The newly opened Save On Meats building is a four-storey madhouse.
Watch for the roaming video cameras. Corner Gas executive producer Louise Clarke is filming a reality series about Save On that has been picked up by the Oprah Winfrey Network. (It’s due to air in January.)
Upstairs in the brick heritage building in Gastown are a bakery, a butcher, a linen and cleaning business staffed by neighbourhood locals, restaurant mogul Mark Brand’s head office, and a small carpentry shop. On the main floor, a shipping-and-receiving hub processes massive food orders for this and other Brand restaurants (he co-owns Boneta, the Diamond, and Sea Monstr Sushi). The jewel in the crown is a rooftop garden, which by next year could provide nearly all the produce for Save On’s diner.
But the real action is at the takeout window. Over 200 hot and cheesy breakfast sandwiches—at $1.50 each—cross the counter onto West Hastings Street each day. Like a streetside confessional, this is where folks come to tell staffers their stories about the old Save On Meats. Al DesLauriers, who opened the original butcher shop and lunch counter back in 1957, is frequently among them.
“It’s taken on a life of its own,” Brand said in a phone interview. “I remember opening the roller doors [on the first day] and there were 50 residents of the neighbourhood standing out on the sidewalk, all clapping. It was so humbling.”¦I thought we’d have to do outreach. But this is not about us. It’s about bringing Save On Meats back.”
There’s no doubt this restaurant is a success. In the six weeks since it opened, Save On welcomes about 500 diners per day. Brand, a 36-year-old Nova Scotian with an earnest East Coast friendliness, said he wanted to create a space that welcomes the whole neighbourhood. He did. With well-made chow at retro prices, it’s no surprise you see Hastings’ true diversity in the booths.
The food I tried, however, ranged from truly elegant to nearly inedible.
Breakfast was a high point. Homemade hollandaise made the corned beef hash ($8) and the eggs Benedict ($8), which was generous with ham. The perfectly done poached eggs spoke to executive chef Jason Liezert’s standards. The side of sausage was meaty, dense, and unusually delicious for a diner, and the bread for the toast is baked in house. But despite the reasonable prices, two adults and three kids managed to spend $48, including tax and tip, with a fruit plate, two coffees, and three kids’ meals.
For lunch, I hit the takeout counter, which serves sammies, soup, cookies, chili, salads, etc., in addition to breakfast sandwiches. Both the meat and vegetarian chilies ($3 each) are packed with veggies, but low on heat and flavour. The corned beef sandwich ($7) needed a flavour wake-up. “These guys obviously aren’t Jewish,” commented my companion, who grew up attending synagogue in Los Angeles. The meal fell apart with the arid vegetarian sandwich ($6). Although the Cendrillon goat cheese is top quality, there were mere shards of it, with a bit of lettuce, tomato, and a titch of avocado on a rubbery, flavourless white bun.
The cookies, however, saved lunch. For just 50 or 75 cents each, displayed on the counter in pretty glass jars, these were a true treat. Cute pig-with-a-dollar-sign sugar cookies (created by co-owner Nicole Brand), chewy oatmeal raisin, nutty chocolate cookies—given that coffee-shop cookies have edged up past $2 in this ’hood, the price is a welcome relief. Very buttery, the bacon-and-chocolate chip cookie is fun, though it could use more bacon.
Among cops and cons, the DesLauriers–era Save On Meats burger was iconic. Brand has recreated this burger, with some 21st-century updates, for just $6 including fries. It’s a chuck-and-flank patty on a brioche bun with house-butchered and smoked bacon, Cheddar, and a generous portion of crisp fries (or red coleslaw). The fantastic meal—one of the heartiest, meatiest burgers in the city—can go over-the-top rich with a $4 milkshake, made from ice cream created in-house. Dinner for two adults and two kids came to an incredible $29, including tax and tip.
Props to the Brands for getting kids’ meals so right. Kiddie food is usually unhealthy and revolting (nuggets, pizza) or faddishly adult. At Save On, the most expensive kids’ meal is $5: Chicken Little, with tasty roast chicken, real gravy, peas and carrots, and a choice of mashed potatoes, salad, fries, or a fruit cup. Tomato soup and grilled cheese is $4. A mountain of broccoli with white cheese sauce is $3. A trio of huge, eggy pancakes is $4, and a basic egg, toast, and hashbrowns plate is $3. Best of all, the three kids that accompanied me ate everything they ordered.
Given Brand’s well-earned reputation as a restaurateur, I have no doubt Save On’s few glitches will be addressed. Brand plans to take over more neighbourhood buildings and revitalize them. Save On’s diner, with its gritty, unhip interior, and staff drawn in part from Hastings regulars, demonstrates that Brand’s no ordinary gentrifier. And the vibe isn’t outreach project—it’s community hall.