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Originally published November 10, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 15, 2009 at 12:28 PM

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Vancouver, B.C.'s Commercial Drive is a retro, multiethnic kick

There is one big problem with taking a stroll around Vancouver's Commercial Drive district: Wander a few blocks in one direction and you...

Seattle Times theater critic

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VANCOUVER, B.C. — There is one big problem with taking a stroll around Vancouver's Commercial Drive district:

Wander a few blocks in one direction and you have to choose among 200 flavors (some of the more extreme: gorgonzola pear, lavender, chili) when you order up a dish of gelato from the neighborhood's well-stocked shrine to Italian ice cream, La Casa Gelato.

Back along the boulevard, another dilemma: Which of the two dozen or so cafes you'll wander into for a cappuccino to wash down that dish of silky gelato.

Maybe the old-school Italian establishment, the Cafe Abruzzo Cappuccino Bar, where guys hang out all day watching international soccer games on the telly? Or something homier, like the cozy, family-friendly Uprising Breads Bakery? Or the ultra-hip Prado Cafe?

And, uh-oh, here's another option. Skip the espresso and head for a close-by establishment that will brew you up a Cuban coffee. Or a Turkish coffee. Or an Ethiopian coffee. Or an iced Vietnamese coffee.

Whew. As a wise sage might say, these are very nice problems to have.

And the abundance of good choices — culinary and otherwise — is actually one of the main reasons why a visit to this unique Vancouver neighborhood can be so enjoyable.

Strolling and munching

Such an excursion is a marvelous way for a visitor to the city to spend a leisurely afternoon or evening — especially if your idea of nirvana is strolling, munching and shopping your way down a lively 16-block area of Commercial Drive (between Broadway and Venables) that's as culturally diverse as it is free of chain stores and franchised fast-food joints.

I'll admit it: It took 10 years of frequent visits to Vancouver for me to finally get to Commercial Drive. Among locals, it's an enormously popular district of restaurants, shopping and nightlife, but it's often overlooked by tourists.

And what a shame, for a vibrant district easily reachable from downtown via a short ride on Vancouver's enviable SkyTrain.

Once off the train, you may at first wonder if this rundown-looking area is the right place. But just head a block or two toward the water and you'll see why inhabitants of the area, which for decades served as Vancouver's Little Italy, fought so hard to prevent a massive urban makeover of the place 25 years ago.

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That kind of development project would surely have destroyed some of the freewheeling, artsy-folksy-funky character of "The Drive," as Vancouverites call it.

Eclectic and whimsical

Urban renewal or not, the neighborhood today is feeling the early effects of creeping gentrification. But it still boasts an amazing confluence of eclectic, modestly priced and whimsically designed eateries, offbeat boutiques, welcoming music venues, as well as a radical bookshop, cool CD and furniture stores, and ethnic produce stands and delis to die for.

You can easily nosh yourself silly here — with sumptuous pastries, fresh sushi, Belgian pommes frites and real-deal Italian pizza slices among the many enticements.

Based on my first of what I hope will be many visits to "The Drive," here are a few finds like-minded ramblers may want to check out:

Havana . This snazzy restaurant and bar offers a mixed continental menu, highlighting traditional Cuban favorites (mojito cocktails, savory black-bean soup).

But it's the vibrant look and salsa-fueled hum of the place that give it that Old Havana ambience. An indoor dining room is adorned with antique photos of Cuba. There's an outdoor "all-weather" patio, where cigar-lovers can puff on the genuine Cuban smokes for sale. And the back room holds a tiny but interesting art gallery, with rotating exhibits.

Did I mention the place's 60-seat theater? It regularly hosts jazz, poetry readings and plays.

Federico's Supper Club. A throwback to the decades when Commercial Drive was mainly a neighborhood of Italian immigrants and their progeny, this nightclub and restaurant is so proudly, sincerely retro it's trippy.

The place offers traditional Italian-American restaurant fare (from antipasto to tiramisu), along with a live band, a dance floor for cheek-to-cheek sashaying, and the molto sincere balladeering of the smoothie owner and Sinatra-style crooner, Federico Fuoco.

They just don't make joints like this anymore. So if you ever wanted to beam yourself back to what nightclubbers considered the peak of classy back in the 1950s, here you go.

Farfalla. This fairly new boutique is a bit upscale for Commercial Drive, but what a charmer.

The name is Italian for "butterfly." Run by a mother-daughter duo, it is labeled as a traditional, European-style "monogram shop," which sells quality linens as well as fine Italian paper products, lovely embroidered stoles from Nepal and other special goods.

If the pricier luxuries aren't what you're in the market for, the store has smaller, more affordable treasures. My favorites: the scented imported lotions, shaving brushes and other toiletries, many of them beautifully packaged and flown in from Florence, Italy.

Dutch Girl Chocolates . Sure, this tiny shops sells delectable handmade chocolates. But more unusual here is the vast collection of Dutch licorice, which one can purchase by the piece.

Not that sugary-sweet, rubbery, ropey licorice most Americans favor, mind you. We're talking salty, tangy black discs and many other varieties for a true (or wannabe) connoisseur of the stuff.

The First Ravioli Store. An old-timer (there's been an Italian food store on this site since 1900), this is the kind of endangered homemade pasta emporium that makes you feel nostalgic even if you're not Italian.

In addition to numerous varieties of lovingly handmade ravioli, the place sells all the usual delicious suspects: Italian cheeses, olives, olive oils, prosciutto, marinated veggies, etc.

Wonderbucks Trading Co . Calling itself "a funked-up version of the five-and-dime of yesteryear," this is the kind of place you go into looking for a can opener and walk out of with a bag full of aromatherapy candles, faux Depression Ware dishes and a cool wire birdcage.

It's a big favorite with Vancouver shoppers, but also a place that visiting bargain hunters will find hard to resist.

Rime. Hungry for some tavuk izgara? Or are you just curious to try this spicy grilled chicken dish?

You can get it here, along with other Turkish specialties and some live jazz for dessert. Or you can just linger in this unpretentious, welcoming night spot for a drink and conversation.

La Tierra del Sol . This small shop, crammed with art, artifacts and wearables, is a treasure trove for those who love Latin American crafts. The Ecuadorian proprietor gets many of her goods (hand-loomed weavings from South America, pottery and jewelry from Mexico, etc.) directly from the indigenous artists who created them.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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