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Monday, May 30, 2005

Food 

First off, don't forget: Fatburger, 1101 Denman, 1830h on Wednesday, June 1.

Second, I got into a rant that started after some foodie got annoyed that Rob Feenie appeared in an ad for White Spot. The rant was not that interesting (to wit: White Spot is old school), but I started thinking about the ephemeral nature of Vancouver's restaurants.

I must preface this by saying that Vancouver restaurants aren't that ephemeral. If you look at restaurants from a decade ago, there hasn't been that much change. The Naam is still the best all-night vegetarian joint, the top ten restaurants in town have seen a few new names, but the classics like Tojo's and Bishop's persist and thrive, and Nat's still cooks a fine slice of pizza.

But look at what has disappeared: the On-On Tea Garden, perhaps the most famous Chinese restaurant in the country (because Trudeau Ate There), is long gone. There are many Chinese restaurants that are better, and even in its day (or at least, at the end of its days) the On-On wasn't anywhere close to the best Chinese food in town, but it was good, and it was very old. It was also probably the first restaurant in town that got white folk out of the sweet-and-sour pork/smorgasbord rut (I'm looking at you, Dragon Inn, neon signs and all!)

In hamburgers, the very finest burgers (barring some insane $25 Rob Feenie experience) in town come from places in that mid-heritage range again, places like Vera's (since 1977) or The Red Onion, that have been around for a while, but not since my parents were young. But there are two holdouts from the earlier era. One is Wally's Burgers, a place my father and his friends ate at as teenagers. It's pretty tired-looking today, but the food remains the same.

The other, of course, is White Spot, and its history is very nearly Vancouver's history, at least from 1930 on. There's the usual storied legends: founded by Nat Bailey in 1928, The Day the First Restaurant Burned Down, How Carhop Service Came to Be, etc. It's all the stuff of a lively history and some good marketing.

But it's almost all that's left. I can't think of a single other pre-WWII food establishment in town, though there must be a few. Even among places founded earlier than 1970, there can't be that many: Astorino's banquet on Commercial Drive, surely a few others, but not much. That's what you get for having a fast-growing city with a fickle and food-obsessed population. It's great, because the new and eager restaurants displace the old ones by being better. But on the downside, The Lovely One and I have looked, and there isn't a single Polynesian-themed restaurant to be found in town. This, recall, is a genre that would have dominated the fine dining experience in this city 30, 35 years ago. The last restaurant I knew of like that was a Hawaiian place in Downtown New Westminster, just across from the New Westminster Skytrain station, which closed about 5 years ago and reopened as just another mediocre sushi joint.

As a child, the places I remember are White Spot, Red Robin, and one or two forays to The Dragon Inn before we settled on Mr. Ho's Wonton House as our restaurant of record. I have known and loved many other restaurants since then (and I even tend to think that Hon's Wonton House is a match for Mr. Ho's in the cheerful-Chinese food niche), but Mr. Ho's and the other two are old friends.

So, any ideas? What are the real old-school locations in Vancouver? Or at least, where did your parents take you for dinner? Where do you like to eat, despite the food, because of some other tie?

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