Save On Meats fits right back into the neighbourhood

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      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.


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      Clive Ashworth

      Aug 10, 2011 at 12:32pm

      Glitches aside, keep the faith and push on. Great Entreprenuer and iconic Vancouver Landmark is reborn

      Organ Morgan

      Aug 10, 2011 at 12:45pm

      I've been to the new Save-On a few times, and I've not seen any customers who could be considered pre-gentrification locals. The budget menu is commendable, but the place has a chilly hipster vibe that suggests that the open-door concept is but a thin and time-limited veneer. Oprah Winfrey and corporate media attention aside, we'll know more about ownership's true intentions by the restaurant's menu and clientele in a few years' time. May my cynical and negative perspective be wrong.

      And the old Save-On Meats was a vibrant and truly inclusive place. It was the real deal. May it RIP.

      Sven Crawson

      Aug 10, 2011 at 1:26pm

      "Pre-gentrification locals?" What the hell is that supposed to mean? Only drunks and homeless people should be shopping at Save On Meats? What a ridiculous statement to make, but, not surprising in a city where improving a slum like the DTES is considered bad.

      Sandwich King

      Aug 10, 2011 at 1:42pm

      I guess "Organ Morgan" doesn't eat downtown much because i'm enjoying the fact that a lot of the old-guys are back on the swivel seats just like the old lunch counter. That's a good sign right? Young people too...oh no! Should we ban the young? I've lived the the DTES for a long time and this is a welcome gift to the neighbourhood. You can't beat cheap eats and you can almost eat off the floor, unlike the old joint. The gentrification police are all over this makeover, screw them. It's better than an empty storefront, people are working, and nobody's tax dollars were compromised. Shut up and eat.


      Aug 10, 2011 at 2:16pm

      I have no idea what Morgan's talking about either. The one time I've been half the booths were filled with seniors who looked like they grew up in the place (and may have, for that matter). I saw far fewer hipsters than I've seen at, say, Deacon's Corner.

      Rob Roy

      Aug 10, 2011 at 10:04pm

      I'm amazed that Jean Swanson and her crew of reactionaries haven't attacked it yet. They will. Soon. Perhaps like this...

      "Save On Meats is poor-bashing at its worst! It is a gentrification bomb set off in the middle of vegetarians! The DTES will never allow this counter-communal colonial expansionism in unceded coast salad territory!" Swanson said.

      "We demand that Save On Meats immediately cease its efforts to spread insidious tentacles into this sanctuary for the poor! We demand free tartar sauce!

      "We demand 100% social housing! It must be controlled by DTES with unlimited access to tax money! We demand the pig be released from its bondage on that sign! No more pork-bashing! Preserve the pig! Ruminate the rich!"

      Wendy Pederson nodded assent, and a petition was started. It was immediately endorsed by VANDU and 34 other DTES organizations with a combined total of 22 members. The revolution had begun!

      We anxiously await demonstrations, press releases and moral outrage.

      Russ Tangert

      Aug 11, 2011 at 1:29am

      Working in one of the downtown hotels owned by BC housing, my residents find the prices too steep for them most of the time. When they do have the money, they have tried the food there. Some have been disappointed and some surprised the jury is still out. Welfare may have a role here.

      As for groups like CCAP (Ivan Drury and Wendy Pederson), and VANDU (Ann Livingston), my residents just see these people as interlopers who pretend they care, but go home to comfortable homes and good food at night. If they took a true oath of poverty, these would be considered leaders to the community. Sadly the ones who speak out, are often even more marginalizing to the communities they purport to represent.

      Taxpayers R Us

      Aug 11, 2011 at 2:04am

      "...endorsed by VANDU and 34 other DTES organizations with a combined total of 22 members."

      That's just the laugh I needed tonight - thanks man!

      Ray I

      Aug 12, 2011 at 12:14pm

      I ate at the old Save-on and I have had the burger at the new one. Both are great. There was no lack of customers when I was there mid-afternoon on Wednesday. I will say the butcher shop side is a bit of a disappointment. While the quality was good selection now leaves a lot to be desired. I used to be able to get almost any cut of meat I wanted but choices are really limited. I hope they expand their selection or I will still have to shop elsewhere for 1/2 of my meat.


      Aug 12, 2011 at 1:58pm

      Went to check it out a month ago, got a sandwhich from the stall outside that took about 20 min to make with a party of 2 ahead of me upon order. Sandwhich was ok, not too good or bad. I wanted to get a burger though and I dont think they were available from the street side stall?

      The clientel looked pretty mixed when i peaked inside but lets not pretend that there arent tons of new, cool concept restaurants that open up that have that "chilly hipster vibe." That H word does get thrown around far too often (and its normally used by hipsters to describe other hipsters) but bottom line is that I find too many places like these that have that exclusive or dont give a shit if you aint one of us vibe. And these are the same places that probably bitch about Joeys and Cactus when at least the service is consistent at them places. The hip joints are hit/miss. I find they have either the nicest people in the world or the snottiest MFs around town.