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Video: Fuelled by nostalgia, Riley's Fish & Steak is the restaurant Vancouver needs right now

Glowbal Group's splashy new concept is a clever throwback with a modern filter. And it really works.

Let me set the scene: I fell in love with restaurants as a kid in the mid-80s. I was equally as excited for the 30-shrimp platter at Red Lobster as I was for a dress-up dinner at The Prow (in simple terms, it was the predecessor to Five Sails). In that era of indulgence - when goat cheese started showing up on pizzas and brass-and-glass was everywhere - restaurants were, as they are now, a reflection of cultural values and trends. 

I say this because from the moment I stepped inside the new Riley's Fish & Steak in Coal Harbour it was instantly apparent this venture was clearly fuelled by nostalgia. I'd even go so far as to say it's a nostalgia rooted in the 80s, albeit through a considered and edited contemporary lens. It's a lot like how Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" is charting again thanks to TikTok and Stranger Things; it's a throwback but with a 2022 filter, so we can all relate. That's Riley's. 

The thing is, I'm as shocked as you might be that I fell so hard for Riley's. Why? Well, it's from Vancouver's Glowbal Group, which has earned a bit of its reputation for creating restaurants where it is more about the scene than the food. When the flagship Glowbal restaurant opened in the Telus Garden building downtown several years ago, I was a little unkind about its Vegas-like vibes and tributes to excess (see: steaks in glass display cases at the front entrance). 

But this isn't just about me and my feelings about restaurants, the Glowbal Group, or what life was like in the 80s.

What makes Riley's so delightful is that it makes sense to someone like me as much as it has all the bells and whistles a Gen Z TikTok influencer wants. It's buzzy. It's got some over-the-top dishes on the menu you'll want to pull your camera out for. It's pretty, with heaps of greenery draped everywhere. Millennials are buying "vintage" brass-and-glass shelves off downsizing Boomers on Facebook Marketplace and filling them with their plant babies: Riley's looks like their Instagram feed. 

Aesthetics, vibe, and menu: What makes Riley's work

Riley's, which is by its own definition a "chop house," and, also by its own definition, the first of its ilk to open in Vancouver since Joe Fortes set up shop in (you guessed it) the mid-80s, is still about excess, but given its location, it makes the excess very pretty and more attainable. Steps from the cruise ship terminal, Convention Centre, and many office buildings, Riley's bright, high-ceilinged, packed-close room beckons equally to well-heeled folks on a date, those putting the meal on their corporate expense account, or people in shorts and flip flops who may have just pulled into town. 

At a time when diners are at varying stages of re-acquaintance with restaurants following the pandemic restriction era, and when the economy has us at varying relationships with our personal budgets, if we are going to sit inches from strangers and part with our money, we might be less inclined to take a gamble on a bad experience with food or service.

Riley's delivers on both fronts and gives you all sorts of opportunities to part with your money in exchange for your good time. And they will take your money; you can mind your bottom line and spend carefully (try Happy Hour) or you can blow your wad. Choose your own adventure.

What's on the menu at Riley's?

The menu is indeed based on the chop house format (you choose what kind of "chop" of meat you want and build your meal around it) except Riley's leans in hard to the fact that we're a seafood city and puts fish "chops" on the menu. To that end, you can order up a steak of beef (tenderloin to tomahawk) or halibut or salmon as your main. 

They've put "fish" in the moniker first because seafood does take front and centre at Riley's, with the raw bar literally at the front of the restaurant and the menu loaded with ocean-sourced options. Those include the raw bar selections, like a series of show-stopping seafood towers, an entire section of "steamers" for bowls of clams or mussels (or both), and old-school dishes like jumbo prawn cocktail and seafood linguine. 

There's a welcome approachability to the menu; straightforward comfort items like Steak Frites or seafood chowder have an easy, breezy appeal. Cleverly, the restaurant's chefs (in-house and the group's overseeing chef) have also found a way to work in dishes you just don't see all that often, like Coq au Vin (who else binged HBO's Julia earlier this year?) and Beef Stroganoff. Then you see a Waldorf salad and think "My goodness, who makes those anymore?" and Riley's gets to show off the fact that they might be serving up the nostalgia but they aren't going in with blind devotion to the lumpy, cream-coated staple of yesteryear; this refreshing salad is made with thin shreds of tangy apple, shaved fennel, bits of creamy goat cheese, and crunchy walnuts. A throwback with a filter. 

The food here is really, really good. That Coq au Vin is fall-off-the bone tender and the rich red wine sauce is cut with the bitter bite of broccolini and tang of the tiny onions. You'll get your hands happily dirty tearing apart the cheesy brioche bread that's served with butter and lobster oil. Seriously, lobster oil? That's a classic chop house - cough Joe Fortes  - move. (To be fair, Joe Fortes is what brought Glowbal Group founder Emad Yacoub to Vancouver from Toronto in the late 1990s.) The fries are perfectly golden and crispy and there's one of those teeny tiny bottles of Tabasco next to the freshly-shucked oysters. No really, come on, that's fun

It's Glowbal, so there has to be a little drama

After nearly two years of dining out and being separated from bodies and faces with mandated Plexiglass dividers and masks (still welcome and acceptable when either are deployed) Riley's is making the most of operating at capacity. Glowbal is, after all, a bit of a "good time" brand, so it makes sense that they would want to put tables close to each other.

It also makes sense, and is arguably even more enjoyable at this point in history, to have a little tableside theatrics. Ordering a two-tiered seafood tower piled high with crab legs, oysters, massive prawns and more will suffice, but they also have a S'mores-inspired dessert that comes to the table in a smoke-filled glass cloche; absolutely your neighbouring diners will look your way in awe and ask their server what that campfire smell is. Fact: The dessert, created by Glowbal Menu Development Chef Dennis Peckham, is one hundred per cent rooted in 80s nostalgia - his own memories of childhood camp-outs on the beach with his dad. 

You might also see Glowbal Group's Chef Sean Riley (yes, that's where Riley's got its name; he has long ties to Yacoub), walking around the dining room carrying a large fish to show to a table of guests. In fact, you will see lots of Riley's staff on the floor, from managers to food runners, interacting with every single table. You might even see Yacoub himself as he visits tables and supports his team. The old-school hospitality is worthy of a white tablecloth realm, which Riley's - bucking laid-back Vancouver vibes - happens to be. 

Drawing from the best of the Glowbal concepts - namely the steak and seafood, where Riley's Executive Chef Jérôme Soubeyrand was before - Riley's represents a new branch in its family tree. It's splashy without being gaudy, it's decadent without being ridiculous, and it's really fun to be there. And don't we deserve to be having fun when we're out and spending money? I think so. Riley's is exactly the restaurant we need right now.

@vancouverisawesome I wasnt expecting to feel this way, but… #forkingawesome #vancouverbc #80skid #vancouverfoodie 👄: @LindsayWR ♬ Running up That Hill (Remix) - ONY9RMX

Riley's is located at 200 Burrard St in Vancouver. They're open for lunch Monday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Happy Hour daily from 2:30 to 5 p.m.; dinner Monday to Friday from 3 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 3:30 p.m.; and for weekend brunch Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

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