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When Rainier Provisions deli and restaurant opened in Vancouver’s historic Gastown area on 12 February, a crumbling old hotel building sprang back to life. It’s the latest in a rash of recent openings in the wider Downtown Eastside, a district with a Skid Row reputation that was once labelled Canada’s poorest postal code. While the area’s revitalisation has been underway for several years, new businesses like Rainier have quickened the pace of change.

Built in 1907, the old hotel site been home to a barbershop, a billiard room and – in the 1970s – a nightclub. And while the newly exposed interior brick walls reflect the building’s age, the blue and white mosaic floor has also been restored to its original glory.

Just as disparate as its history, Rainier’s menu aims to satisfy the area’s economically diverse clientele. Alongside gourmet coffees, artisan cheese, lip-smacking craft beer, vegan and vegetarian options and a carvery station, all meals cost 10 Canadian dollars or less. And, once a month, the Rainier will serve free dinners to the residents living in social housing upstairs.

According to owner Sean Heather, balancing the needs of the less affluent with the newer residents increasingly colonising the area is part of doing business. “You can’t just complain about the neighbours. You have to serve them as well – they were usually here first,” he said.

It’s an approach the Limerick-born Vancouverite – who also owns several other Gastown eateries – developed after opening the nearby Irish Heather pub in 1996 – “long before it was cool to open down here”, he said with a chuckle.

Since then, neighbourhood revitalisation has gathered pace, especially after a former department store on Cordova Street was transformed into swanky housing. Hotspots springing up to serve the new residents include coffee shop Nelson the Seagull, restaurants Wildebeest and Pidgin, and Save On Meats, an old butcher shop with a legendary neon sign that now houses a popular diner.

But while accusations of gentrification are routinely levelled at the area, Heather said he sees things differently. “We’re not turning the neighbourhood into something it wasn’t,” he said. “Hastings Street [the nearby thoroughfare] used to be Vancouver’s main drag. So long as we don’t displace people who’ve been living here for 30 or 40 years, we’re returning the area to what it used to be.”

John Lee is the Vancouver Localite for BBC Travel

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