Culturally rich and alive with energy, Commercial Drive – better known to Vancouverites as The Drive – boasts 22 blocks packed with quaint boutiques, eclectic restaurants, live music and performance bars, theatres, cafes, specialty food shops and bakeries, as well as Vancouver’s officially designated Little Italy.
Originally a skid road used for dragging logs to the harbour, Commercial Drive was incorporated into the Interurban streetcar line in 1891. The resulting growth of local businesses and residences helped the neighborhood flourish into a prosperous suburb – but, during the Great Depression, business declined and didn’t recover until World War II.
After the war, Italian immigrants arrived, contributing to the area’s designation as Little Italy. Immigrants from Portugal, Asia, Central America, South America and Vietnam followed; as did counter-culture demographics such as political activists, musicians and artists. Collectively, these new residents helped to transform the neighbourhood into the eclectic epicenter it remains today.
Dining and Nightlife
The sheer variety of cuisine available along Commercial Drive is mesmerizing. Thanks to the eight-block Little Italy, there are plenty of Italian restaurants dishing up wood-fired pizzas and house-made pastas; you’ll also find plenty of espresso stops and gelato bars. Try Caffè La Tana, a cozy grocer/café inspired by Italy’s traditional alimentary; next door is Pepino’s Spaghetti House, paying homage to Southern Italy with locally sourced produce, savoury spices and satisfying portions. Meanwhile, Federico’s Supper Club has achieved acclaim for old-school authenticity, tasty fare, and live music and dancing.
Diners seeking an exotic meal can take their pick from Caribbean, African, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Cambodian and beyond. Addis Café is a good bet for Ethiopan, while Café Deux Soleils dishes up vegan-friendly meals alongside spoken-word performances. Havana is a sultry spot replicating the colours, tastes and culture of Cuba.
Beer fans will adore meandering down The Drive and popping into taphouses pouring local and European brews. St Augustine’s has become something of a pilgrimage site with more than 60 microbrews on tap, and a lively dining area that’s perfect for setting up shop and watching the game. Storm Crow Tavern is a fun experience with walls adorned by steampunk replica weapons, and a plethora of board games and books. BierCraft Tap and Tapas offers a mouthwatering selection of Belgian and craft beers, accompanied by snacks and share plates.
Caffeine hounds flock to The Drive, attracted by the vast array of coffee houses. Try Turks Coffee Bar, a small space pouring Turkish-style brew (strong and unfiltered, sometimes infused with cardamom and sugar) and espresso-based drinks; Café Calabria, the city’s oldest Italian coffee house with Italian-influenced décor, coffee, gelato and paninis; and Joe’s Café Bar, whose Portuguese coffee and sandwiches are often enjoyed by older gentlemen congregating to play pool and shoot the breeze.
There’s a distinctly bohemian air to The Drive and, fittingly, you’ll find plenty of places to buy vintage bus signs, bongo drums and carvings imported from Southeast Asia (we like The Found and the Freed, Mintage and Paranada Traders). Bookhounds will gravitate to shops selling new and used tomes, including Canterbury Tales and Pulpfiction Books; music lovers can browse vinyl records at Audiopile and Highlife Records. Of course, food is a major commodity – expect lots of cheese emporiums, specialty wine shops and fresh produce stands.
Things to See and Do
Strolling The Drive with coffee in hand is one of the best ways to soak in the surroundings. At the south end of the neighbourhood is John Hendry Park and Trout Lake; between May and October, you’ll find crowds buzzing towards the park’s excellent farmers’ market. The north end of Commercial Drive houses the century-old York Theatre, exquisitely renovated as a performance arts house; as well as Grandview Park, which hosts frequent drum circles. The streets on either side of Commercial Drive are worth a stroll – they’re lined with colourful character houses and leafy trees.
Commercial Drive is also a festival hub where locals and visitors come together in celebration of… anything, really! Each summer, Italian Day on the Drive throws a multi-block bash promoting all things Italian with some 300,000 attendees partaking in the fun. Car Free Day Festival reclaims traffic thoroughfares as community public spaces with local artists, performers, artisans, visitors and residents taking to the streets to enjoy spaces normally reserved for vehicle traffic. One-off festivities take place throughout the year – check the Commercial Drive Business Society website for upcoming events.