Tan while you wait for your table, Tim Pawsey photo

The first time I came to Vancouver was for my sister’s wedding. Like so many, I was immediately smitten by the city and its spectacular setting. Friends had lent us their 40’s era apartment, which overlooked Kits Beach, and I slept in the living room. When I woke up and looked out the window on that dazzlingly clear August morning, I made a promise to myself to come back as soon as possible, for good. And I did.

Some of the festivities took place around Denman and Davie, in the West End. I recall sitting in the lounge at the heritage, ivy-clad Sylvia Hotel, where you could enjoy a drink overlooking English Bay. Except we didn’t know we were overlooking English Bay because the view in those days was concealed by mottled amber glass windows, by law: it was illegal to be able to be seen from the street drinking. Ludicrous indeed.

Happily, times have changed, at least in that regard.

The other night we wandered down to check out the new Cactus Club at English Bay.

Waiter, there's a sunset in my glass. Oh, and on my tee-shirt...

It’s already hopping. And, guess what? You can sip the beverage of your choice and drink in the view, and be seen doing it … no problems.

We went with my in-laws, which was good, as it allowed me to gauge a wider experience, in that both have some dietary restrictions. Also, I find that visiting a restaurant with people from out of town helps deliver a broader perspective and is useful in my work with WHERE Vancouver.

I’m going to say right off the top that we all were impressed, for any number of reasons. However, consistency of execution—including the quality of ingredients on the plate—and good service all around were what made our evening. All of our party have travelled extensively, often internationally. Dollar for dollar, in a setting such as this, Cactus Club’s English Bay ‘experience’ rates with or above that found in most other major cities.

The waiting experience. This is a hotspot. No denying that. If you really have your heart set on a window seat best get there early, although it doesn’t matter where you sit, as the view ‘s good from just about anywhere on the main level—and not too shabby from downstairs. There are no reservations. They don’t need to take them.

Our wait on a late Friday afternoon would have been about 15 minutes, although it was longer as we opted for upstairs which is considerably quieter than the lower level bar and main patio access. As for the window seats, this place faces just about due west. Even on a less than balmy day it was pretty warm in the sun, although staff are quick to lower the electric blinds, and open the sash window tops.

Cool PR in your hand ...

These guys don’t miss a trick. When you give them your name and number of people they hand you an iphone sized pager, complete with a blurb that thanks the community for being patient while the LEED certified structure was built.

Waiting for a table gives me a chance to watch not only how people are greeted and get a sense of the flow of the room but also to get a handle on the clientele.

It’s always amusing / disappointing / unsurprising to see how some folks feel absolutely entitled that they, of all people, should not have to wait; and be able to waltz into a place at one of the busiest times of the week, to be immediately seated at the best table. Kudos to the impeccably dressed, young women hosts as to how they politely dispatched handled them.

Here’s the review as it appeared last week in the Vancouver Courier 

Now that the Cactus Club at English Bay is finally open, we thought it time for a test drive, which we did anonymously on a busy evening last week.

On arrival (no reservations), you’ll be given a pager that vibrates when your table’s ready, which means you can hang around on the beach while you wait. Why not?

The usual Cactus Club menu and wine list have been tweaked to reflect a local feel, with more specific seafood offerings and tailor-made specials-making it an ideal spot to take out of town guests, which we did. The two-tier space is compact-the kitchen even more so-and everything from bellinis to burgers has to make the trip upstairs courtesy of one narrow staircase. Anyone working here can happily consign their stair-master to the dump.

Tuna tataki, mildly addictive, TP photo

Our servers were cheerfully engaging, polished and competent. After a round of cocktails, as our starters arrived, we reminded ourselves what a stroke of genius it was for the Cactus Club franchise to have hired Rob Feenie as its “food concept architect.” The former Lumiere owner has elevated the fare well above the standard we used to expect from casual fine dining.

A precise prawn ravioli trio, TP photo

Our Ocean Wise tuna tataki was superb: perfectly seared outside and rare within, on a bed of bean shoots, with avocado and papaya chunks in a yuzu vinaigrette. It’s a generously sized small plate that could be shared, and great value at $14. Another standout, a trio of butternut squash and prawn ravioli arrived with the prawns precisely cooked and the plate well detailed ($14).

We like the fact that people, especially visitors, can come to a place so quintessentially a part of Vancouver as English Bay and enjoy well contrived and responsibly sourced cuisine that’s truly representative of what the region has to offer. (If only B.C. Ferries could attempt to do something similar.)

Healthy and tasty, wild salmon rice bowl, TP photo

We won’t detail the entire six or seven items we tried but, suffice to say, from the customized chicken burger to pesto chicken quesadilla, they were all impeccably executed. Sebastien Le Goff’s wine list is short but smart. A bottle of dry white Muscadet Sevre et Maine Sur Lie ($32) was a great match. (Available at B.C. Liquor Stores for $14.99.)

It pays to get there early: The place is already hopping and, with the final arrival of spring warmth, the patio lineup starts early.

If you want a quieter setting, it’s worth waiting a little longer for upstairs, while the bar area and main patio access downstairs is more energized. As far as asking for a window table, why bother? The space is so compact there’s barely a viewless seat in the house. Plus, a word of caution, on sunny days this southwest facing spot warms up fast, although staff are quick to adjust the blinds.

If customers vote with their feet, you can assume that this much-discussed newcomer is a more than welcome addition to what’s already on offer.

 LATE BREAKING …

Well, the joy of the web is that it’s real time—which means that your friends can remind you about things you’ve forgotten, and that you can add them sooner rather than later.

Feenie Goes Haywire. Again.

We touched on Sebastien Le Goff’s wine program. But we should also mention that ever since Haywire / Okanagan Crush Pad owner Christine Coletta met Cactus Club’s Rob Feenie on a boat, crossing Skaha Lake, a couple of decades ago they’ve enjoyed a firm friendship. (I was there too, so was Trevor Boddy, but we’re not going to write any more about that day. Well, not now anyway…)

A product of that friendship is a couple of new wines named, appropriately, Feenie Goes Haywire. They’ll be on the list at Cactus Club very shortly. Having recently tasted them we can assure you they’ll be a big hit.

Feenie Goes Haywire White 2011 (80/20 Gewurz. / Chard) sports a nice, floral top with a juicy, refreshing palate, well textured with a touch of spice.

Feenie Goes Haywire Red 2008 (Meritage with a touch of Pinot) is an approachable, well balanced red with some lively cherry and smoky notes, with a touch of savoury.