1980s’ Milan Comes To Vancouver, In The Form Of A Burger Utopia

Called Monzo, this upscale burger joint combines British Columbia’s best ingredients with Italian products, all with a salute to the fashion, food and car cultures of Italy in the 1980s.

“The concept for Monzo was inspired by the carefree attitude and inimitable style of the Italian paninari, who haunted the streets, piazzas and ‘panino bars’ of 1980s Milan,” says Drew Dunford, one of the partners in the restaurant. “Known for their borderline obsession with designer sportswear and American-style fast food, we’ve created our own modernized interpretation of this culture in the form of a restaurant that celebrates great food, personal expression and fun for all ages.”

Monzo’s menu

The 88-seat restaurant and bar is in the neo-futurist skyscraper Vancouver House, in the spot that was once rumored would be a Momofuku. That’s the 52-story building designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group in the newly dubbed Beach District, the one that looks like it twists up from an impossibly tiny footprint. Wooden benches line the building—it’s right next to the pillars of the downtown side of the Granville Bridge—so grabbing take-out for an al fresco picnic is easy. Plus, Monzo is open until midnight daily: perfect for hungry passengers arriving in Vancouver after a late flight.

Monzo is part of Vancouver’s Kitchen Table Restaurants, which includes three restaurants recommended in the inaugural issue of Vancouver’s Michelin Guide: Ask for Luigi in Gastown, Venetian-style Bacaro at the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel, plus Carlino in the Shangri-La Hotel with its northern-Italian menu.

“Monzo” is a play on the Italian word for beef—“manzo”—and this burger joint knows its beef. Monzo’s four beef burgers have a custom blend of seven whole muscle cuts sourced from Legends Haul, the Vancouver distributor of high-quality, consciously-sourced meats and seafoods. Monzo chefs then grind it in-house and cook it to order.

Beef isn’t only for Monzo’s burgers, either. The retro restaurant also calls back to the good old days with French fries (and onion rings) that are cooked in rendered beef tallow, just like McDonald’s used to do up until the 1990s. Monzo also cooks their handheld apple pie in the beef fat, though, if you prefer, they’ll use their vegetable oil fryer for menu items too. For non-beef eaters, Monzo also has the Big Legume burger with a house-made vegetable patty, a chicken handheld dubbed the Milano plus classic chicken strips.

For desserts beyond that apple hand pie, Monzo offers soft serve gelato three ways: in a cup, as a sundae with toppings of salted caramel or chocolate, and as a milkshake (boozy mixers optional). The ice cream is from Motoretta Gelato—in the same Kitchen Table Restaurants family as Monzo—which has classic and inventive flavors in its downtown gelateria (find it in the same building as the Fairmont Pacific Rim).

With more nods to Italy, Monzo also serves espresso-based coffees, prosecco, wines from Piedmont, Aperol spritz, negroni, granita and even Bibi rosso-amaro soda (though Coke products are available too).

While that white Lamborghini doesn’t gleam outside Monzo every day, there are little Lamborghinis inside: Monzo’s kids’ meals come in boxes depicting the iconic Lamborghini from 1985, inspired by the posters celebrating Italian automotive culture that papered the childhood bedroom walls of some of the restaurant’s partners.

The paninari trend

And what about this paninari thing? In the early 1980s, hip Milanese students hung out at a sandwich shop called Al Panino near the Piazza San Babila. They started a trend that spread all over Italy and beyond, and the style was dubbed paninari. As the trend grew, the Italian fast food chain, Burghy, became the popular place to hang out and get a taste of the United States with burgers, fries and shakes (at least until Burghy was bought out by McDonald’s).

The paninari movement was characterized by fashion, food and enjoying life. The paninari listened to Duran Duran and Wham! and the Pet Shop Boys recorded a song—“Paninaro”—about them. Paninari fashion featured rolled-up Armani jeans, brightly-colored shirts from Italy’s Best Company and sheepskin leather jackets. Monzo’s mascots also wear the jackets with their 1980s’ rolled-up jeans.

“Just like these burger-obsessed stylish young Italians,” says Monzo’s website, the new restaurant “is about building community by sharing food, friendship and hospitality.”

The paninari style is within Monzo too, with club music, ever-changing vintage pieces decorating its walls plus paninari-style items for sale, both within the restaurant and in an online store launching fall 2023. On offer are items like Monzo-branded socks plus vintage pieces from luxury brands like Milan-headquartered Moncler.

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