I Live Here: World's best bartender's guide to Vancouver

Kaitlyn Stewart, the reigning World Class bartending champion, visits her favorite coffee shop, food market and denim shop in the Kitsilano and Granville Island neighborhoods in Vancouver, B.C.

Posted: Apr 14, 2018 1:17 PM
Updated: Apr 14, 2018 1:17 PM

Six minutes. Six classic cocktails. In a Mexican wrestling ring.

It's not a bartending scenario Kaitlyn Stewart imagined when she started mixing drinks 11 years ago to help pay for university.

The "hilarious and fun" wrestling ring challenge -- the Lucha Libre -- was just one of four days of intensive beverage challenges that Stewart tackled in Mexico City in 2017 to become the reigning World Class bartending champion.

Stewart, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, had her doubts about entering the competition organized by spirits producer Diageo.

"I'm not superpolished. I don't wear a three-piece suit. I know a lot about bartending and spirits and cocktails and cocktail culture, but I mean I'm not a human encyclopedia like a lot of my colleagues are," said Stewart, 32.

But she decided to get out of her comfort zone and become one of more than 10,000 World Class entrants around the globe.

In Canada, she was No. 1 among 26 regional finalists and made her way to the international competition where she triumphed over contenders from 55 countries. Of those 55, only four were women.

Stewart is the second female to become World Class Bartender of the Year. In 2016, Jennifer Le Nechet from France took the title.

"It's something that I don't take lightly," Stewart said. "I'm really proud of ... helping be maybe a pioneer of having women in the forefront."

Stewart's artistry and stage presence -- she went to film school, has acted in commercials and grew up deeply involved in dance and sports -- might have helped her clinch the title.

Earning it was grueling. From her first recipe submission and Skype interview to the final challenge in Mexico City, Stewart estimates she made about 60 cocktails, some of which were inspired by her family and her life in Vancouver, a city she loves dearly.

"Having the mountains as my backdrop everyday and the ocean, you know, right there blocks away from where I live -- you can't complain about that," Stewart said. "There's so much green in the city, and the culture here is amazing."

The food and beverage scene is a big part of that. Stewart enjoys relaxing at home with her cats, Jack and Goose, in her scarce downtime, but she's still full of ideas about where to eat and drink in the spectacular city of Vancouver.

Downtown business district

When she's not globetrotting as a brand ambassador for Diageo Reserve (she was just in St. Petersburg, Russia), Stewart is the bar manager at Royal Dinette (905 Dunsmuir St.), a "farm-to-city" restaurant in the heart of the financial district downtown.

Named the best Pacific Northwest restaurant in 2017 by Vancouver Magazine, Royal Dinette features constantly changing seasonal dishes ranging from house-made sausage with pickles and apple barbecue sauce to albacore tuna confit with Manitoba white beans and preserved lemon tonnato.

And with Stewart at the helm, the bar program is clearly top-notch. Cocktails such as the campfire-inspired Kumbaya -- featuring hickory smoked rye, Amaro Montenegro, local small-batch cherry cedar bitters and a perfectly toasted homemade marshmallow -- showcase her creativity.

Stewart used to work at the clubby, throwback Gerard Lounge inside The Sutton Place Hotel (845 Burrard St.), where she once watched Anjelica Huston and company polish off a bottle of whiskey.

The hotel has a residential tower that's popular with guests in town for film and TV projects, "so you see a lot of famous faces kind of roll through there because it's so kind of tucked away, nobody gets bothered," she said.

Gastown and Chinatown

Outside of the downtown financial district, the adjacent neighborhoods of Gastown and Chinatown are full of great food and beverage spots.

For a nice West Coast-meets-French-flavors meal and some excellent cocktails, Stewart recommends L'Abattoir (217 Carrall St.).

Located at the site of Vancouver's first jail in the heart of historic Gastown, L'Abattoir serves dishes such as baked Pacific oysters with whipped garlic butter and truffle and Arctic char with pommes dauphine, cucumber and dill.

Just across the way on the second floor overlooking Maple Tree Square, The Diamond (6 Powell St.) features an impressive array of original cocktails and some classics -- complete with origin-story notations: The Adonis, Circa 1880s, Waldorf Astoria, NYC.

In neighboring Chinatown, Bao Bei (163 Keefer St.) serves inventive cocktails and modern Chinese small plates. Stewart likes the pea tips with garlic and shaoxing rice wine and the sticky rice cakes. "It's like a weird textural thing that I love about them," she said.

A few doors down from Bao Bei, The Keefer Bar (135 Keefer St.) is among the most popular cocktail bars in Vancouver. The bar is on its 33rd cocktail menu since opening in 2010, so there's always something new to try. The rosemary gimlet and the Keefer 75 -- featuring dragonfruit-infused gin -- are among the best sellers.

Kitsilano and South Granville

After years of living downtown, Stewart moved to Kitsilano, just a hop over the Burrard Bridge. The area is the birthplace of yoga brand lululemon and home to many families and young professionals.

"It's a great little walking neighborhood," Stewart said. "What I love about it is you kind of feel slightly removed from the city, but at the same time, you're five minutes away from the downtown core of Vancouver."

Just around the corner from Stewart's apartment is Maenam (1938 West 4th Ave.), where chef Angus An has created a local, seasonal menu of traditional Thai dishes with innovative twists.

Stewart says the black pepper Dungeness crab is a must-order when it's on the menu. The grilled sausage and crispy rice salad -- featuring house-fermented pork sausage, crispy curried rice puffs, coriander, lemongrass, ginger and fried shallots -- is another winner.

Stewart's favorite local bar, located in the adjacent South Granville neighborhood, is Grapes & Soda (1541 West 6th Ave.), where organic and biodynamic wines are served alongside creative cocktails such as the Giancarlo -- blended rum, juniper citrus sherbet, tiki bitter, lime and IPA.

At next-door sister restaurant Farmer's Apprentice (1535 West 6th Ave.), chef/owner David Gunawan has been sourcing superb ingredients from local farmers since opening in 2013. Gunawan also designed the concept at Royal Dinette.

When she's not mixing or sipping cocktails, Stewart favors the London Fog, a Vancouver-born beverage made with Earl Grey tea, steamed milk and vanilla. She swears by Beaucoup Bakery (2150 Fir St.) for the best London Fogs and chocolate croissants in the city.

"I try not to walk to the bus that way every day or I would stop there, and I would eat a croissant every single day," she said.

Granville Island

Right at the foot of Kitsilano is Granville Island with its centerpiece, Granville Island Public Market. Stewart likes to walk down to the popular indoor market to shop for fresh produce, seafood, flowers and more.

The island is also home to hundreds of businesses, many producing art and handmade goods.

Among them is Search & Rescue Denim Co., a company that makes customizable denim, leather and vinyl aprons for professions from barber to bartender.

Stewart has a camouflage apron with leather straps and chunky hardware that she particularly likes.

"If I could wear an apron every single day, I would. It'd make me look so much more fancy than I really am," she said.

Kingsway and Fraser

For simple, fresh Italian food, Stewart is a big fan of Savio Volpe (615 Kingsway), an osteria located southeast of downtown where the menu is centered on handmade pastas and meats cooked over the wood-fired grill and rotisserie.

She usually grabs a drink before or after her visits to Savio Volpe at Crowbar (646 Kingsway), which is right across the street.

And if the world's best bartender is bellying up to the bar, their beverages are bound to hit the spot.

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