First glance at the Union Bar (219 Union St., 604-568-3230) and I'm struck by the efficiency of it all. Bright, bold, in your face, clean design, a long bar down one side and rows of communal tables on the other, with a few high-tops near the windows.
Even allowing for a dollop of hipster sleekness, first impressions can be cold. But this is a space that doesn't take long to grow on you. Small wonder it's already doing a steady trade, with a growing clientele from the immediate neighbourhood as well as from towers on the edge of downtown.
Union Street, which runs by the currently much-discussed Georgia Viaduct, marks Chinatown's southern boundary. Rapidly filling with design studios, a new bar and bartender school, the street is emblematic of this fast-changing district, which is also home to the Keefer Bar and Bao Bei Chinese brasserie, a couple of blocks away, as well as the London Pub and other newbies.
The space, a sibling to Habit and Cascade Lounge, is one more winner from Evoke Design's David Nicolay and Robert Edmonds. But it feels different: more open and comfortable, and we like the camaraderie that happens at the long tables and benches.
You can tell there's serious design at work here. Lamps-dramatic, large, green half-globes-hang precisely over the tables, conveying a glow that lights the food and diners' faces. The effect is warm and intimate-and flattering on its subjects, which is never a bad thing. Even the cruets (oils and sauces) are in beautifully crafted cedar boxes.
We're struck by the Union's distinct character, which balances contemporary southeast Asian flavours with a modern setting, but one that still plays sensitively to the past. Backlit Chinatown and Strathcona photographs highlight the expansive bar. Boards with random lyrics to Jimi Hendrix's "Crosstown Traffic" adorn the serving hatch, a nod to the Hendrix Shrine next door, site of long-vanished Vie's Chicken Shack, where his grandmother worked. (In those days its main claim to fame was that it was open until 3 a.m.
On the plate, or rather, in the bowl, The Union is right on the money, a culinary snapshot of modern day Vancouver, with an array of well-conceived, casual Asian dishes to mix, match or share; and enjoy with inventive cocktails (think Banga of Bourbon, mint, mirin, ginger beer, orange peel) served in jam jars, all $10, $6 on Sundays. Or you can opt for smart craft brews on tap, offered in half and full pints.
Our random sampling yielded plenty to like, from sesame shrimp toasts on just-greasy-enough fried bread to a generous bowl of well-stocked nasi goreng, with plentiful shrimp and chicken. You can easily come here and be well fed, even with a sip of beer, for $20 before taxes. Other good tastes included a well-assembled pad thai, and a chocolate chai masala custard ($7). Not to mention a great vibe and a genuinely friendly crowd. We'll be back.
From the "You got to know when to fold 'em" department: Mark Taylor is closing, or at least mothballing, Cru. The Broadway-near-Granville haunt has set the pace for elevated small plates since it opened nine years ago, and garnered many awards for its kitchen and wine list. Taylor plans to spend time with his family (and focus on his nearby venture Siena) but is also actively seeking a new Cru location for later. If you've never been, you should go while you can. Phone: 604-677-4111.