My Love-Hate Relationship with CFD Restos

Vancouver is famous for the CFD (casual fine dining) establishments that we know as Cactus Club, Earl’s, Joey’s and Brown’s.  These restaurants operate like machines – usually good service, pagers for those on the waiting list, quick turn-around and quality checks.

Lunches are busy – if it’s the like the ones in Yaletown, you want to get your lunch crew in there just before the 12 o’clock rush to secure a table.  Then there’s the great eye-candy (sometimes resembling the cast at Rhino’s or straight off the extras’ list from Entourage) that locals know as standard hiring practice – even complaining when one gets the “B” team or a male waiter.  As in, WTF, why is the B team on today? Or why did we get the male waiter!   My friend, Carlo, even made up lyrics for a song entitled, “The Male Waiter” for our fictitious boy band many years ago.  And don’t even try taking a date here.  The whiplash and lack of eye contact with your date is a sure way NOT to get a 2nd date.

But overall, you can count on reliably tasty food.  At any of those chains, you have your standard salads, calamari, wings, burgers and if you’re at Earl’s and recently Cactus (thanks to Feenie) – you can expect a little more international or gourmet fare such as butternut squash ravioli, bbq duck clubhouse (at Cactus) and Jeera Chicken Curry and Hunan Kung Pao (at Earl’s).

Here come the “hate” part of these CFDs.  It’s cookie cutter. The line-ups can be insane.  Try the ScotiaBank Earl’s on a Friday night when the suits are still hanging out and nursing their 5th martini (Friday is Martini night, I think), combined with the pre Canuck’s game crowd and clubbers looking to get their food base before a night of boozing – and you have a recipe for 1 hour wait lines.  But don’t worry, they’ll give you a pager.  Then there’s the meek attempt at some authentic international dishes.  Cactus has a Wor Won Tun soup dish that taste like Mr. Noodle’s stepsister, made from cardboard chicken stock.  Why would you even try won tun soup in a city that has so many authentic Chinese restaurants that have mastered the art of noodles and soup?

They’re not cheap either.  With the drink specials, the beautiful babies, and the drum & bass of house music in the background, you can’t help but get that 3rd beer and springing for the half ribs and chicken special.  You’re walking out of there with a $50 bill, no doubt.

For the foodies in Vancouver, we know that if you want an authentic experience, food that you can gossip/brag to your friends about, spices that awaken your senses, you have to get out there and really take advantage of what Vancouver has to offer.  It’s unbelievable the number of people I know who rely on the old standard and take what we have for granted in this great gastromic paradise.  We have Afghani (Afghan Horseman, East is East), Cambodian (Phnom Penh), real Italian (Cibo, La Buca), Korean (Ap Gu Jung),  Mexican (Salsa & Agave, Don Guacomoles) and of course the countless Indian, Chinese and Japanese restos.

Ultimately, you will still find me having a glass of Mon Ami Rascal (a delicious Grenache, Syrah blend) at Earl’s, kicking off a night with tasty Gyozas with hot mustard and soy dipping sauce at Joey’s, or the creole-butter blackened chicken at Cactus – all the while soaking in the scenery of restaurant porn in action.  But for the love of God and for the sake of exercising your pallete, be a little adventurous and go eat something else.  Therein lies my love-hate with Chain Restos!