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Vancouver Rising

Martin Morrell Looking toward Sunset Beach and downtown from Vanier Park, in Kitsilano.

Photo: Martin Morrell

Tonight, however, Guy Saddy, his wife, Indishne, and their friend Marybeth Jenner want to introduce me to izakaya, a form of Japanese street food that's currently in vogue in Vancouver. We gather in the lobby of the Opus Hotel, the central meeting point in Yaletown for locals and visiting hipsters. A short cab ride (or healthy hike) from downtown and the harbor, the Opus is patronized predominantly by sleek-suited members of the advertising, fashion, and film worlds. Many guest rooms feature glass walls in the bathrooms, which are equipped with floor-to-ceiling window shades, while the sleeping areas are comfortably outfitted in what is best described as late-20th-century-loft minimalism. Unfortunately, the service I experienced on a previous overnight visit was equally minimal (there's a difference between chilled-out and chilly), but for drinks and people-watching, the Opus puts on quite a show. It's easy to be lulled into a second round, lounging on the lobby's baroque benches and listening to a generic Euro-house sound track, but we have dinner reservations.

Chopstick Café Shiru-Bay is housed in a dark concrete-and-black steel space with exposed heating ducts, industrial pendant lights, and hard benches. Happily, izakaya is not street food of the meat-on-a-stick variety, but a more refined mix of sushi, a winter squash called kabocha, noodle dishes, and fish charred tableside by a gas torch—each dish priced under $10. After dinner, we stroll toward the water, where yet more apartment towers have sprung up on the former site of the World's Fair (known as Expo 86). These glittering new residences would have been built sooner, my friends inform me, except for some pesky pollution and toxic materials issues that had to be addressed.

On Saturday morning the city sparkles; but instead of embracing its sunny futurism, I feel like exploring part of its more primitive past. I want to find an inukshuk, the stone symbol that will be ubiquitous by the time the Winter Games roll into town. First, however, comes brunch. In Vancouver, that can mean anything from raw-bar seafood to dim sum to diner grub at venerable Sophie's Cosmic Café, but I want to see what Rob Feenie is cooking. Feenie, who hosts a show on the Canadian Food Network, did his nation proud by taking down Iron Chef Morimoto in the "battle of crab." Having worked for both Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the native Vancouverite puts a French spin on the Anglo-Americanisms of Canadian cuisine at Lumière, the nation's first freestanding Relais Gourmand restaurant.

Plush and pale green, Lumière is a dinner-only establishment, but, like Vij, Feenie has opened a more casual spot next door; Feenie's is a riot of lipstick-inspired design. On the advice of today's companions, Chris and Gillian Parry, I order the breakfast poutine. A fast-food standard that takes its name from its Québéçois origins, poutine is an artery-endangering mixture of potatoes, gravy, and cheese curds. At Feenie's, however, these gravy-cheesy fries also come with lardons and soft-poached eggs. Since the French colloquial term for "death on a plate" fails to materialize on my tongue, I dig in. Chris and Gillian assure me that this gourmet version is much lighter fare than the traditional poutine, but for much of the rest of the afternoon, I feel fairly inukshuk-like myself.

We meander through Kitsilano, a neighborhood Saddy has warned me about thus: "Be careful you don't get trampled by Beautiful People carrying yoga mats." Kits, as it is known, lies to the southwest of downtown, spilling down a hill to an impressive vista of the city. Its base is a pristine beach filled with bronzed athletes playing volleyball and herds of golden retrievers. Kits is also home to a staggering number of yoga and athletic-gear superstores, including Lululemon Athletica, a brand so stylish that I leave its flagship store several hundred dollars lighter.

Located far from Paris, London, Montreal, and Toronto, and heavily influenced by an influx of Asian design, Vancouver has developed its own vibrant fashion scenes. South Main Street (christened SoMa by real estate developers) is home to some of the city's most eccentric shopkeepers. Lawrence Sampson, the owner of Motherland, offers his house brand of sophisticated punk graphics-splashed sportswear and T-shirts; Pleasant Girl, his girl-next-door shop, sells what he calls "cutting-edge frilly" clothing and accessories by Canadian designers. At Eugene Choo, co-owners Fiona and Kildare Curtis rally around young Vancouver labels Dust, Picnic, and Sunja Link, which specialize in beautifully tailored Agnès B.-meets-Miu Miu looks. Up the street, Alexander Lamb Antiques has odd and intriguing furnishings and nautical pieces along with a backroom collection of vintage tribal photographs in a mini-museum called Exotic World.

I head across the Cambie Bridge, which connects the south side of Vancouver to the downtown districts. Next stop: Gastown. One of the oldest areas of the city, it sits adjacent to the harbor and has brick-lined streets, Irish pubs, music clubs, and port-of-call souvenir shops. Water Street, its commercial center, has been reclaimed by upscale contemporary furniture stores such as Inform Interiors and Small Medium Large, and by Richard Kidd, a fashion atelier built as a glass row house in a former parking lot between two brick buildings. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the owner's handsome Bernese mountain dogs, greet customers who sweep through the gallery setting, admiring Stella McCartney and Balenciaga frocks and testing Comme des Garçons colognes.

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