Everyone has a #firststop in a city that they frequent. Exploring the world through the hyper-local lens of vetted musts is what our new travel series is all about. Here, we'll be sharing those places with you via hand-plucked, first-person accounts from our favorite tastemakers. It's going to be a melting pot of long-standing institutions and stumbled-upon dives. Last month we brought you my personal favorite alley in NYC—Freeman's. This time, we're headed to the West Coast for a tour of Vancouver, B.C., with director Conrad Vernon. Turns out the guy who directed Sausage Party knows where to find the best martinis.
Back in 2008, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Jonah Hill pitched Conrad Vernon an idea for a movie—in Rogen's living room. To hear the director tell it, everyone was in the "proper state of mind" to be receptive to the idea. Some eight years later, Sausage Party is hitting theaters as the R-rated animated comedy from the guys who brought you This Is the End. In its own right, Sausage Party is similarly about a group of friends facing the end of a world. The story by Rogen, Goldberg, and Hill follows a group of hot dog sausages as they escape their packages in search of a higher truth and/or buns. Yes, the NYT rumors are true. It is indeed an animated sex comedy that debates the existence of God... with food.
Co-directed by Vernon and Greg Tiernan, the non- (repeat non-) family-friendly romp stars Rogen, Hill, Kristen Wiig, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek, Michael Cera, Nick Kroll, Paul Rudd, David Krumholtz, Bill Hader, James Franco, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride. The first animated project from Rogen and Goldberg's Point Grey production shingle promises to close out the summer with a wave of irreverent humor and endless sight gags.
Produced at Nitrogen Studios in Vancouver, Vernon split time between New York, Los Angeles, and the Canadian production office during the three-year animation pipeline. As such, we saw fit to tap the director for his favorite local hangs. Writing jokes about condiments and the existential beliefs of meat products is bound to work up an appetite.
"I grew up in Vancouver, Washington," he tells us. "Vancouver, Canada, is an incredible city. It felt like coming home. I'm very nostalgic for the Pacific Northwest." When asked to wax poetic on his favorite eateries, Vernon leads with an admittedly unlikely choice.
"I can't talk enough about Oyster Express," he says. "It's one of my favorite places to go—obviously you have to like oysters," Vernon tell us of the Chinatown seafood bar.
We especially love that Vernon kicked off his list with a hole in the wall joint. Off-kilter picks make for the best discoveries when traveling (in our humble opinion).
"I avoided going there for a long time," he confides. "Number one, Oyster Express sounds like it might be fast-food. Who knows what other express experiences you're going to have if you eat the wrong oyster. Barring the name, I also thought maybe all they served was oysters, which is not the case. They also have excellent Icelandic vodka."
Located on Keefer Street just a few blocks from Nitrogen Studios, Vernon frequented the location with his co-director, Tiernan. "It's this tiny, cool little dive that's privately owned. You just sit and watch sports and eat great food," he tells us. "The first time I went, their menu (which rotates) had 15–20 different types of oysters in all sizes that I'd never tried before—all freshly caught that morning from all over Vancouver, B.C., and Washington state. They have a fantastic habanero vodka sauce and an amazing grilled cheese. It's the only place I'll eat oysters in Vancouver."
Vernon is a fan of local Los Angeles military-influenced fine leathergoods line, Killspencer. The brand's signature Weekender bag features an open-top construction, waterproof lining, and multiple custom-cut pockets to fit all his tech. Vernon's own Weekender is hand-stamped with his initials—a detail owner Spencer Nikosey added by hand at his Silverlake workshop.
For a post-meal cocktail, Vernon recommends ducking into nearby historic Chinatown lounge, The Emerald. "It's kind of a strange entrance with these carpeted stairs," he says of the supper club. "Once you turn the corner at the top of the stairs, it feels like you’ve landed in a late 1960's cop film."
"The bartenders are very knowledgeable. They make a good martini," He adds. "The food is great. It's elevated, but still good bar fare. Order the charred cauliflower and sweet potato fries."
Kindle's Oasis E-Reader kept the director's carry-on game streamlined during multiple red-eye flights between actor recording sessions in New York to the production office in Vancouver.
"The Opus was my home away from home during production," Vernon tells of the Yaletown boutique hotel where he stayed throughout production of the film. "I was back and forth between L.A. and Van, so I was at the Opus for at least a week every month."
The hotel is the only establishment in Vancouver to receive a 4-star Forbes rating. "They always made sure the same room was open for me with a handwritten note and a martini waiting upon arrival," he tells us. "The staff is awesome. Yaletown is my favorite neighborhood to stay in town. If you arrive on a flight late at night, often the case for us, it's easy to walk across the street without a reservation and get a table. For example, I could walk from my room to The Cactus Club in under a minute."
Vernon's tip for freshening up aprés flight is pretty chic and simple: Toss a travel-size Tom Ford in your carry-on.
For a morning fix, Vernon tipped us off to a Yaletown institution beloved for bad service. "The Elbow Room is an experience. It’s a pretty fantastic story," he laughs. The Vancouver "insult-comedy" cafe employs an abrasive waitstaff dishing out waffles with a side of pithy, barbed commentary. "It's famous for being the place you go for a gigantic hangover breakfast. The language and the treatment of the customers is hilariously bad."
"All the coffee and water is self-serve, so if you accidentally ask for a refill they'll say, Get it yourself. It's over there," he continues. "They have a sign that says something like Bring children at your own risk. It's all in good fun. If you don’t finish everything on your plate, the house rules require you to make a donation to a charity." Indeed, all proceeds from unfinished bites go to A Loving Spoonful, a local charity that provides free meals for those living with HIV/AIDS.
Vernon counts this unique shaving soap that doubles as a scented beard oil among his musts for traveling light.
For an upscale meal, Vernon and the film's producers favored intimate Chinese brasserie, Bao Bei—located in Vancouver's Chinatown district a few blocks from the studio.
"It's elegant and atypical," Vernon says of the atmosphere. "They have great cocktails. The Chino Margarita is really delicious. Everything from the décor to the menu and the glassware is artful. It's a great spot to go at dusk. The space itself gets really beautiful natural light."
iPad pro's maximized display screen proved the perfect travel companion for Vernon while approving animated sequences on the road.
Vernon's final recommendation is a must for first-time visitors of Vancouver. "Just in general as a tourist spot, Granville Island is a cool artist community. If you're staying at the Opus, you can walk out the front door and in a five-minute walk you'll be at the Aquabus—this tiny little water taxi they put you on and put-put you over to the island."
Across the harbor, shopping and dining await. "There are some great restaurants. They have cool stores and local artisans selling everything from hammocks to cheesy souvenirs. There's always a guy there with a chainsaw making totem poles. There's also a guy that plays ABBA pan flute—if that's your taste."
If ABBA pan flute serenades sound a bit niche, he leaves us with "I go for the Farmer's Market, but there is also theater."
Have a favorite Vancouver spot? Tell us about it in the comments below. Sausage Party is in theaters today.