Joe Fortes, Vancouver. July 2014.
Joe’s of course has been a middle-of-the-road Vancouver landmark since… it doesn’t say on the website… I would estimate 1970ish. And we’ve been there maybe six or eight times. The overall impression has been a noisy, raucus, competent big seafood joint a small but definite cut above a Keg and Cleaver level. We had an office dinner there one time 20 years ago and had to shout to hear the person beside us. I remember showing up there drunk on my bike late one night after a day at Wreck Beach many years before, and having oysters.
On one of our holiday-in-Vancouver atypical days, we booked lunch on the Canada Day holiday and requested the roof garden, informed by a nasal 20-year-old that they didn’t make reservations but if there was space when we showed up yes, they would give us a spot. So glad I called. At the door, she told us that she could “do” a table in the roof garden but it would be needed in two hours. Unable to resist asking I was informed that it wasn’t reserved, they were just trying to be fair to everybody. Later a waiter told us that there are investors who get precedence for tables. Fair enough of course (I’d want a lot more than table precedence and whatever else he offers at the entry price I imagine Charles F. White would charge interested parties).
The roof garden for some reason has been abbreviated by about 60%, and now contains I estimate 40 seats on two levels. The feeling is just lovely if you get a seat in the shade which we did. Flowers everywhere, dark wood furniture, and a busy bustling competent service scene reminiscent of some combination of the outdoor restaurant at Rockefeller Center and something in middle-tourist Hawaii. The unmodified deafening multigenerational shrieking from the family table next to us mostly dissipated into the perfect 25° Vancouver maritime sunshine and in any case went away when they collected up and left after about 15 minutes.
I’m my father’s son, a sucker for slick New York-style young smart aleck servers and I liked all three of ours. First came a tall black guy who announced himself as the water boy but who so resembled Nick Kyrgios who had just been beaten Nadal at Wimbledon I told him so and although he obviously had no idea about that he explained without losing a beat that he was cloned, and would also reappear as the bread guy. The main waiter was a deferential relaxed Jewish guy, and a tiny sexy sophisticated black girl poured the wine and discussed it intelligently.
We were looking for a low-calorie lunch. The Hugot Alsace 2010 unfortunately was disappointing, but it was the low point. We shared a dozen “Joe’s Gold” oysters, really perfect little mouthfuls accompanied by “Champagne mignonette”, a Thai soy and peanut sauce, and “traditional” cocktail sauce with shredded horseradish. There was salt and pepper and lemon on the table. My favorite was the mignonette with salt, pepper, and a wee squeeze of lemon: really the nicest raw oyster treat I’ve had in a long time, at least as good as Anchor in San Francisco.
Beef carpaccio which we shared was unfortunately pitched a little low. The beef was moist instead of a little dried as I’ve had it in Italian family restaurants, with a not-particularly-sharp shaved parmesan and finally ruined by a sweetened mayo. This is nothing to sneeze at as you chow the three or four bites each, but I seem to want to be transported by salty crunchy tart flavors and they weren’t there.
$131 pre-tip for a pretty small lunch but the oysters are $3.60 each which I seemed willing to pay. The ordinary wine was $51.
Inside the restaurant, I think you will find the food second-rate (our experience has always been that it is competently-prepared but pitched at the usual tourist diner) unless you are very selective, and served up by underpaid young people battling a deafening din. All it really needs is a smashing thundering rock band and there would never be anybody under the age of about 22 in the interior of the place.
But upstairs outside and the on the right day, we found a festive lovely lunch and I think you could do quite a bit worse in the Vancouver summer (day or evening) than the pretty roof garden at Joe Fortes. Food 7.9, service 8.6, ambience 8.3, overall value 7.6. We may find our way back.