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Introducing: Hapa Izakaya, the Little Italy outpost of Vancouver’s popular Japanese pub

Introducing: Hapa Izakaya

(Image: Renée Suen)

Toronto’s gone gaga over all things boisterous and Japanese of late, so it’s no surprise that news of the impending arrival of Vancouver’s Hapa, one of North America’s best izakayas, had the city’s Japanese food lovers buzzing. Justin Ault founded the chain with his wife Lea nearly a decade ago, hoping to recreate the Tokyo-style izakayas they’d frequented while living abroad in a way that was polished, friendly and accessible to patrons not fluent in Japanese. “We wanted a place where our friends would feel comfortable to visit and eat at,” Ault tells us. Although many backers had tried to entice the popular mom-and-pop operation to open in Toronto, it only became reality when siblings Maaji (general manager), Jiena (assistant manager) and Mackenzie (bar manager) Isobe—who share 20 years of experience working at the original Robson Street location—expressed their interest in starting a Hogtown branch earlier this year.

The 3,100-square-foot space, formerly home to Coco Lezzone, has been transformed by Mackay Wong Strategic Design with black walls and shale-lined bars. The room’s 120 seats are divided between patio benches on College Street, bar stools at the genkan (entranceway) bar, a large communal table in the central sake-tini bar and banquettes in the rear dining room. A quartz-tiled wall and LED under-bar lighting brighten up the central space, while a skylight in the restaurant’s rear allows for some natural light to spill into the otherwise dark room.

In the kitchen are ex-Vancouver hands Koichi Fujioka (Hapa Robson) and Takayuki Sato (Hapa Kitsilano). Their sharing-friendly menu includes crowd favourites like Ebi Mayo ($9.49), sweet, meaty tempura prawns dressed in a spicy mayonnaise-based sauce, Ishi-Yaki ($10.99), a sort of bi bim bap in which rice, minced pork, spicy red miso and egg are mixed tableside in a hot stone pot, and a newly minted crispy pork belly lettuce wrap ($8.99) that’s served with apple-yuzu jam and pickled red onions. Hapa prides itself on using local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients—indeed, we’re told it was the first Japanese restaurant in Vancouver to become part of Ocean Wise. “You won’t find bluefin tuna on our menus,” Ault says. “We look at it as being good community citizens.” Instead, expect West Coast treasures such as sockeye salmon, Haida Gwaii halibut and spot prawns.

Of course, like every izakaya, Hapa has a long drink list filled with beers, wines, shochu and hot or frozen premium sake. The cocktail list includes plenty of original creations like the Hello Kitty ($7.50), a mix of strawberry purée, Calpico, vodka and soda, and martinis like the pomegranate-based Pom Sake ($10) and the Umeshu ($9.50), a mix of plum wine, vodka and fresh lemon juice. Oh, and izakaya watchers take note: The next Vancouver spot to make the trip east will be Kingyo, which should open by December in Cabbagetown.

Hapa Izakaya, 602 College St., 647-748-4272, hapaizakaya.com, @HapaIzakayaTO

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  • yowsers

    I find it really funny that this article says it’s a mom and pop joint – considering the Robson location was really a hip swanky bar. I guess my mom and pop were really uncool.

  • kingyo yummy

    I LOVE Kingyo! So good! We always make a trip when in Vancouver…

  • Real reason

    Article doesnt mention the main reason guys go to Hapa. All you former Vancouverites know what I’m talking about:)

  • missymiss

    Real reason – late night “tea” service? Spill the beans!

  • Real reason answered

    Answer: The waitresses are rather attractive looking.

    I personally preferred Guu over Hapa while I was in Vancouver; food at Guu tasted and was priced better. Hapa’s atmosphere wasn’t as approachable as Guu’s. Granted I haven’t tried Hapa Toronto yet, but it’d probably turn out the same.

  • mmm

    Hapa’s not bad. I agree that the food at Guu is priced better and the range and variety of menu items is also much better. Re: pricing, I have never been to the VAN locations of Hapa but rent on College Street is much higher than at Church and whatever that cross street is where Guu is located, but it’s also a different atmosphere so that could have something to do with it. The waitress serving us the night we went was pretty inexperienced but I’m sure the effort is there.

  • RA

    Hapa was pretty good when I went last Friday, but I wouldn’t call it a Tokyo-style Izakaya. This place has a very North American, not Japanese, vibe.

  • Tom Ford

    Izakayas are a place to get sloshed first and eat second. Perfect fit for Toronto!

  • Justin

    Hey Yowsers – glad you like our “swanky bar” at Hapa Robson! I’m the “pop” in “mom and pop” and I can assure you that we are indeed a “mom and pop” operation. We’re not a huge, faceless corporation by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, as the article mentions, my partners in Toronto include three siblings who’ve worked with me more over twenty years combined. They’re like family to my wife and I. As for the coolness factor, I may have another couple of years before my kids write me off…

    As for the references to our friends at Guu (which were totally unexpected…); while we are both izakaya, we’re obviously unique in our own ways. Guu is an offshoot of a Tokyo restaurant chain (Raku/Shiru-bei) that Lea (the “mom”) and I staged (apprenticed) at. It reflects the experiences and personality of it’s owner – as does Hapa. As a Japanese-Canadian who lived in Japan for ten years, it’s only reasonable that I have a different viewpoint and experiences than the owner of Guu (ask Kitahara-san how Leafs legend Carl Brewer influenced the Finnish style of hockey). Izakaya come in all shapes and flavours in Japan. One style isn’t superior to another nor is a philosophy. Guu does a great job for what it does, as does Hapa (ask the chefs – you’ll see the Guu guys at our places and visa versa).

    The bottom line is what our guests think. In Vancouver, I estimate that two-thirds of our guests never set foot in Guu (as is the opposite) and a third split their dining experiences between us. My understanding is that the Guu locations in Toronto are franchises while we opted to wait until we had the right people in-house before taking on Toronto. Is one method going to be superior? As far as I can tell, Guu seems to be doing fine…

    As for staffing, both our kitchen staffs are predominantly Japanese but we (Hapa) do make an effort to give opportunities to passionate/motivated Canadians. Our front of house staffing definitely has a different philosophy from that of Guu. They prefer to hire Japanese on working-holiday visas while we’ve found employing Canadians works best for us. Our thinking is that we’d prefer to have a Canadian server who’s going to be with us for three or four years as opposed to a working-holiday visa holder who has no choice but to return to Japan when their visa expires. It takes months for a new server to reach the standards of service that we endeavour to achieve and to lose that individual because their “time’s up” seems like a tragic waste for us and our guests. In Vancouver, our longtime regulars appreciate the fact that they’re recognized not only by face, but quite often by name and the knowledge that they’re going to see familiar faces year after year. Communication is another issue. Serving is a tough job. Performing that job in your non-native tongue is even tougher. Back in 2003 when we first opened, I witnessed enough beer being brought to guests instead of the requested bill (and in reverse) to last me a lifetime. For those not familiar with Japanese, both sound like “bi-ru” to a Japanese person…

    I sincerely hope you all give us a shot in the near future and then make your judgements. Whether you love your experience or not, please take a moment to let us know (ideally in person – especially if it’s constructive criticism, as it’s much easier to correct an issue on the spot rather than a few days after the fact).

    We couldn’t be more excited to be in Toronto and look forward to earning your trust and patronage.

    Kampai!,
    Justin

  • danielle

    Justin: Based solely on the thoughtful and thorough comment you left here, I can’t wait to check out Hapa. Welcome to Toronto!

 

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