Drinking in Vancouver’s historic Gastown district
Bartender pouring beer at Alibi Room. (Christopher Herwig/LPI)
Vancouver was founded on booze. Just ask the jaunty statue of John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, perched atop a whisky barrel in Maple Tree Square.
Situated at the long-gone site of his first saloon, built in 1867 for thirsty sawmill workers, the bar triggered a fledgling town site nicknamed Gastown that later became the city of Vancouver. After gradually descending into skid row dilapidation, the old Gastown neighbourhood has recently undergone a lip-smacking renaissance.
Designated a National Historic Site in 2009, Gastown's handsome heritage buildings now house slick boutiques and restaurants. Best of all, its once-dodgy bar scene - where cheap beer was served with fist-fights - is now Vancouver's best, with more than a dozen watering holes colonising a compact stretch centred on Alexander, Carrall and Water Streets.
Surveying the antique, brick-paved neighbourhood from his lofty promontory, Gassy Jack would be proud. He might even consider climbing down for a bar crawl of his own.
British Columbia's beery renaissance
Vancouver beer drinkers used to have a "choice" between mass-produced Labatt and Molson brews. But since the 1990s, craft beer makers in British Columbia have risen to meet local demand for flavourful pints.
The first stop for many is Gastown's Alibi Room. Backing onto railway tracks, the brick-lined bar's communal tables are usually lined with plaid-shirted hipsters and diehard ale fans working their way through a menu of around 25 mostly regional microbrews.
Recurring favourites include Old Yale Pale Ale, Red Racer IPA and the near-legendary Back Hand of God Stout, a java-esque organic nectar from Crannóg Ales. A four-beer selection of samplers is recommended for the uninitiated.
Nearby, Six Acres' warming red brick interior is hard to leave on Vancouver's frequent rainy days. Named after the size of the original town site, Six Acres is on the site of Gassy Jack's second bar, just behind his statue.
Charmingly idiosyncratic with menus bound in old book covers, it offers an eclectic array of bottled beers. Alongside BC brews from Phillips and Driftwood, frighteningly strong Quebec beers jostle with unfiltered Belgian libations and US favourites from Deschutes and Brooklyn.
In contrast, local flavour is the determined focus at Steamworks on Water Street. Alongside its vast comfort grub menu, local-made beers include light Lions Gate Lager and velvet-rich Heroica Oatmeal Stout. Even better are seasonal specials like the citrusy Ipanema Summer White.
Not just here for the beer
Gastown is not just about suds. Diamond, Vancouver's best small cocktail joint, is nestled above Maple Tree Square in a chandelier-lit heritage space. Like a classy, ever-friendly speakeasy, it combines Asian fusion tapas with perfectly-executed cocktails; the Scotch-based Penicillin is best.
And across the street, concealed underground, is the neighbourhood's liveliest new spot. An in-the-know hit since its 2010 opening, Guilt & Co combines cocktails, choice beers and West Coast tapas. Its hipster den credentials are underlined by loaner board games and local live music.
But arguably the area's best drink-and-dine destination is hidden along the insalubriously-named Blood Alley. Salt Tasting Room is a chatty brick cave dominated by a giant communal table. At one end, a wall-sized blackboard announces the day's cheese and charcuterie treats, while a 100-bottle wine list - many from British Columbia - provides tempting accompaniment.
It is the perfect spot to toast the area's founding father Gassy Jack. Although, if you see him smiling back at you from a corner, it is probably time to call it a night.
John Lee is author of Lonely Planet's Vancouver City Guide.