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