A culinary tour through the Downtown Eastside?

Off the Eaten Track skips the tourist traps, preferring eastside options like Vancouver Urban Winery in Railtown

Food tours that go out of their way to give foodies a taste of Vancouver and beyond

Half an hour into Off the Eaten Track’s culinary tour of Railtown, we’re at Big Lou’s Butcher Shop, devouring warm and zingy porchetta sandwiches with parsley-cilantro chimichurri sauce. Half a sandwich, anyway: there’s still plenty to eat on this two-hour trip into a neighbourhood most Vancouverites never visit.

A Taste of B.C. Culinary Tours

Off the Eaten Track
Five tours in Vancouver and a couple in Victoria: food on Fort Street or craft beer at Victoria’s best brewpubs.

Taste Vancouver
A “Little Italy” tour of Commercial Drive with pizza, cannoli and sangria–or a Gastown tour featuring upscale comfort food like lobster mac and cheese.

Terminal City Tours
Vancouver brewery and distillery tours. All the beer, and booze if you want it. Three breweries in three hours, with “copious” amounts of samples.

Vancouver Brewery Tours
Tours to over 13 local breweries, including new-comers like the Brassneck, Steel Toad and Bomber Brewing.

Vancouver Food Tours
Gastown cocktails, craft beer and gastropub fare, even a tour of the Molson brewery.

Vancouver Foodie Tours
Three tours including Granville Island, food trucks and one themed around “Guilty Pleasures”: dim sum, meatballs, chocolate, wine, gelato and more.

Victoria Food Tours
Two-hour tours of Victoria and its gas-tronomic hot spots.

Travel with Taste
Vancouver Island-based tours range from one or more days, tea and chocolate in Victoria to cheese and wine on Salt Spring.

Formerly the home of Hootsuite and still the headquarters of Aritzia, Railtown is an emergent tech-design zone built on the postwar industrial bones of Japantown. It comprises maybe five blocks of warehouses, lofts and storefronts between Alexander Street and the railroad tracks—and while it’s been pegged as the next Yaletown, this is still the Downtown Eastside. A foodie tour here is unapologetically gritty.

“I’ve always had a passion for finding holes-in-the-wall and fringe stuff,” says Bonnie Todd, Off the Eaten Track’s co-founder. Todd spent seven years as a tour guide on the Rocky Mountaineer’s Whistler-Jasper run—working six months and travelling the other six—before starting the culinary tour company in 2012 with business partner Alexis Ragan. As frequent travellers, both she and Ragan appreciated “being taken out of the norm” rather than to well-worn spots, and that ethos has defined their business model.

“We get a lot of good feedback on the neighbourhoods we choose,” says Todd. “Our clients like being guided into areas where there are some really edgy and interesting things going on, things they might never otherwise see.”

Off the Eaten Track offers walking tours of Main Street, the downtown food-cart scene and East Village brunch joints, among other areas. Todd not only spikes her tour menus with a bit of booze (wine and beer at Vancouver Urban Winery on Dunlevy, in this case) and dessert (lemon meringue tartlets at Cadeaux Bakery), she also adds dashes of neighbourhood history and socially conscious content. Clients on the Railtown tour start with a humble grilled cheese sandwich and soup at the H.A.V.E. Cafe, a culinary training institute that helps people with employment barriers—age, language, mental health or addictions—learn a marketable skill.

Todd’s company is one of six food-and-drink tour companies in Vancouver, and the sector is growing fast. (There are four that focus mainly on food, and two that specialize in brewery/distillery tours; see sidebar.) When Todd started it with Ragan—who came from a front-of-house restaurant background and now runs their Victoria-based trips—there were only two such companies in the city.

“Food tours are on people’s radar now, and food as a way to travel is way more common than it was even five years ago,” says Todd. “I attribute a lot of it to the glamorization of chefs and the whole rise of foodie culture. Calling yourself a foodie didn’t mean anything seven or eight years ago—and taking pictures of your food, that was unheard of. Now travel that focuses on food is getting huge.”

A 2013 report on American tourists by travel data firm Mandala Research noted that the percentage of U.S. “leisure travelers” who travel “to learn about and enjoy unique dining experiences” grew from 40 per cent to 51 per cent between 2006 and 2013. Mandala also notes that of the 170 million Americans who took at least one vacation a year, 77 per cent are culinary travellers of one kind or another, having sought out destination restaurants, taken cooking classes or attended a food festival while on vacation.

But foodie tours are not just for out-of-towners, and the fact that we’re in Railtown is a mark not only of Todd’s penchant for exploring “outside” neighbourhoods but of evolution within the culinary tourism sector itself. In the tourist season from May to October, about 80 per cent of her clientele are from other cities or countries. But from October to May, Todd’s business doesn’t slow down; it just “flip-flops” to 80 per cent locals and 20 per cent tourists. The Georgia Straight confirmed the hometown popularity of guided culinary trips this year by adding a Best Culinary Walking Tour Company category to its Golden Plate awards—which Todd’s company won.

“When we started, we didn’t expect to have so many locals,” says Todd over a café medici and pistachio-apricot torte at Railtown Cafe. “We truly thought we’d just have tourists. One of the reasons I think we get so many is because we’re going to neighbourhoods that aren’t quite on everybody’s radar.”