Nelson the Seagull

Restaurant: Nelson the Seagull
Cuisine: Cafe/Coffee/Tea/Bakery/Sandwiches
Last visited: February 3, 2012
Location: Vancouver, BC (Gastown)
Address: 315 Carrall Street
Train: Stadium-Chinatown Skytrain
Price Range: $10 or less

1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: Tres Excellent!!

Food: 3-3.5 (just for food, not coffee)
Service: 3
Ambiance: 4.5
Overall: 3.5
Additional comments:

  • Neighbourhood cafe
  • Healthy food
  • Made in house
  • Fresh ingredients
  • Open kitchen
  • Mostly local/organic
  • Simple/Limited menu
  • Almost no hot food
  • Hipster/hippie feel
  • Vegan/Vegetarian friendly
  • Eat In/Take Out
  • Weekend brunch
  • Mon-Tues 9am-6pm
  • Wed-Fri 9am-9pm
  • Saturday 10am-5pm
  • Closed Sunday

**Recommendations: Carnivore Sandwich, Coffee

So this is what inspired it all. I recently wrote a post for 10 Characteristics of a Hipster Restaurant and 10 Characteristics of a Hippie Restaurant and the two started to overlap, especially when it came to writing about Nelson the Seagull. Drawing characteristics from each post, these were my observations, the breakdown and my conclusion. Again, I know I’m stereotyping… but it’s for fun and there’s a degree of truth to it, but don’t take this too seriously.

The hipster side of things…

1. No signs.

All signs, and as contradicting as it sounds, no signs, is the first sign that points to hipster. It used to be vintage or restored signs, but now it’s just no sign. It’s no longer cool to be “loud” with big signage, although small signage with tiny font seems to be the new way to market. Or it could be just more affordable too.

Observation: Other than the small white font on the glass window, there are no other signs for Nelson the Seagull. Hipster +1.

2. It’s in a random, hidden, or off the beaten track location.

If it’s a posh, hip and trendy area, a hipster restaurant shouldn’t be there, but quite often it is. A “real” hipster restaurant likely settled in a popular area before it got popular, or they have already moved to secluded areas, lofts and basements that are less known and more affordable. Even if it is in a popular area it will keep to itself and away from the “hype”. Being discrete and sometimes shady looking is key.

Observation: Gastown is pretty much as urban as you can get right now. Nelson the Seagull is located just on the edge of the hottest spot in Gastown. Relatively close to the “dumpy” area of Gastown it almost makes it cooler and more of a hidden gem. It wasn’t the dark and shady looking hipster restaurants we can sometimes find on Main Street, but its presence is still discrete despite occupying a big space.

3. The hours are random, the website is broken or ambiguous, and they don’t pick up their phone.

I don’t get it. Apparently it’s no longer cool to pick up your phone and a full inbox is all you’ll get if it’s not an endless ring. Operating a business doesn’t really require set business hours or an informational website either. “Work when you want” is not a far-fetched mentality. Closing hours and “official closing hours” are blurred because they often close when they want, or when things get boring.

Observation: Nelson the Seagull actually does have set hours, and a working website, but they recently extended their hours and you would only know if you actually go there. Don’t try calling because a few rings and a full message box is all you’re going to get.

4. The clientele and staff are hard to tell apart, and you kind of feel like you need a membership to eat there.

With vintage second hand clothing, new clothes that are made to look old, and old clothes that can cost more than new clothes, everyone is more or less rocking the same thing. Uniforms? What uniforms? The staff wear what they’re comfortable in. As for the customers, instead of fake eyelashes and purses, it’ll be fake glasses and messenger bags. The guys may sport facial hair that seem professionally styled and groomed, and they too are carrying messenger bags. As intimate as the space may seem, you may feel unwelcome if you’re not part of the culture.

Observation: If it wasn’t for the fact that they were in the kitchen, I wouldn’t be able to tell the customers from the staff at Nelson the Seagull. It just adds to the quirkiness and I actually find it quite charming. Just be careful who you ask to refill your coffee, but you won’t have that problem here because it’s pay at cashier service.

5. If it’s not a DJ it’s a record player.

There is usually music playing and the tracks are nothing you would hear on the radio… unless you’re listening to AM radio. There may be the occasional Beatles and timeless forgotten classics, but otherwise everything else will be some new “unknown” band, or something off PitchForkMedia. If it’s not vinyl they’re playing then it’s going to be an in house DJ, who plays occasional hip hop, and on special nights they might feature a live independent band that most people (non-hipsters) may not have heard of.

Observation: Well there it is! Check.

The hippie side of things…

1. If it’s not ethnic, it’s Earthy, homey or artsy decor with hints of an indoor garage sale.

If there are no carpets and cushions resembling India, the Middle East or South East Asia, then there may be beaded curtains and hand woven place mats that are made by a local designer using all organic materials. However that may be too trendy or expensive, in which case things from a garage sale will also do. Regardless, it should feel like home. Who’s home? I’m not sure, but as the restaurant may suggest, “let your imagination or inner spirit take you there”.

Observation: Nelson the Seagull wasn’t ethnic, but it was everything else. I mentioned that handcrafted wooden table and retro ambiance in my 10 Characteristics of a Hipster Restaurant post, well this had both. Mismatched furniture (hipster), no distinction between indoors and outdoors (hippie) it was all there. I said hipster hangouts are usually white and minimalistic or dark and gloomy, this was the prior. It was between hipster and hippie.

I actually really love the space here though. The artistic sketches, hanging recycling bag and hand crafted wooden communal table were a neat summary of Vancouver’s current scene, which is also kind of ironic calling a “hipster” place “current”.

2. They grow their own herbs.

No, silly! Not those herbs… well not publicly at least (and the light doesn’t look like that). We live in Vancouver, but we’re not that liberal. Anyways most hippie or even hipster restaurants will grow their own herbs, or at the very least have some real plants in house. If downtown provided enough space for a garden in the back, I’m sure many of these restaurants would grow their own vegetables too. They likely do it at home.

Observation: Nelson the Seagull grows their own herbs, but being that the herb garden was so small, I doubt they use them for the food they make. However the ingredients and herbs used were still very fresh.

3. Environmentally friendly.

Do you see that? Look beside the herbs. Now do you see it? Yes! They ride bikes to work! Not only that, but the packaging and take out containers should be biodegradable. The hardcore hippie places will encourage you to bring your own coffee cups too. And what about the silverware? Well who needs it when food is meant to be enjoyed with the hands. Eating is a sensual experience and connects us closer to each other… so feed the person next to you, but only if they too are a hippie and understand.

Observation: Well there it is! The take out containers were biodegradable too. Next step? Cloth napkins and encouraging customers to bring their own cups.

4. It’s a chalkboard menu with vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free/dairy-free/fair trade/local/organic options.

Forget peanut allergies, those aren’t cool anymore. And Atkins diet? That was so 10 years ago. Okay, those comments are more “hipster” than” “hippie”.

Basically, it has to offer at least 3 of the above or it doesn’t count as “authentic” hippie. The menus are often changing so the chalkboard menu makes it more environmentally friendly. The fancier places might use a mirror.

Observation: Nelson the Seagull doesn’t only cater to 3 of the above diets, but it caters to at least 6. “Earth Balance Vegan Butter”, “Almond Milk”, and “Always Vegan Daily Soup” are things you can expect. I’m not sure if they offer gluten free options, but I’m sure they do if you ask. It’s mostly local and organic and the menu is really limited and more for light lunches and snacks with a focus on coffee and bread.

5. A focus on homemade & baking.

I said this in my 10 Characteristics of a Hipster Restaurant, but there is an emphasis on home made and baking at hippie restaurants too. The baking usually consists of bread, cakes, granola, and especially brownies. Again all of the above are likely offered in gluten free options and made with organic eggs if any.

Carrot cake, apple pie, dairy free cheesecake and the classic flourless chocolate cake should be available. At least one will make reference to being “best on either the planet, earth, world, or simply being Mother Nature’s best”.

The kitchen looks like a home style kitchen and if you see any jars it’s usually because they’re doing their own pickling. If you see any cans it’s likely decoration or being used to cut cookies. All baked goods are meant to be enjoyed as “mindful snacking” or with a “conscious indulgence”.

Observation: This is my favourite part of Nelson the Seagull. I absolutely love their concept of an open kitchen. Since there is almost no hot food and only an oven for some on-site baking, they can easily make it work. The bread is a big deal here and it’s one of their pride and joys. They make their own granola and offer very bake sale looking chocolate cupcakes.

The conclusion…

According to my lists for 10 Characteristics of a Hipster Restaurant and 10 Characteristics of a Hippie Restaurant Nelson the Seagull scores about an 8/10 on the hippie scale and 9/11 on the hipster scale. I would consider it a bit more hipster than hippie, but it’s a well balanced hybrid.

Oh! I see a black and white picture in the background! And a plant on the side! Hipster +1 and Hippie +1!

Since this is “Follow Me Foodie” I should mention more about the food. The food is simple, but fresh and everything is obviously made in house and very homestyle. To be honest, at times, the “I think I could make this at home” (Sh*t Foodies Say) did cross my mind, but the quality of ingredients are up to par and kudos to them for limiting the menu to what they can actually do.

It is a bit pricey and if you’re not into this healthy, organic, and almost meatless style of eating, then you should reconsider your choice although it’s a lovely place for a great cup of specialty coffee (hipster), homemade lemonade (*ahem* hipster again) and light lunch or snack.

On the table:

Herbivore Sandwich3/6 (Good)

  • Cucumber, Tomato, Artichokes, Hummus, Cilantro Pesto $7.50
  • I was looking for the other half of the sandwich and I found it quite pricey, but the ingredients were fresh and homemade so I saw value.
  • This would have been really good if there was just more of each ingredient. The bread is the highlight.
  • It was a very healthy tasting sandwich and the hummus and pesto were very light and I prefer richer, thicker, and saltier.
  • The bread is a home made, baked in house Ciabatta and that was the best part. I wish it was fresh from the oven with crispy edges though.
  • The bread was soft and fluffy rather than chewy and it seemed like a Ciabatta meets a Sourdough bread. It was very moist with a nice sour flavour to it.
  • The crust of the bread was a bit thick, hard and chewy with a slight nutty and burnt flavour, but again the crispy crust was desired.
  • I could barely taste the hummus which was roughly pureed chick peas made from their dry state and then a good amount of lemon juice. It tasted very simple, with little tahini, but at least it was made from scratch.
  • The cilantro pesto was strong with cilantro. It seemed nut free and made with sesame seeds, parsley and lemon, but it was more like pureed herbs than a pesto and it wasn’t nutty in flavour since it had no pine nuts or Parmesan cheese.
  • The artichokes and tomatoes added to the tang, but I just wanted more.
  • Except for the cucumbers, almost all the ingredients including the bread were acidic.
  • Overall the sandwich was good and fresh and very healthy tasting, but not in a bland way with a sprinkle of freshly cracked black pepper and coarse salt.
  • For vegetarian sandwiches I highly recommend trying the Hummus Grilled Sandwich at The Dirty Apron or Avocado Baguette and Smoked Applewood Cheddar Baguette at Finch’s Tea & Coffee too.
  • The spinach salad was supposed to be the side, but it was more like a garnish.
  • I have to say that I was shocked to see a strawberry on the plate since it was February. Normally I would let it go, but it’s only because I didn’t expect it from a place like this.

**Carnivore Sandwich - 4/6 (Very good)

  • Big Lou’s Pastrami, Boerenkas Cheese, Dijon, Cilantro Pesto $9
  • This is the only meat sandwich they have and they don’t have a hot kitchen so all the sandwiches are cold.
  • This was a very good sandwich, but it was pricey for the size especially compared to downtown competition for meat sandwiches.
  • The bread is a home made, baked in house Ciabatta and I wish it was fresh from the oven with crispy edges.
  • The bread was soft and fluffy rather than chewy and it seemed like a Ciabatta meets a Sourdough bread. It was very moist with a nice sour flavour to it.
  • The crust of the bread was a bit thick, hard and chewy with a slight nutty and burnt flavour, but again the crispy crust was desired.
  • The pastrami was very good and enough to make me want to check out Big Lou’s sooner than later.
  • It was a good amount of buttery, melt in your mouth, tender, thin shavings of pastrami that wasn’t too salty, and most of the salt came from the Boerenkas Cheese.
  • The Borenkas cheese is a semi-hard Dutch cheese and it’s comparable to a nutty and salty Parmesan cheese.
  • I loved the combination of ingredients and I could taste each layer which is the important part.
  • The cilantro pesto was bright and lemony again and predominantly cilantro in flavour with no pine nuts or Parmesan cheese.
  • I wouldn’t call it a pesto as much as I would a herb puree with some sesame seeds. Calling it a pesto kind of sets me up for different expectations.
  • The freshly ground black pepper and coarse salt made more of a difference than you might expect.
  • Again the the spinach salad was more like a garnish than a side and the out of season strawberry was unexpected from this restaurant.
  • For my tastes I prefer Meat & Bread, The Dirty Apron or Finch’s Tea & Coffee, but this style is lighter and perhaps healthier in flare and I do appreciate the bread.

Chocolate Chip Cookie2/6 (Okay)

  • $2
  • Since cookie dough can be frozen and freshly baked upon order, it was a bit unfortunate to have this pre-baked and a bit dried out.
  • It tasted like a healthy and light chocolate chip cookie made with minimal butter and less sugar, but there were a good amount of semi-sweet chocolate chips.
  • It looked soft and chewy, but it had crunchy edges, a semi-soft centre, and a drier crumbly crumb.

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