, but lightly, allowing the chicken and pico de gallo to shine. Sitting at a quiet table in this nearly empty bistro was such a pleasant break, one that I would have missed had I not went out searching for something unique.
7. Find something you know you will love
It’s not entirely about finding new things when you travel. One of my favorite things to do is go to a restaurant that serves some kind of food I know I’ll enjoy. For me, that’s authentic Italian, with fresh pasta and simple ingredients. The relatively new Ask for Luigi filled that role in Vancouver. Sitting at one of the cafés 12 sun-kissed tables, my tagliatelle with carbonara was a dish I’ll probably never forget. Lightly creamy with black pepper and Parmigiano cheese (and handmade pasta), I found myself wishing Little Rock could get something like this. For now, the memory will have to do.
8. Get to the city’s finest restaurants (if you can)
This final step will take planning and reservations, but that’s to be expected. Try to get a table at the city’s best, hottest restaurant. My wife and I were fortunate enough to get reservations at two such places in Vancouver. The Pear Tree Restaurant was a perfect, intimate date night setting, and my wife’s beef tenderloin with short rib was one of the most beautiful plates we saw on the trip. My lemon tart with a spectacular sugar sculpture was also well worth the trip. And as quiet and reserved as The Pear Tree was, Hawksworth Restaurant was its polar opposite. Hip and trendy, people go to Hawksworth to see and be seen. Hopefully, they also go for the food, because these dishes were some of the most technically masterful I’ve had anywhere. In particular, the poached halibut with bacon dashi was a vibrant challenge to my palette, and the hamachi tartare presented some of the freshest fish you could find framed with balanced acidity and seasoning. This final step might be a pricey one, which is something that must be considered. But if it’s a possibility, get your ticket to the best show in town.
I will say that if you get a chance to visit Vancouver, I strongly suggest you take it. The city is amazing in so many respects, and there are many excellent dining options well beyond what I’ve listed here. But even if you’re going somewhere close, like Dallas or Tulsa, I hope this guide will help you unlock some of the culinary secrets the city has to offer.