With Dine Out Vancouver just around the corner, foodies are getting anxious to take advantage of three-course prix fixe menus for $18, $28 or $38. With all the restaurant hype hanging as heavy in the air as French cheese odor, we caught up with longtime Vancouver Sun restaurant critic Mia Stainsby for some straight answers on Vancouver’s dining scene.
She has worked for the Vancouver Sun since 1987 and spent the last 16 years as a critic. That means she’s been eating out several times a week for all that time -- and you can bet she knows her way around the local cuisine scene, regardless if it’s haute or simply hot.
Q: What's the best part about your job?
Mia Stainsby: Getting to experience such amazing culinary artistry and passion in this city, and I'm not just talking high-end. Some of the mom and pop ethnic restaurants are jewels, with skillful, knowledgeable cooks.
Q: Your least favourite aspect?
MS: Food I'd rather not eat, usually horribly greasy and bashed out.
Q: Anyone who eats out regularly can spout off a list of restaurant, server or chef traits that always prove bothersome. Any particular quirks or pet peeves that hurt your experience eating out?
MS: Bad attitude tops the list. I'd endure really bad food and be polite about it if they're trying, however pathetically. I've always thought the personality of the owner really drifts down to service.
Q: On to Vancouver's restaurant scene. Is there one cuisine type that you think defines Vancouver?
MS: There seems to be a dichotomy in Vancouver cuisine. On the one hand, the plot is hyper-local cooking, not quite to the molecular level, but definitely to the point where the birthplace of vegetables and proteins are cited on menus. On the other, we're known for world cuisines, especially Asian, and that aspect is the opposite of local. However, there's an intersection happening with restaurants like Oru at Fairmont Pacifc Rim where the chef isn't importing, he's making everything he can from scratch.
Q: What trends are you seeing on menus throughout the city?
MS: Self-confidence and pride in our city. Local, local, local. Green, green, green. Healthier eating. Artisanal everything. Spanish food. Unique cuts of meat (cheek, trotters, ears, cartilage).
Q: What would you like to see become the next big thing at Vancouver restaurants?
MS: We're onto hyper-local. Next, hyper-healthy?
Q: Vancouver is the top food city in all of Canada because...
MS: B.C. is no longer a hewers-of-wood kind of province. We're not quite Provence but there are pockets of it all around this big land; and the land and lifestyle lend themselves to growing great farmers, fishers and other producers of quality foodstuffs.
Q: Often the cost of eating out regularly become prohibitive. City restaurant weeks or events have become popular because the prix-fixe menus bring the cost down some. Beyond value, what's another great reason someone should head out during Dine Out Vancouver?
MS: It's kind of like the groundhog poking his head out of the ground after a winter. It's time to get out, socialize, commune over food and try out some places you otherwise might not.
Q: Eighteen dollars, $28 or $38: Those are the three-course meal Dine Out Vancouver price points, depending on the restaurant. Which of the three is most appealing to you? Why?
MS: I think in most cases you'd get best value with the $38.
Q: Reservations get snapped up quickly: Any suggestions on a plan of attack?
MS: There's a way (which I'm not flogging) to reserve a bunch of places and decide later which to go to; or, apparently, if you phone the day of, you might score a table at one of your top choices because of cancellations (thanks to the sociopaths who reserved at too many places).
Q: There are two major giveaways associated with Dine Out Vancouver. One gives diners the chance to eat out every week for a year. As someone who eats out that much (well, much more than that), any tips for the winner on how to eat out that often and not get sick of restaurants?
MS: As a matter of fact, once a week would be perfect. Who can gripe about that? But if it's possible, I'd try to do most of the dining out in the summer when it's great to be out; change it up with brunches, lunches, dinners; go after an incendiary day at work -- nothing like not having to cook on crazy-making days; treat your friends; go on your own; book on birthdays when you want to celebrate anyway; do a take-out from a restaurant.
Q: The other goes with the Best Bite awards. Readers pick their favorite dishes, wine pairing, menus and servers to enter. The "I love My Server" prize is a two-day rail package on Rocky Mountaineer's Whistler Sea to Sky Climb Train. The server named on the winner's entry gets a trip for two, too. That's a fantastic tip. What other ways can loyal customers tip their servers (behind the nice 20% addition to a restaurant tab)?
MS: When they're great, tell them. Tell the owner, too.
Q: Any parting shots on why you think you love Dine Out Vancouver or Vancouver in general?
MS: It's win-win-win-win. (Restaurants, diners, suppliers, the city.)