Meet the regulars at Vancouver restaurants

Some people eat at the same place for years..or even decades. Here's why they keep going back

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      While some people are eager to dine at the hottest new restaurant in town, others are content to stay with the tried and true. Simply put, they know what they like and like what they know. These regulars can be found everywhere in Vancouver, from neighbourhood budget spots to fine-dining establishments. The Straight tracked down four of them at diverse eateries around town to ask them why they keep returning. Their answers speak volumes about the role that restaurants play in our lives.

      Delma Alexander and her family have been visiting the White Spot at Park Royal for decades. Alexander, who is now a great-grandmother, started going there for breakfast in 1983 with her late husband, Dick Alexander. Over the years, a family ritual developed that crossed the generations. Her daughter, Karen Reano, raised her own daughters with White Spot as part of the weekend routine. “As my children were growing up, they knew that at 8:30 Sunday morning they had to be at the White Spot, no matter what they had done Saturday night,” Reano recalls with a laugh.

      Now the extended family meets there every Sunday morning—and every Saturday morning, too. They always sit in the same place, and Reano and Alexander often order the same poached eggs for breakfast.

      “We’re one of quite a few regulars,” Reano says in a tandem phone interview with Alexander. She explains that the family has become friendly with others who come in at the same time every week. “We all know each other, and we all have our particular booths.”

      So when the original Park Royal White Spot closed due to the redevelopment of the shopping centre and opened anew last March in the mall’s exterior village, it shook up the family’s weekend routine.

      “When they moved, it really messed us up,” Reano says, laughing. “We all had to find new tables,” she recalls. “That was really strange.”

      But the family adapted, and the breakfast tradition continues. The community atmosphere is just one thing that keeps bringing them back. Reano also cites the food, staff, service, and convenient location, and more.

      Good food, of course, is a given. “You would never frequent a restaurant if the food wasn’t consistent and good,” Reano points out. She and Alexander both live in West Vancouver and run a development business near the Park Royal White Spot. (Alexander and her husband started going there when they were running their local business, Dick’s Lumber.) Reano says that in addition to weekend breakfasts, she and Alexander visit this White Spot for lunch several times a week, as well as for the occasional dinner.

      Like many others who grew up in B.C.—including self-professed White Spot fans Michael Bublé, Jim Pattison, and Michael J. Fox—the women have a soft spot for White Spot’s hamburgers. But just as importantly, they don’t want to eat burgers and fries every day. “We’ve noticed over the years that White Spot has met the challenge of trying to make their food healthier,” Reano says. The pair appreciate options such as salads, and they enjoy the teriyaki-chicken rice bowl, the baby back ribs, and the seasonal dishes.

      Alexander notes that the White Spot kitchen is extremely accommodating not only of dietary restrictions but of special requests. “Sometimes I just want a grilled cheese sandwich,” she says. “It’s not on the menu, but they’ll make it for me.”

      The something-for-everyone menu makes White Spot a good place for groups. So does the casual atmosphere. “It’s a comfortable place when you have all ages, especially young children,” Alexander points out. At least six family members partake in each weekly breakfast, and the group often grows to 14. The extended family spans four generations, including Alexander’s sister’s family and Reano’s grown daughters and their children, aged five, two-and-a-half, and three months.

      The regular meeting time provides them all with a standing opportunity to catch up on one another’s lives. “The family [members] know where we are, and if they want to come, they’re more than welcome,” Reano says.

      “They know that I’m paying for breakfast, so they all arrive,” Alexander chimes in with a laugh.

      Although 8:30 a.m. might sound early, Reano notes that they’ve always been a breakfast family and that eating out jump-starts the day. The restaurant’s convenient location near shops adds to its appeal, plus there’s lots of parking and easy access to the highway.

      And, of course, there’s the nostalgia factor: White Spot has been part of the family’s life for ages. Dick Alexander loved going to the restaurant so much that this was highlighted in his obituary. A decade later, many of the Park Royal restaurant staff still remember him fondly.

      Indeed, the family’s ongoing relationship with the staff is one of the things that keep drawing them back. “We get to know them. They’re more to us than just servers,” Reano says. “We know their families, their birthdays. We’ve seen their graduation pictures from high school.” One of Reano’s daughters worked at the restaurant as a teenager, and over the years the family has watched staff members grow up and assume more responsibility.

      While they’re loyal to White Spot, Alexander and Reano note that it’s not always perfect—and if the food or service were to decline significantly, they would move on. Over the years, if something hasn’t measured up, they’ve told the staff; they figure that if they don’t, other customers might simply not come back. “We want them to be a success,” Reano explains, adding that it’s important to regulars at any restaurant that it stay in business because it’s such a big part of their lives.

      For generations, White Spot has been much more to the family than simply a reliable place to eat. “It’s become sort of like our own little dining room,” Reano reflects. “It’s just like home.”

      Cioppino's dining room in Yaletown

      Before he met the man who would become his husband, Brian Madigan had never been to Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca. “We had one of our first dates there,” says Madigan, a life coach who lives with his husband in Coal Harbour. “I had been with a string of people who weren’t into food. It was my first time there, and it was a really great experience.”

      Madigan’s husband works in the transportation industry and has been a regular at the upscale Italian restaurant since it opened in Yaletown in 1999. He introduced Madigan to chef Pino Posteraro’s spit-roasted duck breast with duck confit terrine, and Madigan was hooked. Ten years later, it’s still his favourite dish on the menu.

      Over the years, Madigan has dined at Cioppino’s at least once a week, with his husband or with friends. The couple love the food—“everything from the chicken to osso buco is just amazing”—and the restaurant satisfies their individual preferences.

      “He’s the kind of person who falls in love with a dish, or two dishes…and he’ll have basically the same meal until something shifts on the menu,” Madigan says. Right now, it’s the beet salad to start and the paccheri di gragnano, a tubular pasta served with lamb ragout. “I’m the exact opposite,” Madigan says. “I can’t eat the same thing every day, or even once a week.”

      Cioppino’s works well for them because it provides both consistency for his husband and variety for him. He doesn’t mind going back to the same place because “it’s not really about being in a different environment for me; it’s about having lots of options for different kinds of food.” Cioppino’s has a big menu as well as daily specials. “There’s lots of diver­sity, so you never get bored.”

      Although his husband favours pasta, Madigan—who describes himself as a “paleo, carnivore, and veggies type of person”—opts for the house-cured bresaola and grilled veal porterhouse steak. “It’s nice to find an Italian restaurant that works for both of us,” he says, stating that many are carb-heavy.

      The couple dine out six nights a week at different places, and Madigan says the experience isn’t just about the food. “We want to be places where we’re really comfortable, really relaxed,” he explains. They have three or four regular spots, one being Cioppino’s because of its “nice atmosphere, beautiful service, and beautiful food”.

      When they’re in the mood for a different vibe, they’ll go to CinCin because it’s close to home, or Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar “because it’s probably the best seafood in the city”. They also favour Gotham Steakhouse, where a friend plays piano and they have a nice tradition of Sunday dinners with family.

      At each restaurant, they have their preferred tables, which make the most of the atmosphere. “At Blue Water, it’s right by the kitchen—there’s lots of action going on,” Madigan says, adding that they like to be in the midst of the hustle and bustle. In contrast, at the more sedate, art deco Gotham Steakhouse, their preferred table is “a nice cozy booth”.

      At Cioppino’s, the pair alternate between a number of favourite spots. Madigan notes that one of the perks of being a regular at restaurants is that staff happily accommodate your preferences as much as they can.

      Another is that you see the same friendly faces. Madigan says there’s very little staff turnover at Cioppino’s. “You start to get to know people and you feel welcomed like you’re part of the family.” As well, he says, the food is reliably delicious and the experience relaxing. “It feels kind of like home.”

      The Roof Salad at the Roof at Black + Blue

      You’ll often find Sophia Koumbis at the Italian Kitchen on Alberni Street, dining on the mezzanine at her regular spot, table 55. “It’s a square table, so you can sit side by side with your friend and look out the window,” she says. She also likes the table because it’s quieter than those on the main floor.

      Koumbis is the general manager of Blubird, a luxury clothing store on Alberni. She figures she’s been having lunch at one of the Glowbal group of restaurants at least twice a week for more than six years, as well as ordering takeout, and having dinner every second week and occasional after-work drinks. (Also located near her store are the Italian Kitchen’s IK2GO takeout café, Coast seafood restaurant, Black + Blue steakhouse, and Black + Blue’s third-floor extension, the Roof.) Because she lives in Kitsilano, she also frequents Trattoria on West 4th Avenue.

      While the downtown restaurants are close to her workplace and she likes the food and the atmosphere at each, those aren’t the only reasons she dines at them. “I’ve never been into one of the restaurants when somebody hasn’t greeted me by name,” she says. “It’s excellent service.”

      This personal touch brings Koumbis back. “They pay attention to detail and train their staff really well to acknowledge everybody and be gracious and make people feel special,” she says. She notes that when a key person is hired at any of the Alberni restaurants (such as a manager or a pastry chef), a manager brings them into her store to introduce them.

      As a regular diner, Koumbis is able to call up and get a table at the last minute, even when the restaurants are packed. “There’s never been a time when they haven’t accommodated me,” she says. “I know if I phone there and want to go out for a spontaneous dinner, they’ll get me in. And they’ll get my table. They’ll make it happen.”

      She likes the consistency of the atmosphere and the food. “I’ll know what I’m getting and I order the same thing,” she says, explaining that she has a few favourites at each restaurant. At Black + Blue, for example, she loves the beef carpaccio. At the Roof, it’s the salads, such as the one with grilled jerk chicken and mango. When dining at the Italian Kitchen, she orders the burrata with prosciutto and the linguine carbonara. At Coast, it’s sushi or steamed mussels.

      As a regular, she often gets little extras from the chef. “They’re very gracious—they always give a little starter, a little treat like a bruschetta.” She sees other tables get similar attention, so she knows she’s not the only one being treated well.

      Koumbis keeps returning to these restaurants because they’re convenient and she knows she can count on having a positive experience, whether she’s on her own, with clients, or with friends. “It’s habit, but it’s also what makes you feel good,” she explains. “You just feel comfortable. I just feel very much at home.”

      Abi Sharma is a welcoming presence at Café Kathmandu.
      Mandelbrot

      Originally hailing from Britain, Sean Murphy has enjoyed his fair share of Indian-style curries. But the Canadian citizen hadn’t tried Nepalese food until Café Kathmandu opened in his Commercial Drive neighbourhood in 2006.

      “It’s very healthy because it doesn’t have a lot of oil or cream,” he says, describing Café Kathmandu’s cuisine. Some of his favourite dishes are the chicken stew and the goat curry; his wife likes the daal and tofu sautéed with green beans in tomato sauce. Both enjoy the aaloo achaar, a chilled sesame-lemon potato salad.

      “We’re creatures of habit, I guess,” he muses. “If we like certain dishes, we tend to stick to them.” The couple always start with momo (steamed dumplings) or choilaa (shredded chicken or pork simmered with Kathmandu-style spices), alternating between them on each visit. “We joke amongst ourselves that we’re addicted to them,” he says.

      Café Kathmandu is walking distance from Murphy’s home, and he estimates that he and his wife have eaten there three to four times a month for the past nine years. “It’s become a go-to place for midweek,” he explains. “We might go on a Wednesday for a treat to break up the week.” Dining there gives the couple a chance to touch base and make plans, often over a beer or wine with dinner.

      The food is the primary draw. Besides being good, it’s reasonably priced and the portions are generous. Plus, the restaurant has a “cozy” atmosphere. “We always like the window seat,” he says. “We like to see people go by, and sometimes friends and neighbours wave.”

      Murphy emphasizes that part of Café Kathmandu’s appeal is its warm hospitality. Founder Abi Sharma is “very much an outgoing personality, very gregarious”. Pradeep Sharma, a family friend of no relation, bought into the business and started managing the restaurant last May; he has added his own touches as Abi has stepped back in order to travel. “They’re very friendly,” Murphy says. “There’s something about it being owner-run. It’s the owner that’s out there, not just anonymous staff.”

      Murphy compares the experience to visiting a local pub in Britain. “It’s very casual, very welcoming: no pressure and laid-back but very good service,” he says. “It’s relaxing.”

      For Murphy and his wife, Café Kathmandu hits just the right note. “We do try new places,” he adds. “This isn’t the only place we go to, but this is the one we like the most.…We’ve been there more than any other restaurant in Vancouver.”

      In other words, they’re regulars. And like other frequent diners, they keep returning for good reason. So although new restaurants may get all the glory, others quietly go about their business, year in and year out. They thrive because they’ve worked their way into people’s lives—and their loyal patrons wouldn’t have it any other way.

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      2 Comments

      think of the children!

      Mar 12, 2015 at 9:30am

      somehow i doubt eating whitespot twice a week is particularly healthy

      Cool thanks

      Mar 12, 2015 at 1:31pm

      Great, now I know the places NOT to go so I can avoid enormous families and "life coaches."