Restaurateur Emad Yacoub will never forget one particular night last October at Coast Restaurant. The place was packed, and a young woman was celebrating her 19th birthday with a small group of friends. Most were seated with their backs to a wine cellar that divided their table from the next one.
While they were eating, members of the band U2—in town for a concert—slipped in through the back and were seated at the neighbouring table. Although the band’s presence created a low buzz, nobody in the young woman’s party noticed. When the waiter brought out dessert, the party began to sing “Happy Birthday”.
“Bono stood up, walked over to the table, and started singing ”˜Happy Birthday’ to the girl,” Yacoub says. The group was utterly shocked and onlookers were thrilled. “It was craziness,” he recalls. “There were people screaming. She was almost in tears.” When Bono finished, he gave the whole table concert tickets and backstage passes.
That’s just one of the stories Georgia Straight staffers collected when we interviewed more than 100 restaurateurs, chefs, and restaurant managers. We asked them to tell us about a memorable evening at their restaurant—good or bad, heartwarming or hellish. From celebrity shockers to Bacardi break-ins to sweet romantic dinners, here are some nights to remember.
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As head of the Glowbal Restaurant Group, Yacoub can rattle off a list of famous people who have graced his properties, which include Glowbal Grill, Italian Kitchen, and Society. The names include Gene Hackman, Matt Damon, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Shakira, Christina Aguilera, and Jessica Alba. “Sometimes I flip through US Weekly and joke”¦”˜If I keep highlighting every person who’s been in the restaurants, probably 90 percent of the magazine has been in our restaurants,” Yacoub says.
Celebrities can be spotted at restaurants all over town. Rob Feenie tells of how Arnold Schwarzenegger dined at the Burrard Street Cactus Club recently. Patrons respected his privacy, but when the California governor got up to leave, the whole restaurant broke into applause.
Andy Crimp, general manager at Au Petit Chavignol, says that having the restaurant filled with regulars is “kind of an ongoing memorable moment”. That’s because it shows the neighbourhood’s support for the restaurant when some people questioned whether it would succeed in Strathcona.
At ShuRaku, owner Iori Kataoka also makes sure that faithful customers feel valued. “We have a little note that all the servers exchange of what this regular drinks and what this regular eats,” she says.
Cibo Trattoria’s executive chef, Neil Taylor, enjoys the challenge of pleasing people with seasonal ingredients. “A dandelion is almost better for me than a piece of foie gras,” he says. “It takes more skill and more creativity to make that into an enjoyable experience for your customer.” (He blanches and braises dandelions to use as ravioli filling, in soup, and more.) He also likes introducing diners to the charms of less popular or more unusual ingredients. On several occasions, when a customer has asked for a substitution, Taylor has personally guaranteed they’ll like the dish; if not, he’ll pay for it. “I’ve never had to buy a meal yet,” he says.
Then there are the customers chefs have a very personal interest in pleasing. Boneta chef Jeremie Bastien grew up in the restaurant business and remembers the first time his father, who is also a chef, dined at Boneta. “It was a great experience for both of us,” he says. “Obviously, I was a little stressed, but everything went really well.”
Nyala owner Assefa Kebede’s favourite memory is of when his birthday coincided with the restaurant’s 25th anniversary. “I’ve never worked harder and I’ve never danced so much,” he says, describing how the party stretched over two days and nights, with hundreds of people and multiple bands.
Cru owner Mark Taylor mentions a fundraising dinner the restaurant did to benefit the Haitian earthquake recovery. Staff volunteered their time, and suppliers donated food and wine so that 100 percent of the proceeds could be donated to the Red Cross. With matching funds from the Canadian government, they raised more than $15,000. “I had never felt a more positive, warm, loving vibe than that night,” Taylor recalls, “because everyone was in it for the same reason.”
Finally, Le Gavroche owner Manuel Ferreira describes the satisfaction of nurturing relationships with his customers. Over the years, two couples dined separately on a regular basis at the restaurant. The man in one pair and the woman in the other eventually lost their spouses. But each continued to come in alone.
“They had both lost their better half, and they were sitting at different tables and would look at each other,” Ferreira says. “I saw what was going on. Three days later, they both came to me [separately] asking about the other person.”
He played matchmaker. “They are still very good clients and still together,” Ferreira confirms. In fact, they celebrated their 12th anniversary at Le Gavroche.
That’s a happy ending for everyone.
With files from Matthew Burrows, Shadi Elien, Helen Halbert, Miranda Nelson, Carlito Pablo, and Craig Takeuchi.