• Gail Johnson

Concept restaurants in Vancouver: get the concept?

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Laurence & Chico Cafe.

With so many restaurants opening up all the time in Metro Vancouver, it can be a challenge for to stand out. One approach that seems to be gaining popularity in the region is the concept of “concept restaurants”.

Every restaurant has a concept, whether it’s tacos, fried chicken, or omakase. But of course not every restaurant is a concept restaurant. The latter take a theme and weave it into every aspect of the place, from the design to the menu and beyond, to make it a complete experience.

New additions in Metro Vancouver range from subtle to in-your-face in the most excellent way. Earls Ambleside Beach is concept lite.

The company has described its new location in West Van, which is right across the street from the beach, as its first concept restaurant in Canada. Headquarters’ catchphrase for it is “unchaining the chain”, meaning there are elements that are specific to that location. There’s a reserve wine list, a few menu items that are only available at that location, and art work by local artists like painter Fiona Ackerman.

It’s a fresh approach for Earls, but it’s still Earls; you can still find chicken tenders and Hunan Kung Pao on the menu. I would call it a small-C concept restaurant.

Richmond, meanwhile, is home to the newly opened Origo Club, right next to the Richmond Oval.

Origo is an offshoot of a private club of the same name in Beijing. Here, the 5,000-square-foot space is a place that offers a culinary and cultural experience, with a French-inspired café and restaurant and an adjoining gallery featuring contemporary Asian art.

By day, you can go in for coffee or tea and items like croissants, Croque Madame, and mussels. Coffee lovers will adore it: Origo has a state-of-the-art coffee bar and does pour-over coffee, using beans roasted in small batches by local companies, including Elysian, Timber Train, and Moving.

By night, the menu extends to include larger plates such as oysters and duck. It has a selection of hard-to-find sake, French wine, and Champagne as well as French, Japanese, and Irish whiskies.

From the dining area, a sliding door leads to the gallery. There’s an entire wall featuring beautifully displayed Chinese porcelain and clay vases and tea pots. It also has thangka, which is a form of Tibetan Buddhist art. It’s a small but lovely space.

The team behind Origo will really help make this place a success. Managing partner Woody Wu is a former wine consultant who was the opening sommelier at Hawksworth. He’s brought together industry veterans who between them have experience working at Bishop’s, Wildebeest, and Au Comptoir, among other places.

Their goal is to offer a refined experience but also one that’s relaxed and welcoming, not snooty. It emphasizes that whole café culture, that idea of lingering over and appreciating fine food and art all in one place.

If the Origo Club is a capital-C concept, there’s another new spot that is “concept” in bold-face, multicoloured capital letters surrounded by flashing lights. I’m talking about the new Laurence & Chico Café in the West End, on Bute Street.

Laurence & Chico is the name of an haute-couture women’s fashion line designed by two Vancouverites, Laurence Li and Chico Wang. Their clothing is certainly eye-catching, items like pearl-adorned caps and skirts and avant-garde, bedecked ruffle coats.

Many of the designs are based on Li’s wildly imaginative illustrations. Those designs carry through to the entire café, from the walls to the washrooms.

Think fantasy and whimsy meet oceans, plants, and aliens meet colourful cartoons. It’s something else.

There are what the duo calls “monster chairs” – large, fan-shaped seats that are covered in beads and what looks hair in shades of blue, green, red, and coral, along with reptilian legs and armrests. Stools are covered with different textiles. Tables have cactus-like bases that poke through glass surfaces. The ceiling is a pink sky with wisps of clouds. And the bathrooms… Rubber duckies, silk flowers, glowing lights: By far the most out-there toilet stalls in town.

Cool, for sure, but is the food any good? Yes. The café offers pastries from West Vancouver’s Temper Pastry, coffee by 49th Parallel, juices in glass jars from Up Jus, and ice cream from La Glace. Some of their goodies are made in-house, with a menu designed by Tobias Grignon from Edible Canada on Granville Island.

Also cool: You can get afternoon high tea to go. In a long tote box covered with Wi’s drawings go two savoury items, two sweet treats, and your choice of tea.

Or you could have tea in the salon, kicking back in one of those monster chairs and taking in the spectacularly zany décor all around you.

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