Electric Owl spins izakaya club fare
If the exposed-brick walls of Electric Owl could only talk, they’d have stories, most of them crazier than fiction. You want history? The room, at 928 Main Street, has plenty of it, dating right back to 1907 when it opened as part of the Clarendon Hotel, which provided cheap and cheerful accommodations for those making the long horse-and-buggy journey to town from far-flung lands. Like, for example, New Westminster.
But it was in the 1970s that the spot became famous, and not in a good way. Right until the City of Vancouver yanked its liquor licence in 2006, the place now known as Electric Owl—a combination izakaya-inspired restaurant and live-music venue—was called the American Hotel. As anyone who ever lost their teeth on the dance floor knows, it was the kind of dive that would have scared the shit out of Charles Bukowski. The row of badass-looking Harleys lined up outside on Friday and Saturday nights was your first warning that all you needed to do to get your ass kicked was glance sideways at the wrong person.
Dani Vachon, Electric Owl’s director of marketing and entertainment, admits that she’s heard tons of American Hotel stories.
“One that stands out the most is that, apparently in the back corner, the northeast corner, there were three different tables, with one guy sitting at each one,” Vachon says in a phone interview with the Straight. “You’d go up and make your drug deal under the table, each one having a different drug associated with it. There was the coke table, the crack table, and the heroin table.
“I also hear,” she continues, “that a lot of motorcycle gangs used to hang out here. There were times when they would ride their bikes in the front door and out the back door.”
Those days are of course long gone, with a massive reno recasting the formerly empty-and-derelict room as not only one of Vancouver’s newest concert venues, but one with a twist. The difference from most other live-music spots in the city? Well, where else can you chow down on drunken ebi mayo or owl poutine, knocking back kangeiko watermelon martinis, while Starfucker kicks out the electro-glam jams on-stage? And don’t worry, the poutine contains no owl parts.
On the night we visited, it was hard to believe Electric Owl used to be the old American. Forget grimy and dangerous; the place practically gleams, the exposed brick offset by a polished concrete floor, industrial-chic steel railings, pool-table–size wood tables, and—wow—lots of natural light. How un–rock ’n’ roll to be in a room that doesn’t look like Bela Lugosi’s bat cave.
On the food front, Electric Owl bills itself as offering “Japanese style snacks prepared by a Vietnamese chef”, the man in the kitchen being Phong Vo. Sourcing local ingredients—he’s a regular at the farmers market in front of the nearby old Pacific Central train station—Vo has put his own spin on izakaya small plates.
We started with the tosa tuna tataki, which—overcooked end pieces aside—offered up B.C. albacore tuna in a drizzled, pleasantly understated soy sauce. The spicy-cured beef tataki wasn’t, however, totally as advertised—um, where exactly was the spice?—with the dollops of plain mayo adding little. More successful were the nutty yams, with each oven-roasted slice topped by a straight-from-the-midway ball of salty-sweet candied walnuts.
Best in show went to the wakame daikon kasu salad. It looked great—the translucent white mound of postage-stamp thin, radishy daikon an exotic reminder that salads actually come in a colour other than basic green—and disappeared instantly, the on-the-right-side-of-sweet sake-kasu dressing bold but not overpowering.
Those looking for a full stomach before a night of hard rock ’n’ roll drinking will want to zero in on the coconut curry don, which we opted for with tofu rather than chicken. Like much of what we tried—at prices ranging from $4 to $9—it’s nothing terribly fancy (which, in classic izakaya fashion, seems to be the point here), but it was fresh-tasting and filling, the house-made curry-spiked coconut sauce packing a pleasant amount of heat atop a mini Mount Fuji of rice.
Desserts were also hit-and-miss, with the matcha-infused rice pudding too gooey for its own good, but the green-tea-scented, cocooned-in-phyllo ice cream agemono making a great case that all desserts should be deep-fried.
As for drinks, well, it’s not often you find a live-music club where the bartender happily grabs the guava juice, sake, and green-tea syrup and muddles a bit of cucumber when you ask for a geiko matcha smash.
Even if the food won’t make anyone forget their last trip to Tokyo, at least Electric Owl is doing something different. As the $75 check for two (with four cocktails) hit the table, Vancouver indie-pop unit the Belle Game hit the stage, cranking out a mix of pastoral pop and percussion-bombed art rock.
Had the members of the Belle Game—who didn’t look overly familiar with, say, Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild”—been playing the American back in the day, they wouldn’t have made it through the set alive. Electric Owl isn’t perfect, but man, things have come a long away on this once dangerous stretch of Main Street.