Free your inner barfly at these great downscale drinking spots.
Gentrification, with its attendant ups and downs, is a hallmark of the new Vancouver, and many of its finest dive bars have recently been remade as hipster boîtes where cocktails are constructed with house made bitters, poured by dashing young men in Civil War-era styled beards. Those looking for the kind of place Charles Bukowski could have called home may be disappointed. Still, a few notable downscale drinking spots remain.
Army, Navy & Airforce Veterans Unit 298 Canteen
From the distinctive faux Tudor exterior to the elegant simplicity of its name (!), you know the veterans’ club at Main Street and 23rd Avenue is something special. Inside the large open space you’ll find three full-length shuffleboard tables, and an incredibly warm and friendly staff serving a primarily younger clientele who, let’s face it, have never grappled with PTSD. Best bets: Saturday’s karaoke night, and the Meat Auction on Friday and Saturday afternoons is unusual, to say the least. While it’s about as under-the-radar as you can get, celebrities like Seth Rogen, who hails from here, have been known to show up. (Note: this is a membership mandatory cub, which charges $40 annual dues to first-timers.) 3917 Main Street; (604) 879-1020; no website.
Located a few blocks east of where Main and Hastings streets meet—that’s “Pain and Wastings” to locals—the downtown Eastside’s Astoria Pub has repositioned itself as part dive bar, part hipper-than-thou live music venue, where a predominantly 20-something crowd gathers to slug draught beer while watching indie bands tear it up. While the spot has been drained of much of its grime (if not its charm), there’s just enough sleazy, booze-addled goodness left to make things interesting. And if you want more, well, there’s a world of weird right outside the front doors.
Cambie Bar & Grill
Once the playground for assorted down-and-outers, the venerable Gastown pub still retains a sort of Skid Row charm; today, however, you’re more likely to see tables of leggy models and university students quaffing pitchers of draught alongside your occasional rosacea-nosed rummy. On weekends the place is packed and the communal tables encourage lively banter between groups—who often indulge in “by the jug” beer specials that run the gamut from “Cheap” to “Cheapest”(Lucky Lager, $9 a jug). Bonus: during the warmer months, the street side patio is packed.
Known affectionately as “The Hoe,” the Ivanhoe Pub is a true throwback to a time when Vancouver came home from a hard day’s work with calluses on its palms and dirt under its nails. While other bars have gentrified—or at least attempted to gussy up—The Hoe remains true to its working class roots, from the dodgy carpeting and requisite pool tables, to the occasional (non-poseur) biker. Beer is reasonable, and so is the food—nothing fancy, of course, but the specials are off-the-charts cheap (chicken wings and a beer, $6). Although the neighborhood is still “in transition,” for the most part, The Hoe is as welcoming as it is unpretentious.
The Railway Club
Nondescript brownish carpeting? Check. Unshaven regulars rooted to their bar stools? Check. But to describe the “Rail,” as it’s known by regulars, as a mere dive bar does this iconic spot a disservice. For decades, this ostensibly “membership required” club (in practice, it’s not) has been a staple of Vancouver’s live music scene, and everyone from k.d. lang to Sarah McLaughlin and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has performed here. Expect a mix of artsy types, media lushes, suited working stiffs and a smattering of ageing problem drinkers hunched over pints of whatever’s on special. (Hopefully, it’s Back Hand of God stout, a locally brewed favorite.) Cover charge for bands rarely tops $7.
Guy Saddy covers the Vancouver and other beats for Travel + Leisure.