Sharing flavours and culture at the Capilano

Gastown tea house steeped First Nations heritage

People tout travel as the best way to open your eyes and experience a new culture. But they often forget that there are untold stories right in our backyard.

Take, for example, the Capilano Tea House and Botanical Soda Company.

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The Capilano Tea House
The Capilano Tea House is on Abbott Street. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Don’t be misled by the skinny storefront. The exposed brick wall stretches way into the back, with a gorgeous long table running down one side. At first glance, it looks like a tea shop with snacks — but wait, is that rooibos with juniper? Black tea with sage? And is that bannock?

Call it local-meets-global. The juniper rooibos, for example, blends South African rooibos with juniper, a traditional First Nations medicinal ingredient.

“One flavour is as valued as another,” says co-owner Michelle Nahanee, who runs the shop with her daughter Paisley. “It’s about these flavours melding together, of sharing.”

The Nahanees belong to the Squamish Nation, and it was important to them to design a business that reflected their heritage. Michelle’s communications background led her to work on the issues that tend to dominate the conversation about First Nations, such as women leaving domestic violence.

“We wanted to share the beautiful parts of our culture, our connection to nature and to each other and some of the spiritual practices that we have,” says Nahanee. “I grew up hunting and fishing and cooking berries. We have some incredible food sources here and in our indigenous diet and we wanted to share that through the menu.”

The Capilano Tea House
The Capilano Tea House and Botanical Soda Company serves up an assortment of desserts, teas, sweet and savoury bannock and botanical sodas. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Bannock plays prominently, in both sweet and savoury. Order the sweet and you’ll get a slice of mile-high bannock, served with the Local Churn bergamot-rhubarb butter and East Van Jam (currently Baron von Blueberry, but the selection varies). Savoury comes as two miniature buns stuffed with sticky-sweet duck and turnip, served with a salad.

Bannock originally came from northern England and Scotland.

“It travelled through the fur trade and the flour-based version was adopted by First Nations all across this country. It’s really like Canada’s bread, and every community is doing it differently,” says Nahanee. The Capilano’s is vegan, made with coconut oil and baked, resulting in a light and fluffy texture that’s reminiscent of a scone.

On Fridays and weekends there’s the West Coast wild tea: three tiers of indulgence that includes filo-wrapped bison, elk pie and smoked duck and apple sandwiches, as well as a rotating selection of sweets like the vegan cashew “cheesecake.” Vegan options are available and reservations are required; you can book online at the Capilano’s website.

Nahanee worked with friends Liz Mantle and Kimberly Stephenson to design the food menu. Daughter Paisley is in charge of the botanical sodas. “I wouldn’t allow her to buy regular pop so she started making it,” says Nahanee. And thank goodness. Each day offers a different choice, from real root beer to spicy lavender-ginger soda to a gloriously pink rose lemonade.

The Capilano Tea House
The Capilano Tea House and Botanical Soda Company serves up an assortment of  botanical sodas, including real root beer, spicy lavender-ginger soda and rose lemonade. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Family businesses can be tricky, but the Nahanees seem to make it work.

“I’ve been a single parent since [Paisley] was born and we have a deep connection. She’s grown up watching me doing a home-bred business. I know she knows how to commit, get things done, see the reward between effort and cash flow,” says Nahanee. “It was not a blind decision to build a business with her.”

Nahanee, herself, takes inspiration from her grandmother, a master weaver who is featured in a black-and-white photograph near the counter. The designs from that photograph are echoed on the top of the wooden tables in the front of the shop—another layer to the deep story contained within the Capilano.

The Capilano Tea House
& Botanical Soda Co.
221 Abbott St.,


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