Emily Jane Stuart bustles around Jethro’s Fine Grub pouring coffee, delivering heaping plates of pancakes, and seating those waiting at the door. She’s wearing a no-nonsense apron and when she takes orders, she pulls a pen from her hair, piled high atop her head. Her friendly yet efficient manner is reminiscent of a waitress in a 1950s diner. But you’d have been hard-pressed to find a server back then with nose piercings, black leggings, and a shredded white T-shirt that revealed tattoos down her back and arms.
Stuart would look perfectly at home in East Van. She also looks perfectly at home in this West Side restaurant, where a framed photo of the East Van cross graces one wall.
“We thought Dunbar Street could use a little East Van,” she tells the Straight in a phone interview later. Apparently, it could. She says that since she and her partner, D’Arcy Allen, opened the place just before the Olympics, it’s been packed on weekends and steady on weekdays. The 24-seat jewel-box eatery has a huge picture window, dove-grey wainscoting, and pretty wall sconces. Both times I visited, there were at least half as many people waiting outside as there were sipping coffee inside. The din of voices over top of “Mustang Sally” playing on the sound system provided some conversational privacy in a very small space.
The menu at Jethro’s lured me on-line because it goes beyond the standard eggs Bennies. A southern influence can be seen in dishes like the South of Denver omelette, stuffed with pulled pork, smoked Gouda, and jalapeños. You can get chicken fried steak, as well as biscuits with country gravy, a relative rarity in Vancouver.
The sweet offerings are equally intriguing. Gold Rush banana pancakes are filled with caramel, pecans, and streusel, and topped with more of the same. Challah French toast is slathered with Nutella. Then there’s the French toast made with banana bread and topped with caramelized bananas. Nothing for breakfast or lunch (served all day) is over $12, and many meals ring in as low as $9.
Although Stuart is a Red Seal–certified chef, Allen designed the menu and does the cooking. In a separate phone interview, he explains that like Stuart, he was born and raised in Vancouver. He learned to cook in L.A. and worked in restaurants there including a diner and Caioti Pizza Café, under famed chef Ed LaDou. He’s crisscrossed America doing catering for touring rock bands including Fleetwood Mac, Rob Zombie, and Linkin Park. “You snag recipes along the way,” he says, explaining the restaurant’s southern flavour.
The lunch menu includes items like a Cobb salad, burgers, and a Thai curry bowl. Nods to the South include gumbo, pulled pork sandwiches, and a catfish po’ boy. There are even Alligator Nuggets: Allen tenderizes Louisiana-farmed alligator, batters and fries it, and serves it with rice and salad. “It’s like chicken,” he says predictably, “but it’s got a little maltiness to it.” He makes almost everything served at the restaurant from scratch, including the hollandaise sauce and the gravy.
The cooking’s from scratch, yes, but it’s refreshingly free of organic, local, free-range snobbery. In Stuart’s opinion, there are already enough eateries that cater to that market. “The love is organic,” she says sweetly of Jethro’s. “Grub is what you get.”
This no-apologies, down-to-earth vibe was shared by the other server working with Stuart. When I asked her if the orange juice was fresh-squeezed, she smiled and quipped, “Tropicana squeezes it.”
Along with the warm atmosphere, the food certainly contributes to the restaurant’s success. The pancakes are moist and taste homemade, rather than dry and soulless like at some chain restaurants. Plus, they’re the size of hubcaps. Or, as I overheard one large male customer say, “They’re bigger than my stomach!” A $5 buttermilk “short stack” would easily satisfy a moderate eater. The Rooster pancakes, studded with chocolate chips and rippled with a shot of espresso, are delicious; however, I didn’t taste a hint of espresso.
On my visits, there were some misses. The crab cake in the crab cake Benedict was gummy and tasted of filler more than seafood. The corn cakes that accompanied the Cowboys Breakfast (really one corn pancake cut in half) were dry. And while I don’t have anything bad to say about the Denver sandwich, there was nothing wow about it, either.
I really, really wanted to try the alligator, and wrestled with the choice, but in the end it was too early in the day to take on that challenge—I needed a few more cups of coffee first. The coffee, importantly, is fantastic: a dark, rich French roast that impressed even my connoisseur husband. It’s generously priced at $2, including refills.
For the Cowboys Breakfast, the bacon arrived in perfect, meaty slabs with high-quality sausage and chorizo. The poached eggs were expertly cooked. The chili that topped the hash browns was fresh and light. Nothing tasted greasy.
Portions were reasonably large, with the exception of the pancakes, which were unreasonably large—to the utter delight of many diners.
And the inevitable weekend lineups? It’s easy to see why people come: the coffee’s great, the food is comforting and good value, and the service has quirky personality. It all makes for a very good start to the day.