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The Chinatown in Vancouver Is (Almost) As Cool As the One in San Francisco

Medicinal cocktails, hybrid dim sum menus, and late-night dumplings crown Canada’s new king of nightlife.

The Keefer Bar

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Bao Bei

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Howe Sound

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Apothecary-themed joints might feel a little played out, but at the Keefer Bar the beakers and microscopes behind the bar aren’t just for show: To give a medicinal twist to her cocktail slinging, Keefer’s co-owner and head bartender studied Chinese medicine for three years. Traditional herbs and homemade remedies make appearances in nearly every drink—from the Opium Sour with bourbon and poppy-seed tincture to the Dragon Fly, made with dragon-fruit gin, sake, ginger syrup, and magnolia bark. They may not exactly cure what ails you, but they make a fine cocktail. 

Last year, the Emerald brought Rat Pack–style cool to Chinatown. The supper club’s walls are finished with gold foil that deepens the moody lighting in this discreet second-story venue. The restaurant section is open late, but you’ll want to position yourself in the lounge for mellow DJ jams and an Emerald Cartel—the restaurant’s spin on a negroni, served with a spherical ice cube. When you’re ready for a little something to soak up all that booze, check out the bar’s late-night menu, which features savory drunchies like pork dumplings and duck poutine, a Canadian favorite of fries, cheese curds, and duck gravy. 

City native Tannis Ling helped kick off Chinatown’s renaissance in 2010 when she opened Bao Bei in a defunct corner of the neighborhood. Five years later, crowds pile into her modern Chinese brasserie every night for its elevated tapas-style menu. Spicy housemade Taiwanese sausage and heaping bowls of pao mo—a stew made of goat broth, local lamb, wood ear mushrooms, and lily bulbs— offer a rare taste of home-style Chinese cooking in a posh urban restaurant. 

If Chinatown’s bar scene has you feeling inspired to up your home cocktail game, head to the Modern Bartender to find just about every spirit-geek obsession imaginable: absinthe fountains, fancy aerators, Japanese shakers, whiskey stones, artisanal syrups, herbal tonics, and more than 100 flavors of bitters. 

No weekend bender is complete without a solid brunch spot to take the edge off. Head to award-winning Phnom Penh, a family-style restaurant featuring a greasy-spoon dim sum brunch. The Vietnamese-Cambodian spot has plenty of large tables for big groups—and for loading up on its famed butter beef, crispy garlic chicken wings, and luc lac beef, which is served over rice with a fried egg. Get there early and expect a line akin to Tartine’s. 244 E. Georgia St.

After a weekend of revelry, clear your mind with a walk through Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, a tranquil oasis in the center of this chaotic neighborhood. The winding paths of the classical Chinese garden—complete with bamboo thickets, ponds, rhododendrons, and 15th-century Chinese architecture—are a foolproof headache cure and a nice break from all that concrete. 

Built on the land of the Squamish Nation, just outside Chinatown’s dramatic golden gates, Skwàchays Lodge is one giant nod to native culture. Decorated by First Nations artists who teamed up with notable local designers, the hotel skips spa treatments for a sweat lodge and smudge room (similar to a sauna, but with sage smoke) and sells First Nations artwork out of its Urban Aboriginal Fair Trade Gallery. You’ll know it by its Victorian facade—and massive Dream Catcher totem pole. From $129 

Of all the options for escaping Chinatown’s concrete jungle, none other is quite like Sea Dragon Charters. Head about 30 minutes northwest of Vancouver and charter a dive boat from Sewell’s Marina on the Howe Sound, a network of island-dotted fjords where you can brave the chilly waters to snorkel with harbor seals. It’s not a beach vacation—but, hey, that’s not why you came to Vancouver.  


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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