Big Night stories from Vancouver restaurants
Restaurateur Emad Yacoub will never forget one particular night last October at Coast Restaurant. The place was packed, and a young woman was celebrating her 19th birthday with a small group of friends. Most were seated with their backs to a wine cellar that divided their table from the next one.
While they were eating, members of the band U2—in town for a concert—slipped in through the back and were seated at the neighbouring table. Although the band’s presence created a low buzz, nobody in the young woman’s party noticed. When the waiter brought out dessert, the party began to sing “Happy Birthday”.
“Bono stood up, walked over to the table, and started singing ”˜Happy Birthday’ to the girl,” Yacoub says. The group was utterly shocked and onlookers were thrilled. “It was craziness,” he recalls. “There were people screaming. She was almost in tears.” When Bono finished, he gave the whole table concert tickets and backstage passes.
That’s just one of the stories Georgia Straight staffers collected when we interviewed more than 100 restaurateurs, chefs, and restaurant managers. We asked them to tell us about a memorable evening at their restaurant—good or bad, heartwarming or hellish. From celebrity shockers to Bacardi break-ins to sweet romantic dinners, here are some nights to remember.
VIP At Table 8
As head of the Glowbal Restaurant Group, Yacoub can rattle off a list of famous people who have graced his properties, which include Glowbal Grill, Italian Kitchen, and Society. The names include Gene Hackman, Matt Damon, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Shakira, Christina Aguilera, and Jessica Alba. “Sometimes I flip through US Weekly and joke”¦”˜If I keep highlighting every person who’s been in the restaurants, probably 90 percent of the magazine has been in our restaurants,” Yacoub says.
Celebrities can be spotted at restaurants all over town. Rob Feenie tells of how Arnold Schwarzenegger dined at the Burrard Street Cactus Club recently. Patrons respected his privacy, but when the California governor got up to leave, the whole restaurant broke into applause.
Poly Alexandris, co-owner of Apollonia Greek Restaurant, remembers separate visits from Hawn, Sarah McLachlan, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding star Nia Vardalos.
Sports fan Aftab (Mario) Khan was thrilled when members of a dozen or so different NHL teams filled his restaurant, Ciao Bella, one night, along with coach Mike Keenan. And Karen Barnaby, now chef at the Fish House in Stanley Park, once cooked for Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and was later introduced to him while he was swimming naked in a pool. “I’m not going to ask a naked guy in a pool if he enjoyed his meal,” Barnaby says of the meeting, “but he actually said he really enjoyed it.”
Simon Cotton, who co-owns the Reef, recounts how Nelly Furtado celebrated her birthday at the restaurant’s Main Street location several years ago. Furtado’s handler “came in all clandestine and said, ”˜Nelly Furtado, can you do a table of eight?’ And we said, ”˜Okay, no problem,’ ” Cotton recalls. “She scurries in with dark glasses on, sits in the back.”¦No one batted an eye.”
But then one of her guests spilled a mango cocktail at her feet. Cotton went to clean it up and welcomed her to the restaurant on his hands and knees. “It was a funny, memorable moment.”¦I have some deep reggae going on, some dub happening, and then I’m at the feet of Nelly Furtado”¦cleaning up a mess on the floor.”
George Katagai, general manager at Miku restaurant, says nobody in his restaurant fully appreciated his celebrity encounter. That’s because his chefs are from Japan, and his staff members are quite young. “We had Tony Bennett and his daughter join us for dinner,” he says. “I got extremely excited, but I couldn’t share that with anyone because they had no idea who Tony Bennett was.”
Crystal Moon, assistant restaurant manager at Elixir and Opus Bar, remembers one particular autograph seeker at the hotel. A girl of about seven was seated with her party near Canadian Olympic skeleton gold medallist Jon Montgomery. “The little girl brought the book she had with her over to him and she says, ”˜Excuse me, sir, do you mind autographing my book for my grandpa?’ And he [Montgomery] was gracious and asked her what her grandpa’s name was. And she looks at him and says, ”˜It’s Grandpa.’ And he just laughed and wrote it out ”˜To Grandpa’. ”
Not much autograph signing happens at Vij’s. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations because Vikram Vij wants everyone to be treated equally, and he makes no exceptions for VIPs. Vij tells the Straight that he gets calls every day from celebrities, chefs, and CEOs wanting special treatment. “My line is, ”˜If my father comes, he waits like everyone else does. If my wife comes, she waits like everybody else does.’ ”
So if VIPs really want to dine there, they must wait with the crowd until their table comes up. Or they can have the rest of their party show up and put their name in, and then slip in when their turn comes—but Vij won’t guarantee a specific time.
He admits that the policy dissuades most VIPs from coming. For example, Quebec premier Jean Charest called at the start of the Olympics, wanting a table for eight or 10 premiers, but with Vij holding firm on his policy, the politicians never showed.
“Nobody in 14 years has managed to skip a line,” Vij says. “Even Martha Stewart came and she waited like everyone else.”¦They came at 9 o’clock at night; there’s a little lounge at the back. She waited for 20 minutes and then her table came up and then she got seated. But she waited for 20 minutes.
“She was super nice, super friendly,” he adds. “I remember bringing her one of the chutneys, and she said, ”˜Is there mint in there? Is there green mango in there?’ And I was like, ”˜Wow, you really have a good palate.’ ”
Vij works nights, and his wife and partner, Meeru Dhalwala, works days. According to Dhalwala, Vij’s attitude toward celebrities frustrates their 13-year-old daughter, Nanaki.
Nanaki is a huge fan of Twilight, and especially Robert Pattinson, who plays Edward. One evening when Vij was out of town, the cast showed up for dinner. The next day, the manager told Dhalwala, who couldn’t resist telling her daughter.
“This was the first time my child has shown any pride in what her mom and dad do,” she says, laughing. “She came into the restaurant and she sat in every single chair of the restaurant, because ”˜Rob Pattinson must have farted in one of these chairs”¦it’s a direct connection to him, Mom!’ ”
When Vij returned from his trip, Nanaki showed him posters of the cast members so he would recognize them if they returned to the restaurant. Sure enough, they came back. “Vikram had no clue who they were,” Dhalwala relates. “Vikram said [to the cast], ”˜You know what, kids, you’re just going to have to go in the back [to the lounge].’ ”
When Nanaki found out the next day, “she freaked out with a big smile on her face but total frustration.”¦She just couldn’t believe that her father wouldn’t have phoned her.” Adding insult to injury, Vikram kept calling Pattinson “Andrew from Twister” rather than Edward from Twilight.
“Even if he had known [who the stars were], there is no way he would have phoned,” Dhalwala explains. “Because that’s the rule, even with the staff: you are not to acknowledge a celebrity for being a celebrity because probably they’ve come to have dinner to get away from the whole thing.”
Dhalwala can relate to her daughter’s frustration, even if her husband can’t. “Think about it, when you were 13 and whoever you were in love with,” she says. “Just think about if your father actually met them and just didn’t bother even getting an autograph for you!”