Red Wagon diner rides on quality in Vancouver
Red Wagon is a diner, full stop. Unlike other revisionist salutes to lunch counters past, the room is not all fancied up, thank God. It has retained the wobbly tables, giant plate-glass windows that showcase snowcapped mountains over a foreground of dirty streetscape, and groovy retro light fixtures of the many lowbrow cafés that inhabited the space before.
And like a real old-school diner, the hungry crowds are coming en masse for chef Brad Miller’s cooking. On a recent Sunday morning, I snagged the biggest table for my favourite event: a group breakfast. Had I arrived much past 9 a.m., when it opened, I would have waited a looong time for a table. This place, just over three months old, is hopping.
“I’m sleeping instead of lying awake and worrying, let’s put it that way,” Miller said in a phone interview later about the restaurant’s booming business. He also noted that his mother mortgaged her home for his start-up cash, so the success is a relief.
This is Thunder Bay native Miller’s first stab at restaurant ownership, though he’s put in his time cooking in other people’s kitchens. A stint apprenticing in Paris followed by time in a Michelin-starred room on Lake Geneva preceded his 2001 move to Vancouver. Despite having worked for some of the poshest spots in the city—Bistro Pastis, West, and Au Petit Chavignol—his heart is in morning fare.
Among chefs, breakfast gets no respect, he says. Everyone wants to be the guy that cooks the duck. His vision for Red Wagon involves marrying French simplicity and ethical sourcing with a casual diner atmosphere.
“I love eggs,” Miller said. “Something about breakfast makes me crazy. I don’t know what it is. It’s very personal.”¦I remember my mom making me breakfast and the smell coming into my room. The bacon, the potatoes—the smells wake you up. It enlivens the senses.”
Among our group of four adults and three kiddies on our visit, I ordered the only “adventurous” item: chilaquiles with pork belly confit, for $11.50 (plus an upgrade to free-range eggs for an extra $1.) Flavourwise, the dish delivered: crispy just-fried tortilla chips doused with zippy tomatillo and cream sauces topped with goat cheese, marinated onions, and two perfectly cooked fried eggs. Delicious.
The pork belly confit, though, was a different story. It loafed on my plate, a mushy white slab of jiggly fat with very little meat. Without the confit, which I chose not to finish, the meal was small; I was still hungry after crunching through a plate of tortilla chips. (I’ve since learned that the pork belly confit has been replaced by chicken confit on the menu.)
My dining companions ordered blueberry pancakes ($9.50) and the two eggs any style with bacon or sausage, hash browns, and toast ($6.95). The verdict was the food was good. But a little small. An order of pancakes, for example, consists of just three, each the size of a small saucer, served with a couple of strips of bacon. Unlike old-school diners such as Bon’s Off Broadway and Nice Cafe, this is no place to practise gluttony.
But the coffee was good (it’s organic and fairly traded). The place mats were cute, and the thumping Rolling Stones helped out. All told, Red Wagon has the makings of one fierce diner.
I returned for lunch the following week. The portobello sandwich offered generous sautéed mushroom slices with goat cheese and caramelized onions on focaccia for $9.50. Though it was more filling than most veggie fare, the bread wasn’t as sumptuous as you’d expect to find in a French-inspired room. (Miller is planning to expand to dinner service soon, and promises more identifiably French fare on the menu.) A light shred of iceberg lettuce and fennel accompanied the sandwich. My companion had a tasty Pemberton Meadows cheeseburger with fries ($10.25). While the burger was just serviceable, the fries were delicious—hand-cut, with sparkling sea salt—and a joy to douse with glass-bottled Heinz ketchup.
Breakfast for four adults and a plate of pancakes for the kids to share came to a whopping $75 with tax and tip. Lunch for two adults (plus a $4.50 side of fries for the kids—there’s no junior menu) was $30.
That may be a bit much for Vancouverites who like to eat breakfast out regularly. Many do so because it’s an inexpensive treat. At Bon’s, basic bacon and eggs with toast and hash browns is $2.95; at Nice, it’s $4.75. Even at Joe’s Grill on upscale West 4th Avenue, it’s $5.95. But the number of places you can find breakfast for a handful of toonies in Vancouver appears to be diminishing.
As for Red Wagon, Miller explained that he strives to give customers good value while delivering high-quality, house-made food. I have no doubt that this is true, given the financial reality of operating a restaurant in this city and the cost of buying quality, ethically sourced ingredients.
But for me, if breakfast costs $15 per person, my attitude toward the restaurant becomes much less laid-back. I expect exemplary cuisine that can’t easily be replicated at home. And I get pissy if the food isn’t mind-blowing. At Red Wagon, it was good, but uneven.
In short, if you just want big, cheap traditional-diner portions, look elsewhere. But if you accept that diner food isn’t necessarily inexpensive anymore and you’re willing to pay for simple, high-quality fare with some inspired touches, you’ll be happy at Red Wagon.