Vancouver restaurant owner Umberto Menghi and two of his restaurateur cronies wanted to get in a little hunting in the mountains. They drove to an isolated wilderness camp and began to unload provisions for a four-day stay. Before the widening eyes of their guide they produced two hams, a leg of lamb, two sirloin strips, cold lobster, coffee beans, a grinder and drip unit, cognac, nine cases of wine and stemware to drink it in. Unfortunately their quivering pack horse couldn’t carry it all so they were forced to lug the balance of the grande bouffe to a cabin at 11,000 feet. (The guide, recalls Menghi ruefully, carried a peanut-butter sandwich and an apple.)
That break a couple of years ago represented a rare vacation for the charming Menghi, at 32 owner of the elegant II Giardino and according to longtime
restaurant critic Alex MacGillivray, “Vancouver’s outstanding restaurateur.” Typically, however, Menghi took his work with him and, even more typically, he took the friends who worked with him as waiters at the Hotel Vancouver in the 1960s and now own restaurants and bistros which, in the last 10 years, have transformed Vancouver into a restaurant town of exquisite style and variety.
At the forefront of this culinary blossoming is Menghi and particularly his II Giardino. A sloping, tile-roofed structure styled after an Italian country inn, it has become Vancouver’s Courtyard Café where fashionable diners drift through lunches of pungent antipasto and feathery Tuscany veal on a wave of chilled white wine and Perrier.
It is a sweet achievement for Italianborn Menghi, who came to Canada for Expo after being a waiter on the Channel Island of Jersey, then sold subscriptions for Maclean’s door-to-door when waiting jobs subsequently dried up. Svelte, easy-going and given to velvet jackets and open-neck silk shirts, Menghi allows himself self-mocking laughter as he recalls his migration to the West Coast. “I bought cowboy boots and a Western shirt for the trip,” he snorts, “and was very disappointed when I got off in Winnipeg and saw cars instead of horses.”
Landing in Vancouver in 1968, he worked as a waiter at the crucible of Vancouver’s restaurant owners’ cabal, the Hotel Vancouver, before opening a string of four restaurants in advance of II Giardino in 1976. Giardino was only the first among dozens of European restaurants such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Papillote and Au Café de Paris that appeared in the 1970s, restaurants with owners who know one another, hunt and drink together, even intermarry.
Says MacGillivray: “If you want someone to credit for the fact that this has become a great restaurant town, you can thank the federal government’s immigration policy.” Besides the European bistro explosion, there are some 200 Chinese restaurants in the Vancouver area, some of which many consider superior to those in San Francisco. There is a plethora of breezy Greek restaurants spearheaded by burly, bearded Aristedes Pasparakis, 36, whose sprawling Orestes on West Broadway legitimized Greek food and dining when it opened more than five years ago, spawning some 45 imitators on the Lower Mainland. His new restaurant, Emilios, close to the False Creek fishing docks in downtown Vancouver, features seafood served in a huge multileveled space broken by private nooks and jutting balconies. Other more traditional top-line restaurants such as Erwin Doebeli’s William Tell, Bud Kanke’s seafood house called the Cannery and the cool, New York sophistication of Briar Avenue have also combined to tempt Vancouverites to spend
almost twice as much in restaurants (15.6 per cent of disposable income as opposed to 9.4 per cent) as their Eastern brethren. (To just drink and be seen, however, the Four Seasons airily elegant garden bar has supplanted the Bayshore Inn’s Marine Lounge.)
Reasons given for the boom are as disparate as the city’s restaurants. Menghi simply says Vancouverites are travelling more and losing their snobbishness. “When I first started I carried squid but customers turned up their noses. Then I changed the name of the dish to ‘Florentine Birds.’ I sold out every night.” Another restaurateur, who begs anonymity (“Some of these guys are rough”), says “people eat and spend time in restaurants here because there’s nothing else to do. The clubs in this town tend to be pretty sleazy.”
Vancouver native MacGillivray speculates it is because “it has always been so easy to ‘go downtown’ in this city, it was what everyone did, every weekend.” Whatever the reason, the current linchpin in the bubbling Vancouver restaurant scene is the courtly Menghi. Secure now with a house he shares with his wife in beautiful Deep Cove outside Vancouver, a winning semi-pro soccer team called Umberto’s Columbus and a red Ferrari 308 GTS, he is still not content and has quietly opened II Palazzo in the cool marble interior of a former downtown Vancouver bank. Serving light Florentine cooking beneath a 17th-century chandelier and freshly painted frescoes in a vaulted ceiling, Menghi has guests who book in advance picked up at their door in a stretched, limestone-grey Continental and deliv-
ered to II Palazzo where they are greeted almost every night by Menghi. The food is superb, the atmosphere slightly frosty and the tab celestial. Menghi knows that in Toronto, commerce, both political and financial, is transacted daily on the soft banquettes of John Arena’s Winston’s. In Vancouver, those deal-makers remain hunkered down in the dim dining rooms of the Vancouver Club (owners) and the Terminal City Club (senior managers). He also knows that traditionally II Giardino places No. 2 or 3 in national restaurant guides to Winston’s No. 1. Is Menghi’s II Palazzo taking aim at Arena’s plush Eastern institution? After a suitable pause for humility and good manners, the long eyelashes flutter once. “You bet,” says Umberto. Thomas Hopkins
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