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Gritty, chic Gastown

Sprouting restaurant scene offers a variety of good urban eateries and more

Old Faithful Shop Credit: Jon Haywood

On its surface, Gastown is just another tourist trap, catering to the United States’ image of Canada. But once you get past the souvenir shops and rug stores that have been going out of business for 20 years, you discover a treasure trove of secret alleys and shops that cater to the unusual.

Relive exploring your grandmother’s attic at Salmagundi (1) (321 W Cordova St), the city’s best curiosity shop. With its mishmash of creepy Victorian toys and collectibles, browsing this store leaves you feeling like you’ve violated someone’s privacy.

Should your aesthetic lean toward “kind to trees,” try the Old Faithful Shop (2) (320 W Cordova St) for everything from canvas laundry carts to state-of-the-art watering cans. If you can afford a penthouse, you’ll definitely want to visit Inform Interiors (3) (97 Water St). For those of us who live in more cramped quarters, check out Parliament (4) (115 Water St). If you have an owl fetish, this place is for you.

Gastown is filled with boutique clothing stores for individuals who are Gap- and Banana Republic–averse. Sharks & Hammers (5) (54 Alexander St) sells fun T-shirts and street wear; check out the leather football. Menu (6) (114 Water St) bills itself as a men’s skate shop but will appeal to guys who like Hawaiian prints and butch women looking for something to wear to the beach.

Neighbour (7) (125-12 Water St), in Gaoler’s Mews, looks like it should be owned by a pair of gay men but isn’t. The Community Frock Shop (8) (311 Carrall St) boasts a fine selection of women’s vintage clothing and employs residents of the Downtown Eastside.

The city’s worst-kept secret is Secret Location Boutique and Tasting Room (9) (1 Water St), where you can get a diamond-encrusted Pac-Man necklace for a grand or a cellphone case for under $30. This spot oozes gay aesthetic, whether it wants to or not. For a tasteful experience that’s more in keeping with the historic feel of the ’hood, treat yourself to a haircut and hot shave at JD's Barbershop (10) (235 Abbott St).

New restaurants have been sprouting like weeds in Gastown, making it difficult to separate the yuppie bars from the neighbourhood hangouts. Brioche Urban Eatery (11) (401 W Cordova St) may seem expensive, but the portions are large. Use the Water Street entrance for that “down the rabbit hole” experience.

If you want to impress a date with an expensive, swanky dinner and a beautiful view of the harbour, venture about 20 minutes west to Lift (12) (333 Menchions Mews, not shown on map) in neighbouring Coal Harbour.

For a good old-fashioned hearty sandwich, check out Meat & Bread (13) (370 Cambie St); wayward vegetarians beware. If you’re looking for a small space with a lot of flair, try the Spanish-inspired tapas at Judas Goat (14) (27 Blood Alley) and ask for Jordan. Craving a doughnut? Go to Cartems Donuterie (15) (408 Carrall St); you’ll never want to choke down another Tim Horton’s doughnut again.

The influx of loft-dwellers and condo-owners has taken Gastown from cool to chic, although there are parts of it that feel like Giuliani’s New York. But if you ever need to escape for a few hours and pretend you’re in a Bette Davis movie, nothing beats Gastown.