The Friday-night crowd jockeying for cocktails and microbrews at the illuminated marble bar of Lift, a swank Vancouver waterfront grill, looks like any well-heeled cosmopolitan set. But Guy Saddy, columnist for the Globe and Mail and my ad hoc host on many a visit to this vibrant Pacific Coast city, sees it differently.
"This is a cougar bar," he says gravely.
The part of my mind that correlates sports teams with hometowns comes up with no matches based on these search parameters. I suspect the Cougars might be a local hockey team; perhaps its members will represent Canada in the winter Olympics to be held here in 2010?"What," I venture slowly, certain of forthcoming sports-deficiency humiliation, "is a cougar?"
A cougar, Saddy explains with a smile, is a Canadian Mrs. Robinson. In Vancouver, these women of a certain age who prefer the company of men of a younger age are viewed affectionately, as just another segment of a broad-minded, dizzyingly diverse society. Mixed couples are the norm; Saddy himself is a Lebanese-Scottish man married to an Indian woman raised in South Africa. Acceptance is an unspoken part of the city's social contract—it's what makes one what he calls a "Vangroover" instead of merely a Vancouverite.
"We are ethnic-embracing, gay-loving, godless commies," Saddy adds, laughing now. It may have started out as a lumber town, but with tourism, yoga gear, and new construction of glass condominium towers as its other major industries, it's clear that the city where both Greenpeace and the radical culture magazine Adbusters were founded has a default liberal streak. Despite the abundance of natural beauty, wide-open-minded views on hemp cultivation that have earned the city the nickname Vansterdam, and a seal of fashion approval from hordes of visiting style-obsessed Tokyo twentysomethings, locals view their hometown as a cultural also-ran, forever comparing it unfavorably with Toronto, Montreal, or nearby Seattle. Much like the rain that falls intermittently on the city, it's a charming bit of bluster that eventually passes—an inferiority complex as transparent as the glass-and-steel skyline.
One-hundred-twenty-year-old Vancouver is a model of urban utopianism, unblemished by freeways and unfettered by architectural precedents. The Modernist buildings of the city's West End and downtown rise and swell like formations of aquamarine crystals, spreading out to the peninsula's visible borders, defined by green parks, beige beaches, blue waters, and white-capped mountains. In his genre-bending guidebook-memoir City of Glass, pop-culture savant Douglas Coupland calls Vancouver the Everycity, a collection of villages that can morph into any U.S. metropolis "save for those in the American Southwest and possibly Miami." Innumerable feature films, TV movies, and X-Files episodes have rendered Coupland's statement irrefutable.
In the decade since I first began coming to North America's third-busiest film and television production center, Vancouver has exercised a pull over me. Though the exchange rate for Canadian dollars has taken a tumble, the city remains a relatively inexpensive urban getaway. Even Vancouver International Airport, a galleria of waterfalls and striking displays of native art, has more the feeling of a cultural immersion center than of a dreaded transit point. It's always tempting to explore the mountains and islands that surround the city, but in six visits, I have managed to leave only for day trips to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, and the foothills of Whistler. Perhaps that's because, although these destinations have the enduring allure of the past, the city's pull is greater because it's constantly in a state of flux.
Like other great North American ports, Vancouver contains a colorful array of districts, with personalities that range from posh to punk. Some neighborhoods are firmly entrenched cultural communities—Chinatown boasts a weekend-night market not dissimilar to those found in Hong Kong. Other districts, like Kitsilano and Commercial Drive, offer somewhat generic takes on upscale San Francisco crunchiness. There's the manufactured appeal of Yaletown, a SoHo-ish chunk of converted warehouses now filled with trendy shops and restaurants; and the authenticity of Gastown—a historic district, traditionally a tourist destination, that's experiencing its own influx of international furniture and fashion emporiums. Almost anywhere you go in Vancouver, however, one unifying quality emerges: it is an uncommonly functional and versatile place, just large enough to satisfy the curiosity of even the most jaded travelers. It's a big city that nonetheless feels friendly and intimate. That friendliness comes from its sociable, socially progressive populace, many of whom came to stake a claim in the global lifestyle of this 21st-century town. "It's the terminus of the nation," Saddy explains. "People come here to remake or reinvent themselves."
Tonight at Lift, the chefs had taken it upon themselves to reinvent appetizers as "whet plates"—Dungeness crab cakes with peppered strawberries, cardamom-roasted lobster claws with pickled beets, and fig-braised beef short ribs. These dishes are perfect examples of what Saddy calls West Coast cuisine: local ingredients filtered through the preparation techniques of Southeast Asia and continental Europe. In Vancouver, he notes, "novellas have replaced menus."