Vancouver neighbourhood guide: Discover Commercial Drive

by Nancy Baye

Commercial Drive, a 21-block stretch in East Van, is about as Greenwich Village as Vancouver gets. The multi-cultural neighbourhood loves to flaunt its diversity and offers a welcoming vibe that draws hippies and hipsters, singletons and young families alike. More than 400 shops, bars, cafes and restaurants cluster here, mostly independently owned and operated. The pedestrian-friendly area is bookended by two popular parks: John Hendry Park, at Trout Lake, hosts a Saturday Farmers Market from May to October, meanwhile Grandview Park is the place for impromptu drum circles and casual games of hacky sack.

Discover The Drive’s treasured boutiques, listen to the strums of cool jazz and warm reggae, dine at supper clubs from another era and enjoy the sights and sounds of Vancouver’s most bohemian ‘hood. [Photo credit: Tourism Vancouver/ Nelson Mouellic]

Vancouver neighbourhood guide: Discover Commercial Drive

Globally inspired cuisine

Commercial Drive is a foodie’s paradise and a place where all are welcome. Storm Crow Tavern – affectionately known as Vancouver’s original nerd bar – is a winning concept in this eclectic neighbourhood: think sports bar meets board games in your basement. Themes of sci-fi, horror, fantasy and comics are reflected in menus and memorabilia scattered throughout the bar. Join in on some tabletop fun, peruse collectibles and soak in the medieval costumes. Even the menu is like a choose-your-own adventure game, with a full page of customizable burger options. Ask them nicely and they might play Star Trek on the big screen.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Cory and Juliana Pearson bring a little piece of France to The Drive, with their Absinthe Bistro. Chef Juliana, who studied with Paul Bocuse, offers a prix fixe menu that changes frequently to keep the food fresh and interesting. Parisian inspired dishes include creamy asparagus green-pea soup with prosciutto crisps and quail egg, or a classic vanilla crème brulee. You’ll also find great deals on cocktails made with interesting ingredients like passion fruit juice, Chartreuse, and Elderflower liqueur. Of course, there’s plenty of absinthe too, available in cocktails or served as a drip drink.

Lombardo's Pizzeria & Restaurant is tucked away in a small unassuming shopping mall, but don’t let that deter you. In keeping with Commercial Drive’s Italian roots, this family-friendly trattoria has been a local gem since it opened in 1986. Excellent wood-fired pizza, calzones and pastas (including gluten-free) pair with well-priced wines. With a cheerful staff and a relaxed neighbourhood vibe, this is a great spot to take the kiddies for an early dinner, or take a date a bit later in the evening.

Indie boutiques and local gems

Shopping on The Drive goes beyond bikes and books, although the area is ripe with both. Why not sink your teeth into fresh fare from Pasture To Plate Natural Products? This butcher shop offers certified organic products that contain no nitrites, phosphates, glucose or fillers. The conscious shop owners believe in biodynamic farming, and have a wide range of livestock that keep their farm diversified and sustainable. They care about low stress animal handling, mineral-water-energy cycles, and transparency (farm visiting is encouraged). This is great meat and poultry, produced sustainably with integrity and experience.

The Wander Emporium imports exotic gifts and housewares from South East Asia. Furniture made with reclaimed, sustainable woods give shoppers an ethical alternative to big box home stores. You’ll also find one-of-a-kind carvings, jewellery and clothes all made by artisans.

Head to Mintage Clothing Co. for a curated collection of vintage clothes and accessories. One stop and you’ll be hooked on vintage and vintage-inspired clothing. Spacious and organized, this is the place to find inimitable pieces like an embroidered silk robe from the 1920’s, some 1940’s Charis shapewear, or a 1960’s lurex brocade party dress. Stunning finds are constantly being added to.

Community festivals for everyone

The Drive is the birthplace of the Vancouver Car-Free Festival and the go-to place to watch the World Cup, but there’s much more to the neighbourhood's annual event calendar. In April, catch the Verses Festival of Words, celebrating poetry and the diversity of the spoken word. During May’s Stone Soup Festival, visitors have the opportunity to venture into local residents’ backyards to enjoy food vendors, musicians and performances. The East Van Garden Tour, which takes place in June, has blossomed since urban gardening became de rigueur. Get your Pride on during the summer months at the East Side Pride Festival in June and the Dyke March in August – both are always crowd-pleasers, with entertainment galore and wow-worthy costumes. In the fall, the parade of the Lost Souls (or Secret Souls Walk) is a Halloween tradition, with a secret location deployed only days before it happens. In November, don’t miss the four-day East Side Culture Crawl celebrating all things art and design. Unique artworks and crafts from local creatives are on display, many in the artists’ homes and studios. Bring cash as there are  many deals to be had and items so beautiful they will haunt you if you don’t take them home.

Live performances throughout the week

Vibrant venues dot The Drive, which means there are plenty of places to see up-and-coming bands, indie films and experimental theatre. The Rio on Broadway is one of Vancouver’s oldest theatres, where you can catch films and live entertainment throughout the week. Meanwhile, the East Vancouver Cultural Centre, known as The Cultch, offers cutting-edge theatre, music and dance performances all in a cozy space.

In a city dominated by glass towers and new developments, Commercial Drive stands out as a culturally and architecturally diverse neighbourhood bursting with personality. Take some time to explore the heritage homes that dot the tree-lined side streets, smell hints of espresso wafting through the air, and admire the abundant produce markets overflowing with fruits and vegetables. With a unique mix of global culinary destinations, independent boutiques, and community performance spaces, The Drive is easily one of Vancouver’s most colourful neighbourhoods.

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