Publican – Chicago, IL


The Publican Restaurant
845 W Fulton Market
Chicago, IL
(312) 733-9555

American’s “Second City” (or more precisely O’Hare Airport) has always been just a transit hub for me over the years and a place I’ve never gotten a solid chance to freely explore.  Even on my most recent stop, my venture out to the downtown core was limited to but a single evening.  And amid a heavy wind storm and pouring rain my mood was pretty low, that was until I got to The Publican.  Reservations recommended, otherwise you might have to wait a while at one of the standing tall tables with a drink before one becomes available.

Stepping inside from the torrential downpour was like entering a warm, inviting oasis complete with a happy, buzzing crowd that felt almost like its own little private party.  The carefully designed layout of this beer-centric restaurant felt part Canadian farmhouse (with the rustic livestock holding pen-lookalikes near one wall that served as private booths, and part German beer hall with its really rigid lines, long communal tables, high ceilings, open concept and use of wood materials throughout.

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Dairy Lane Cafe – Calgary, AB


Dairy Lane Cafe
319 19 St NW
Calgary, AB
(403) 283-2497

Nestled on a quiet street situated close to a residential neighborhood (from what I could see behind the parking lot of the building where the car I arrived in was parked), the Dairy Lane Cafe was our choice for an impromptu lunch just ahead of the madness which is the start of Stampede.  As such, I was quite surprised to find a packed inside seating area, as well as all the available spots being taken up on the uncovered tables situated on the sidewalk in front of the building.

It didn’t seem like it was anywhere near any walk up traffic from the office worker crowd, but yet still busy at the noon hour.  Scanning the relaxed attire of those eating already, it was clear to me that this was a casual, homey spot for clean honest grub for those who might more often than not, just live around the corner – some younger ladies who seemed to be out for a bite to eat with their girlfriends, to some guys who obviously fell into the hipster genre given their tight fitting attire and attitude, as well as strangely enough, some rougher dressed fellows who if I were to assume from the paint on their overalls, were some tradesmen on break for something to eat while on the day job.

The spot came recommended by locals and was described to me as a throwback to simpler times and with operators very keen on the whole “produced local” attitude, and knowing where their ingredients came from.   The space was not very large inside and staffed seemingly by just two busy servers.  Some large framed pictures hung on the wall reminded me of a by-gone era in rural Alberta, catching my eye enough to snap a photo myself.  If I were to compare the looks and feel of this place to anywhere in Vancouver, I would say something like Aphrodite’s Organic Cafe & Pie Shop in Kits comes to mind.

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Choices in the Park – Burnaby, BC


Choices in the Park
6855 Station Hill Drive
Burnaby, BC
(604) 522-6441

Okay, I realize this isn’t exactly a post about a restaurant with full service but we’ve gone off the usual path in the past with reports about food counters, retail shops and general ramblings on topical food-related issues, so I’m sure you’re used to it if you’ve followed us along these past two-and-a-half years.  Variety is the spice of life don’t they say?  I’m certain that those of you who live in the GRVD that you are familiar with the small chain of natural and organic grocery stores known as Choices Markets.  Actually, they even have a rice bakery on W 16th Avenue, that is just a block away from the Choices Market that I am most familiar and frequent in Kitsilano.  For my daily grocery needs this purveyor of healthy, quality goods and food is my main source, and a big part of it is the satisfaction that I get from supporting the local player, and a 100% Canadian owned enterprise that is thriving despite the flood of the mass market chains such as Superstore and Safeway that dominate the family grocery landscape.  Another aspect of their operations that I like is that despite the eight locations, of which I’ve hit several, they all “look” somewhat different from the outside, and don’t confirm to that dreadfully generic commercial building design code of boxy squares that seem to be pumped out of some construction replication machine and are given a distinct “name” for their location to further generate some individuality.

Now normally the Choices Markets are placed along side some more high-traffic roads that are easily seen and accessible by passing cars – which I assume is to entice more store visits and volume.  However, the Choices in the Park location was completely different from this pattern, as it was hidden and nestled in a residential neighborhood, albeit not too far from a SkyTrain station.  It clearly is intended to service the local populace and even their tiny parking lot that could probably hold eight cars at best would suggest that their main customers are of the walk-up variety.  I’m sure there are other such grocery stores out there that fit this model of being primarily for the neighborhood, but I believe most of those are the mom-and-pop single operation type, not major commercial businesses such as this.  Another quirky aspect of Choices that makes me like what they’re doing and their strategic decisions for their outlets.  But enough about the hard side of things, let’s take a look at what you can get to eat – and not the stuff you have to cook yourself…

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La Taqueria – Vancouver, BC


La Taqueria Pinche Taco Shop
322 West Hastings Street
Vancouver, BC
(604) 568-4406

Its been over a year but I finally made my way down to this by now, well known taqueria not far from Victoria Square where the Remembrance Day ceremonies took place this week.  There seems to be a mix of die hard fans and those who are skeptical of its authenticity or just plain disappointed by the flavors or even the portion sizes out there in the blogosphere about La Taqueria.  I always take all of these opinions just as they are, individual thoughts and impressions that each of them are absolutely entitled to.  In the end it comes down to me (and everyone else) to decide if they enjoy the food, with varying factors influencing just how we interpret and therefore accept them on our taste buds.

To conduct my own personal experiment as a first time customer in this compact shop on West Hastings Street, the order of the day was this plate of four of their meat taco options…

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Le Pain Quotidien – New York, NY


Le Pain Quotidien
922 Seventh Avenue
New York, NY
(212) 757-0775

Artisan breads, sweet pastries and pantry goods like coffee and jams are what you can expect to find in the burgeoning outlets of this chain of bakeries where one can enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner items that are carefully prepared with a health conscious outlook.  Organic ingredients are incorporated in many of their menu items, as well this ecological philosophy is apparent in their building design and construction as well – loved the reclaimed wood that permeated the interior, giving it a very welcoming and warm touch despite being smack dab in the middle of a concrete jungle, albeit with Central Park only a few short minutes away.

The Le Pain Quotidien empire has now spread out across the United States (mainly on the east and west coasts) as well as places in western Europe and the Middle East.  The Canadian outlets seemingly only sprouting up in the Toronto area.  I imagine it would be a good fit in the Vancouver area as well given the local climate and penchant for things with a healthy and organic twist.

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Icelandic Fish and Chips Organic Bistro – Reykjavik, Iceland


Icelandic Fish and Chips Organic Bistro
Tryggvagötu 8 / 101 Reykjavik
+(354) 511-1188

Food in Iceland lacks a definite diversity. With little arable land, and short growing seasons, there is a definite lack of vegetables. Greenhouses powered by geothermal energy provide the majority of the fresh local produce, and the rest is imported. However, what they lack in vegetables, they make up for in abundance with fish. Their coastal waters are some of the richest in the world, and makes up 70% of their exports – this is an island where fish and fishing mean a lot.

While there are an abundance of fresh fish, that doesn’t guarantee a great meal. Transforming that ingredient into something tasty lies in the hands of the chef.  At Icelandic Fish and Chips, they have it figured out.

Across from the harbour in Reykjavik, Icelandic Fish and Chips bills itself as an organic bistro. Their menu is basic – they offer 3-4 fish of the day, whatever was caught that morning, and some basic sides like salad, fries, onion rings, and baked goods. Prices are very reasonable – fish falls between 1000 ISK and 1300 ISK – comparatively cheap relative to other restaurants in Reykjavik.

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Salt Spring Coffee Co. – Vancouver, BC


Salt Spring Coffee Co. – UBC Café
6308 Thunderbird Blvd
Vancouver, BC
(604) 221 6400

Playing fair on the battleground of business is a tremendous challenge. As a battle-scared solider in the cruel world of international commerce, I know this as well as anyone. For the basic principals of free enterprise and unregulated markets would suggest that as long as there is a game to be played, then to the winner should go the spoils – often at whatever the cost. And in the food service industry, this competitiveness can be seen in organizations scouring the world for expansion opportunities, negotiating very hard for locations, overlooking some environmental concerns of their suppliers in order to meet their sourcing needs, and of course, engaging in all out warfare for customers even if it means wiping out good, honest proprietors, the close communities that support them, and even cannibalizing their own sales to eliminate any remaining competition – all of this in the quest for the all mighty dollar. I am sure many of you can rattle off a few companies that would fall into this unabashed, relentless, and careless strategy when it comes to food and restaurants. In the interest of time, I will name one company that has fallen on rough times of late (probably much to the amusement of many), and generally is thought of as being an entity that would fall into this profile of a business engaged in such polarizing behaviour – the Starbucks Coffee Company.

In stark contrast to the monolith that is the Starbucks empire of coffee shops, the Salt Spring Coffee Co. boasts a mere four outlets in its entirety, all of which are based in the province of British Columbia. And this is for a company that was first started in 1996. Priding themselves on being mindful of fair trade and organics when it comes to the whole coffee bean-to-cup continuum, and the values of sustainability while still creating a good cup of coffee, it’s clear they are operating at an entirely different level from the Seattle-based mega brand. Their outlet on the beautiful University of British Columbia campus on the western edge of Vancouver would seem to be representative of their vision. Wedged within a new residential area, nestled next to a community centre and a spacious playground, with its wooden chalet-like design and relaxed atmosphere, and customers inside usually a mix of energetic students, teaching faculty taking a break, and of course nearby residents and their children – the building is very welcoming to one and all, and does not feel at all like a commercial enterprise.

It is places like this that I enjoy taking a breather, without feeling the pressure that I am to finish my drink, and move along so another hurried customer can take my seat. But by no means am I a regular coffee drinker. In fact, I would say I am one of those few working stiffs who doesn’t need a cup of Joe every morning, nor do I need to taste the flavor of coffee on breaks throughout the day. If I had to qualify myself, I would tend to be the type that drinks more teas (be it herbal, green, etc.) than anything else over coffee. So I must say that I cannot fully comment on the coffee offerings here at Salt Spring, other than to say that their menu features a choice of what they term “classic coffees’, which are comprised of selections of dark roasts, medium roasts, as well as decaf roasts. Aside from this, they do have ‘reserve coffees’, which they note as being the “next level of extraordinary, single-origin beans from the world’s best co-op growers”. The edible options that were displayed in the glass cased unit at the counter was your usual range of scones, muffins, cookies, and sandwiches.

With the recent layer of low cloud banks that recently blanketed the west coast of Canada, I thought it was fitting that my drink of choice this day was called the London Fog – a simple combination of Earl Grey tea, steamed milk and a touch of vanilla. It is a comforting warm beverage that I enjoy from time to time, when I feel the gray Vancouver doldrums. Plopping down in one of the chairs, all the while observing many others with their laptops open (yeah for free wireless!), I just took in the scene and was alone with my thoughts. I am sure many of you have your own peaceful oasis for short breaks like this in your city. With the coming holiday season, I suppose I am feeling a bit more nostalgic for all the cafés that I’ve spent time in over the years, with a warm mug in hand. I know its still early, but happy holidays everyone!

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