¿CóMO? Taperia opened in Vancouver, BC on November 26 to a buzz rarely seen in a city known to be especially demanding—and notoriously ruthless—on restaurants. ‘Como’ holds several meanings in Spanish including “come again” and “to eat”. It is an authentically Spanish phrase that is the perfect name for a concept that until now had been sorely missing in a place known for its world-class dining scene.
We sat down with Chef Justin Witcher several weeks ago who told us about his very unique journey which had brought him to that particular moment in time—on the cusp of opening one of the most hotly anticipated restaurants in the city with his two partners, Frankie Harrington (co-founder of Meat & Bread) and Shaun Layton (Bartender of the Year 2010).
Originally from Nelson, BC, Justin’s first foray into the restaurant business was at the age of 17 where he took a job as a dishwasher at the local Mexican Restaurant, “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for the rest of my life but working in restaurants was something I could see myself doing at least for the short term.” After 2 years, he had worked his way up to Sous Chef and then moved to the local Italian restaurant, Sebastian’s La Cucina. It was there that he realized he had found his true calling not only learning a different style of cuisine, but all the new techniques that went with it. With his passion now fully ignited, he decided the next step was to enroll in culinary school.
Being from a small town, Justin’s desire to travel is as strong as his passion for cooking. His instructor encouraged him to pursue a job on a cruise ship so that he could satisfy both. “He told me it would be hard and that I was way too young (22) to run a team on a ship. But he also believed that of anyone in the class, I would manage.” With his instructor’s help, he got a job with Holland America as an Assistant Saucier in a main galley and his instructor’s warnings quickly proved accurate, “It was brutal. I had the skills but I didn’t have the basics or knowledge to run a team. But it really taught me how to work, and how to adapt.” The job happily fed his passion for travel and took him to 50 countries, including Spain, where it was love at first bite, “the food is so simple, yet is still among the best I’ve ever eaten and a great example that it doesn’t take a lot of components in a dish to make something delicious.”
After 3 years, Justin jumped ship and returned to BC to work at Bacchus Restaurant in Vancouver working under Lee Parsons who was the Executive Chef of Le Manoir, the renowned 2-star Michelin restaurant in London. “Working with Lee for a year and a half really opened my eyes to fine dining.” In 2008, he moved to Australia to work at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, Fifteen, in Melbourne. He stayed for a year, returned to Canada briefly, but opportunity knocked again bringing him back down under as Sous Chef and then Head Chef for the Atlantic Group running the fine dining rooms of their large venue. It was through this experience working with celebrity chefs, and working on a large scale, that he really made a name for himself. After a move to Sydney to help open a hotel, he found his way back to Canada three and a half years later to become Executive Chef at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, “It was a big step in my career and I don’t think I have ever been happier in my life.” After a change in ownership, Justin returned to Vancouver to figure out what he wanted to do next. Over the years, whenever anyone asked him what type of restaurant he would own if he had a choice, he always said Spanish, “I love everything about the food and there was a huge hole in this market for it.”
Enter Frankie and Shaun, two well-respected people in the industry in their own right, who had independently come to the same conclusion about the Vancouver dining scene. The stars aligned, they were introduced, and the three became fast friends over their mutual passion for all things Spanish.
It took the partners over a year to find the right space and the wait proved worthwhile. The 58-seat restaurant is part of the commercial space in the new Ellsworth building at 7th and Main in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant area. It’s an area that has quickly become a dining hotspot that includes such notable names as Nomad, Osteria Savio Volpe, and Les Faux Bourgeois.
The interior design of Como is modern and industrial with wooden tables and chairs, and a seemingly simple design at first glance. But look closer and you’ll see serious attention to detail with slick surfaces, warm colours, and little slices of Spain sprinkled throughout. Underlying it all is a playful and cheeky vibe that starts with their logo and menus, and carries right through to even the washroom wallpaper. (You get extra bonus points if you happen to spot to the self-effacing photos of the owners on one of the shelves!).
Como’s menu features more than 25 different dishes, and Justin loosely uses the word ‘traditional’ to describe the fare, “unlike countries such as Italy and France, the Spanish have fun with their food and encourage creativity around key ingredients.” The “Como” section in the menu highlights his interpretation of what he calls the ‘unusual’ suspects on a Spanish menu.
In the same vein as the food, the wine and cocktail list is almost exclusively Spanish with Cava, Rioja & Sherry featuring prominently. Of course when you have one of the best bartenders in the city, you can imagine how much fun Shaun is having creating concoctions that feature Spanish staples Sherry, Gin, Vermouth and Sangria. “I wanted our cocktail offering to be as authentic and true to the concept as possible.” They also have Sherry and Vermouth on tap from Spain in kegs which is something we have never come across outside of Spain itself. Even the beer has been chosen to pair specifically with the food including Spanish import Estrella as well as some local breweries. We were delighted to see they are also carrying Txakoli, a wine we were introduced to in Spain which is a slightly fizzy dry white with high acidity and low alcohol content—a perfect pairing to Spanish tapas.
But no Spanish restaurant’s cocktail menu would be complete without some serious Gin & Tonics, “Spain consumes more Gin per capita than any country in the world and they have a really cool G&T culture. We’re committed to working with different gins and different tonics so we’ll constantly be changing it up in that department.”
What the three partners have brought to Vancouver, simply doesn’t exist elsewhere in the city. Yes, there are Spanish restaurants. But there aren’t any restaurants similar to what you would find in Barcelona or Madrid that replicate what the tapas scene is like in Spain. A place where people are welcome to pop in for a quick drink and a bite, or post up at the bar and stay for the whole evening. It’s a traditionally Spanish and informal approach that is meant to be inviting while at the same time stimulating conversation with friends and strangers alike. It’s just the sort of place we’ll be coming to again.
201 East 7th Avenue, Vancouver, BC
Open 7 days a week 4pm-11pm (No Reservations)