We were housesitting in my old neighborhood of Yaletown and were looking forward to a visit from Nathan’s brother and sister-in-law. They were coming up from Washington state for a rare weekend getaway without their adorable toddler so we wanted to plan a grown-up night on the town. A night of fun, food and cocktails.
If you’re familiar with the city, you’ll know that there is no shortage of cool cocktail bars and great restaurants in Vancouver. The toughest part is deciding where to go. It was March and the weather was typically cold and wet so we didn’t want to venture too far. We narrowed it down to Yaletown, Chinatown and Gastown which were all easy walking distance or a short taxi ride away.
After some back and forth we further decided we wanted a funky cocktail bar with live music and food with an Asian focus. I remembered a Vancouver foodie friend telling me about one of her favorite Asian restaurants in Chinatown called Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie. She also mentioned that they did not take reservations so you often needed to go for a drink somewhere while waiting for a table. Luckily there was a super cool cocktail bar close by called The Keefer that was a perfect spot to wait it out.
This sounded like a definite contender but we were hesitant to go somewhere without a reservation on a weekend. We pulled up OpenTable Vancouver, our go-to website when picking a restaurant, and there was Bao Bei!
Alert Vancouverites and foodies: The popular Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie is now taking reservations on OpenTable! We were able to get the prime seating time of 7:45 pm which gave us time to check out The Keefer Bar for a pre-dinner cocktail or two.
A Bit of Back Story: The Keefer Bar and Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie were instrumental in bringing people to this short street on the edge of Chinatown. Prior to their arrival, there was little reason for anyone to venture to Keefer St.
The Keefer Bar
A tall glass door set in a stand-alone skinny building led us into a small, sultry room with moody red lighting. We were welcomed with a smile and taken to a table for four just to the left of the door facing the bar. It was a great spot to watch the bartender perform their magic.
Our server approached right away with glasses of water and menus, asking if we’d been to The Keefer before. After hearing this was our first time he explained a bit about the cocktails and the overall theme.
The Keefer is styled after the apothecaries of Chinatown, and the bar itself is a work of art. Like a traditional Chinese apothecary, the bar shelves are divided into cubby holes. However, these compartments held a dizzying array of liquor bottles and interesting containers, with a sign above announcing “MEDICAL CENTER.”
Keefer’s drink menu is labeled “List of Remedies and Cures” and the 25+ cocktails are divided into categories. Spring had just sprung in Vancouver, so the first category was “Spring Prescriptions,” followed by “Alumni Cocktails” and Reserve Cocktails.” There was also a “Sharing” category, which offered your choice of 4 crafty shots to share with your table.
We conferred with our server, who helped us determine what to try first based on our individual likes and dislikes. The boys went for the Keefer St Cider, which is Canadian Whiskey, apple, lemon and spices. I went for the tart and spicy Skeleton Kiss (a tasty blend of mezcal, pisco, pineapple, rose and firewater tincture). Sis-in-law chose the more traditional Rosemary Gimlet. And of course, we had to share a tray of Kaffir Lime Pie shots. All were delicious and beautifully presented, leaving us determined to return after dinner for more medicine.
In addition to a unique and extensive cocktail list the menu also contains a decent selection of wine, sake, beer and spirits. They even have a “Keefer at Home” section where you can select your favorite cocktail mix to take home…just add alcohol!
Cocktails are the main draw at The Keefer Bar but people also rave about their food. The food menu is a small selection of bar snacks and Dim Sum. We were told that favorite items are the dumplings and Bao Buns. They also have a variety of entertainment, ranging from DJs to live music.
Bao Bei Chinese Brasierrie
The term “Bao Bei” means “precious” or “treasure” in Chinese and is a nod to restaurant owner Tannis Ling’s childhood, where her parents would refer to her as such. Ling’s upbringing also played a role in the menu, which contains traditional Chinese dishes with a modern, fun twist.
Bao Bei is housed in an old Chinatown storefront, and the decor also follows the nostalgic theme with floral wallpaper and vintage pieces, including old black and white photos. We found out later that the wallpaper is vintage and was found during the restoration, and that the photos are of Ling’s family.
Our reservation with OpenTable provided us with a cozy spot in the window with another great view of the bar and all the beautiful people. Once again, we were asked if this was our first time and were then treated to an overview of the menu and how best to order.
Bao Bei’s cocktail menu is not the star as at the Keefer. However, there are plenty of great libations to pair with your meal. Between the four of us, we tried the Chino Margarita with tangerine-infused reposado tequila, the Nai Nai Punch starring bourbon, black tea and cognac, plus some glasses of beer and wine.
The drinks were very good, but again, it’s the food that people come to Bao Bei for. The menu is broken into sections with headings of “Schnaks,” “Petits Cadeaux,” and “Petit Chats Chinoix.” Yes, the menu has a French influence as well, which comes in part from chef Joel Watanabe, who has Japanese/French-Canadian heritage. We were advised to select at least two dishes from each category.
It wasn’t easy limiting our choices to just a few menu items as everything sounded incredible. In the end we decided on Crispy Tofu, Pork & Porcini Dumplings, Beef Tartare, Mantou Buns, Shao Bing, Beef and Broccoli, Wok Fried Brussel Sprouts and Kick Ass House Fried Rice with Omelet.
I will begin by saying everything was absolutely delicious and the amount we ordered was perfect for four people to share. The Beef Tartare was my personal favorite, with a nice mix of textures and tastes. I could have eaten the entire plate myself and then ordered a second. My other top pick was their take on the iconic Chinese dish of Beef and Broccoli. The “beef” was soy-braised shortribs that fell off the bone…which I then picked up to suck off every bit of sauce.
Bao Bei’s Kick Ass House Fried Rice was amazing, and the omelet on top perfected the plate. The Shao Bing was a surprise winner, as it didn’t arrive as we had pictured. It is described as “sesame flatbread, Te Mana lamb, pickled red onion, green pepper, cilantro, salted chilis” and we had expected a flatbread pizza-style dish. In fact, it’s a delicate sandwich.
The Mantou Buns were soft and tasty, the Brussels sprouts were perfectly cooked, and the crispy tofu was delish. If there were any not so rave reviews from our table, it was that the tofu dish was too small and should have come with four pieces rather than two. Not a deal breaker by any stretch, but next time we will order two.
One word of warning to anyone going to Bao Bei for the first time: Don’t go expecting big plates of your Chinese faves. There are plenty of traditional Chinese restaurants in the area to satisfy that need. What you will find at Bao Bei are small plates of heavenly flavors, perfect for sharing with a partner or a couple of friends, along with a fabulous ambiance and yummy cocktails.
If you’re looking for a fun evening with friends, including some of the best tastes and coolest vibes in Vancouver, head to Chinatown for cocktails at The Keefer Bar and food at Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie. Oh, and don’t forget you can now make a reservation on OpenTable at Bao Bei!
Born in England, Sarah developed her wanderlust at a young age as she traveled around Europe with her parents. As a young adult she spent every penny she could on experiences as opposed to possessions. Eventually she found a way to earn a living doing what she loved: traveling, writing and capturing images of the wondrous world we live in. When not on the go Sarah enjoys time in her “sometimes home” of Vancouver.