A Vancouver institution, Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House is about as historic as this city gets. With a Wikipedia page dedicated to the man himself, Joe Fortes is an icon that boasts a record-breaking funeral procession, multiple monuments and buildings named after him, title of ‘Citizen of the Century’, films, postage stamps…and of course, the legendary Joe Fortes restaurant. Who was he? A seaman that landed in English Bay and served as a lifeguard. Recorded to have saved well over 29 lives, he was a popular man from the Port of Spain, Trinidad, who dedicated his life to others. And what is the restaurant? A similarly immensely popular joint, dedicated to serving the freshest of ingredients, the finest of seafood, and the most stellar of service.
For this, it is no wonder that Joe Fortes restaurant has built its reputation to be one that invites the attention of celebrities from far and wide. Frequenting its dark, brooding New York-esque interior, famous names flock to this restaurant, eager to listen to the live music on call and taste the delicacies from the kitchen. Much like the man himself, the restaurant is a legend, famous for its warm hospitality, vibrant energy, and first class service. It is also large, featuring multiple rooms including the main dining room with a soaring horseshoe oyster bar and large, cozy booths. There is the mezzanine, where diners can enjoy looking a birds eye view, and also a more relaxed bistro and bar for a casual meal, drinks, and celebrity spotting. Perhaps more crucially, this restaurant also has one of the very few rooftop bars in Vancouver – an enviable spot next to the fashionable Robson Street and Alberni Street. Large, sprawling, and filled with delightful roof garden features, this rooftop bar is perhaps as much of an institution as the restaurant itself. And with its accolade of awards, ranging from the international to the domestic (Wine Spectator and Zagat, to name a few), it is not just a reputation built on local appreciation.
The food is, not surprisingly, seafood and meat focussed. Featuring typically American cuisine, Joe Fortes has been serving award-winning food for over 30 years (impressive for a local restaurant). All of the ingredients are, of course, from local Pacific Northwest farmers, fishermen and food artisans, and one can find well over 50 types of fish plus oysters and meat dishes here. Hearing many raving reviews about this space, my guest and I were excited to sample the dishes.
We arrived on a Friday night to a bustling, lively, loud and vibrant atmosphere (truly one redolent of Manhattan in the 90s). We were seated in a cosy, intimate, booth in the main grand dining room (a perfect spot for two), before being brought out the cocktail menu to start. I went for my favourite staple, the Age Old Fashioned, whilst my guest had the Martini. My old fashioned was excellent, a classic done very well, whilst my guest’s martini was similarly top quality – smooth, easy to drink, and with a pleasant savoury tang.
To start, we were brought out the iconic Joe Fortes bread basket with its lobster infused oil for dipping. An acquired taste, we were told, we enjoyed both thoroughly. The lobster infused oil was a pleasant change from the typical olive oil dips of more frequented restaurant, adding a subtle depth to the taste that prepped our appetites for the seafood to come.
Our starter consisted of 4 oysters – two different varieties – both fantastic. We had the Sawmill Bay from Read Island, and the Kumamoto from the Olympic Peninsula, Washington US. The garnishes were done classically and well, rendering the oysters a very moreish affair that we could have had a lot more of.
But our second starter was shortly with us: a Crab Cake, pan fried with lemon-basil aioli. Crunchy, crispy, with a soft inside, this had an almost smokey taste to it that was quite unexpected but delicious, pairing well with the refreshing lemon-basil dip.
To drink, our server brought out three wines – these included a Verdicchio, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay. Of these, my favourite was the Blue Mountain Pinot Blanc – delicious pear, quince, yellow plum and white peach with a nutty creaminess and lovely zesty finish.The Okanagan Little Engine was a close second, rich and vanilla heavy with similar notes of pear and lemon curd with lemon peel, finished with ginger spice notes.
Our third starter, was a taster selection of Joe Fortes scallops and prawns. Done simply as grilled with a buttery glaze, served on a plate with the bread basket next to it for mopping up the juices, the theme of Joe Fortes was becoming more and more clear: classic seafood done well, with a slight quirky twist here and there. And no wonder: the exceptional ingredients shone through so clearly for us, that it would have been a shame to hide their flavours with too many intricacies or excessive layers of flavour.
Our second round of wine pairings featured a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, Sonoma Valley and Okanagan Pinot Gris. The Sonoma Valley Chardonnay was fantastic – lemon, apple, and white stone fruit with tropical notes of honeydew lemon. With a subtle oaky finish, and delicious creamy texture thanks to its malolactic fermentation, this was my favourite.
For the main, we shared the Filet Mignon, served with buttermilk mashed potatoes, and market vegetables. Done medium rare, and presented beautifully, it was a pleasant surprise to see this seafood house do steak so elegantly and well. The potatoes had sweet potato in them, delivering a lovely orange colour, whilst the market vegetables were fresh and green, their colour in tact and still slightly crunchy on the bite. Three sauces came to accompany the meat, all of which were excellent. To pair, we had a serving of Brussel Sprouts and Scalloped Potatoes. The sprouts were crispy, crunchy on the outside, flavoursome, and warming, whilst the potatoes were rich, oozing, and full of buttery comfort.
We drank Italian Valpolicella, a BC Merlot, and Californian Cabernet Sauvignon. The BC Merlot was the surprising winner here – a deep ripe plum, blackberry wine with a bouquet of Chai spice, oak, chocolate, and vanilla. Soft yet dry, this wine had fantastic structure and decent acidity to cut through, but balance out, the meats. Delicious.
For dessert, we had one (giant) slice of probably the best Carrot Cake I have ever had. An unexpected treat, different to the norms of chocolate fondant or ice cream, we finished this with great pleasure, noting what a refreshing end to the meal it was. We washed this down with two glasses of dessert wine, a Jackson Trot Ice Wine and Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage Port.
We left Joe Fortes merry and full, feeling as enlivened and buzzing as the celebrities that had frequented it before us. This classic institution is an absolute must-visit if you are in Vancouver and looking for all the things that make an excellent dinner. Try it.
Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House
777 Thurlow Street
BC V6E 3V5