Why a working holiday in Canada inspired these Brits to open a West Coast-themed restaurant in London
Londoners Livia Boumeester and Louisa Stevenson-Hamilton were so taken with Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood during a visit two years ago, they decided to stay for a while and leave their corporate jobs behind them.
“It was super relaxed, really young. Everyone was just kind of hanging out,” said Boumeester of the beachside residential neighbourhood West of the city’s downtown.
The best friends, both 27, worked for a year in hospitality at Vancouver Lawn Tennis and Badminton Club and used their free time to explore British Columbia and Canada.
“The idea of being able to ski and go to the beach and to have all of that whilst living in a city was just such a novel idea coming from London,” said Stevenson-Hamilton.
They liked it so much that when the pair returned to London in the late summer of 2020, they made a life-changing decision to quit their finance careers and invest all of their savings into building their own piece of Kitsilano in a corner of southwest London. In early October, they opened a restaurant named after one of Vancouver’s trendiest streets: West 4th.
“Every single person said, ‘Don’t do it,'” said Boumeester. “But it felt right.”
A taste of home
West 4th’s menu is inspired by Canadian ingredients and the food Boumeester and Stevenson-Hamilton got to love while travelling on the West Coast and in other parts of Canada.
For brunch, there’s the Granville Market wrap with tofu and vegan sausage, named after a popular market in Vancouver, or the Maple Ridge, eggs benedict with Canadian bacon named for a Vancouver suburb.
Dinner options include venison and cranberry tartare and cured salmon.
A Canadian Caesar, made with Clamato juice, is a feature of the drinks menu. The vodka-based cocktail may be a staple at restaurants across Canada but it is a rarity just about everywhere else.
And no Canadian-themed menu would be complete without poutine, said Boumeester. Predictably, the Quebec favourite has been a top seller.
While the beach may be missing from the London version of West 4th, a clock on the wall set to Vancouver time and bottles of Burrowing Owl wine from B.C. help set the mood. They even held an Okanagan region wine tasting recently.
Boumeester and Stevenson-Hamilton figured all of that would be enough to draw their target market: the young brunch crowd from nearby upmarket London neighbourhoods such as Chelsea, Fulham and Parsons Green.
But to their surprise, some of their most-dedicated customers so far have turned out to be expat Canadians. Stevenson-Hamilton said they get one or two tables a day of Canadians, including some from outside London.
“We did it as a local Fulham restaurant with inspiration from something we’d enjoyed, but we didn’t anticipate this huge Canadian following, which is a lovely thing to have,” she said.
Architect Tanis Paul, 47, a Winnipeger who’s lived in the British capital for six years, is one of those repeat customers. She said that a piece of Canada in the city is exactly what London has been missing.
“There’s just something about it that makes me feel at home,” said Paul.
West 4th has managed to capture some of the essence of Vancouver’s outdoor lifestyle, Paul said.
The front of the restaurant features a big solarium. Not quite the outdoors, but perhaps more appropriate, given London’s infamously damp climate.
An airy blue, green and white colour scheme, books about the Rocky Mountains and some Canadian music in the background contribute to a West Coast vibe.
“It’s cozy, the people are friendly, and it just adds to the ambience,” Paul said. “It’s an overall feeling. It’s just fresh and nice.”
Melissa Turner, 42, who is originally from Orangeville, Ont., and owns a London-based online education company, said after 15 years away from home, it’s nice to find a place that feels and sounds familiar.
“It’s funny, you can hear the Canadian accents,” she said of the customers who could be heard in the background during an interview with CBC.
Boumeester said that for some Canadian tourists who stop in, it’s the curiosity that attracts them.
“It’s that fascination of, ‘Who liked my country so much that they wanted to bring it back with them?'”
Canadian cuisine a rarity in London
Competition in the Canadian-themed restaurant category in London is pretty thin.
You can find pubs, cafés and eateries from every corner of the world in the British capital, but Canadian cuisine is a rarity.
Toronto-headquartered Tim Horton’s says it has 40 locations in the U.K. and counting, but no stores close to central London. The Maple Leaf pub in Covent Garden has been around for decades, catering specifically to a sports bar crowd.
The fact that West 4th offers a different kind of Canadian experience is what appealed to Tiffany Rokosz-Wong, 36, a chef from Vancouver who lives in London, on her first visit.
“It’s not a sports bar with Canadian flags everywhere,” Rokosz-Wong said. “It’s not gimmicky.”
She said she’s proud to see this more elegant version of Canada being put forward, complete with some of her favourite Canadian wines.
“It’s emotional for me.”
Roughly 90,000 Canadians live in the U.K., according to data company Statista.
With all of those Canadian expats, the owners of West 4th might have found an untapped market, said Ben Floyd, director of restaurant consulting company Lumiere.
Floyd has helped set up successful restaurants all over London and said that while the West 4th concept seems like a good one, the owners should expect some challenges.
Half of London restaurants fail in the first year, he said, and the pandemic has made it even more challenging to stay open. Nearly 10 per cent of restaurants across the country closed their doors between spring 2020 and spring 2021, according to data from the Market Recovery Monitor.
The owners of West 4th are guarded with their sales figures to date, but they said the restaurant is generally booked Friday to Sunday.
That Canadian charm
Floyd said a London restaurant of West 4th’s size in a similar neighbourhood would likely need to generate at least 18,000 GBP (about $31,000 Cdn) a week in sales just to break even.
West 4th has about 15 tables plus seating at a large bar in the middle of the room, which is what initially caught Floyd’s eye.
He said the bar definitely contributes to a spacious feel but may be a bit of a risk.
“In central London, you pack in as many tables in as you can,” he said.
As for the menu, Floyd finds the Canadian theme “interesting” and the selection familiar enough to Brits that it’s not “polarizing.”
But it’s the story of the owners and their travels and their presence at the restaurant that is the real draw, Floyd said.
“I don’t necessarily know what Canadian food is, but I do know that Canadians are warm and friendly and inviting people, and they can play off that.”