John Bishop: Consummate host and BC Regional Cuisine pioneer, J.Sancho photo

It should have come as no surprise.

But John Bishop’s 25th anniversary celebrations were as understated as the man himself.

Just before Christmas, on December 14th, 2010—25 years to the day when Bishop’s first opened—it was almost business as usual in the modest, west-side Vancouver room that still holds considerable sway in the city’s culinary culture.

However, at one table, a few of us—who have been around long enough to remember when John Bishop threw open the doors—were invited to celebrate in classic Bishop’s style.

Arguably more than anyone we know, John Bishop is not given to hype. While many a lesser room would have jumped at the chance to mark such longevity in Canada’s most fickle dining market, this consummate host was so preoccupied with the day to day demands of running his restaurant he almost forgot to plan some form of acknowledgement.

In short, for John, as his regulars all call him, it’s always been more about the customer than him—and likely will always be.

Bishop’s menu has evolved under Chef Andrea Carlson, such as with this variation on the orginal scallop, now with crab leg and Arctic Char roe, Tim Pawsey photo

Chef Andrea Carlson’s prix fixe menu tweaks up variations on Bishop’s originals. Start with warm crusted goat’s cheese, winter greens and walnuts, followed by classic Dungeness crab cake with crisp potato and fennel cream; Fraser Valley lamb with root vegetables, red wine jus; and the even more classic, dramatic, raspberry-splashed  Death by Chocolate (“There’s nothing you can do to re-work that!”, says Bishop.)

Bishop’s features art such as Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas’ dramatic ‘Haida Manga’ works on used car hoods

Plates are as visually appealing as they are taste-filled, a reflection of the owner’s interest in contemporary art, often by emerging BC artists, which decorates the walls in a constantly evolving show.

Bishop's Death by Chocolate, Tim Pawsey photo

These dishes form the foundation for the restaurant’s quarter-centenary Silver Anniversary $49 Menu, when Bishop’s reopens on January 13th, following a New Year’s break for redecorating. Offered Sunday through Thursday (not Friday or Saturday) January 13th to February 10th.

For reservations, call 604-738-2025

An early regional believer

Few others have championed the Regional-Sustainable cause as has John Bishop.

His passion for all things local and organic flow, in part, from a childhood in Wales, where he learned the thrill of foraging for hazelnuts and early morning mushroom hunting.  In BC, it was an early association with the King family of Surrey’s Hazelmere Organic Farm that led him to be among the first in Vancouver to use organic micro greens-and local hazelnuts, of course.

That led to many more grower-producer relationships, so much so that today virtually every ingredient on a Bishop’s plate is locally sourced and, often as not, organic.

“Never underestimate the impact of leading restaurants on the rise of the artisan producer: it’s a symbiotic relationship,” says Bishop, who was among the first to establish a truly identifiable west coast cuisine style, along with other pioneers such as Sooke Harbour House founder Sinclair Philip and The Raintree’s Janice Lotzkar.

(Hard to believe today, perhaps, but when Lotzkar became one of the first Vancouver restaurants to identify on her menus the source of every principal ingredient, more than a few asked ‘why bother?’).

A distinctive and enduring style

Back in those days, recalls Bishop, if you went out for dinner, likely as not it was for very traditional Italian or French, or for a hefty steak with baked potato and cheesebread. Plus, more celebrated international dishes dominated local menus, such as Dover Sole, Icelandic scampi or New Zealand lamb.

Aside from helping to propel the local organic agenda to the fore, another of John Bishop’s significant contributions has been his mentoring of many individuals who are now the leaders of Vancouver’s chef and front of house community.

One unique quality that sets this quietly determined restaurateur apart is his natural way with people. His hospitality is always truly genuine and often deferential but with never even a whiff of condescension.

Vancouver Province critic Renée Doruyter gave Bishop's an early thumbs-up

Never a good time to open!

When Bishop’s opened in December 1985, Bill Bennett was premier; Vancouver was still in the 80s recession, unemployment was at around ten percent—and so were interest rates.

“There’s never really a good time to open a restaurant,” Bishop suggests, but he had so much support and encouragement that the possibility of failure never even crossed his mind.

“It was too expensive to be downtown, so we found an affordable place on the west side.”

He spent half the opening investment to create the now famous, warmly understated ambiance, and the other half on good second hand commercial kitchen equipment.

Bishop hit his target in the first month. And while it took time to get fully established, he never looked back. The benefits of Expo 86 were not immediately felt (“We were too much on the fringe,” he says). However, the awareness generated by Expo—along with visits from the likes of former PM Pierre Trudeau—and the firm embrace of a distinctive British Columbia culinary style, soon put John Bishop and his eponymous, welcoming room on the map.

John Bishop and chef Andrea Carlson, H. Attie photo

Just what makes a restaurant enduring?

So many elements combine for a room’s success. However, here’s what we wrote well over a decade ago, for Northwest Palate Magazine. Everything we said then still holds true today …

“Bishop’s is John Bishop personified: everything about the restaurant has the man’s stamp on it but in the most un-egotistical way. Thoughtful, sincere, and unassuming yet an unswerving perfectionist, John Bishop is a consummate host who, in ten years of business, has placed his brand of understated West Coast cuisine firmly on the map.”

“Appropriately, the compact, two-level space is comfortably minimalist in design; contemporary Canadian art from Bishop’s own collection provides bold colours and warmth. The art on the walls is mirrored in the art on the plates, which is as pleasing to the eye as it is to the palate. Passion is the vital constant from palette to skillet, says Bishop, who views fresh ingredients as a license to create with spontaneity and colour. Unrestrained by ethnicity or convention, the Bishop’s style knows no boundaries.”

“What brings people back time and again? The service with its genuinely personal attention, a serious West Coast wine list, and a string of classic Bishop’s dishes…”

Bishop’s Classics Redux Menu runs January 13th to February 10th.

2183 West Fourth Avenue, Vancouver, BC

For reservations, call 604-738-2025

A welcoming and discriminating west side Vancouver culinary haven for 25 years, Tim Pawsey photo