The first time I went to the Topanga Cafe was when my dad (Hall Leiren) took me not long after it opened. As he dug into his beef enchilada he told me, “this is what California Mexican food tastes like.” He’d lived in California where he wrote for the LA Times and, as he ate his entree, he smiled like he’d struck gold.
When I started going to UBC, the Topanga became my off-campus escape. It was my go to place for dates, meetings, or just to collect my thoughts off campus. I’d stare at the brilliantly crayon-coloured menus on the wall and think…one day I’ll have a perfect idea for one of those menus. I never did.
Years after leaving UBC I moved a few miles away from the Topanga and it became the place I camped on deadline. I didn’t really go to eat anymore. I went to collect my thoughts and find my words. I wrote hundreds of articles there—most of them for the Straight—fuelled by chips, salsa, Coke and the occasional half-order of guacamole.
I alternated between the table at the back (where one of the founders, Tom Zallen, used to talk to me about life in California while he did the books); the table in the front right corner (when I needed the outlet and the corner was taken); and “my office”—the table next to the door (even though it had nowhere to plug in).
My Coke—later my Diet Coke—was usually on the table before I sat down.
The Topanga is the only place I’ve ever had a "usual". For the first 10 years I only ate the beef enchiladas because that’s what dad had hooked me on. For the next decade or so it was the chicken burrito.
When I went vegetarian life was all about the chile rellenos and eggplant burritos. Then I walked on the wild side and started to change things up—especially when the cooks started visiting me and making suggestions. My first wet burrito was a revelation. I wasn’t sure if dad would approve. I was thrilled to de drafted as a tester for new salsas and hot sauces-including the earliest versions that ended up on sale as Que Pasa.
I remember one of the waitresses, Kimber, telling me I could order a full chocolate cake for special occasions. After that, almost every special occasion featured a Topanga cake. And every special occasion had at least one person ask if the best chocolate cake they’d ever had really came from a Mexican restaurant.
For one birthday the Topanga made me two pans of burritos to cook at home for friends. I got my first Topanga T-shirt when I was admiring the new ones in grey and Kimber offered to trade me for the Twin Peaks shirt I was wearing. I snuck into the bathroom and swapped with her.
A hundred years ago I’d talk politics (and the Straight) with artist Carol Moiseiwitsch when she worked there. Then I’d talk theatre with her actress daughter, Sacha, when she did. Right now I’m blanking on the names of the artist who’d paint nudes of her guy—and her guy—who were also long-time staff and the musician who played surf music and was talking about moving to Victoria and…
After Tom died and long-time staffer Andrew Pyatt bought the restaurant I’d always ask how it was going and his answer was almost always a grumbling variation of “challenging”. He’d tell me about suffering from good weather, bad weather, Canucks fever, the Olympics, rent increases, food price increases, avo shortages, and, most recently, the plague of parking meters that suddenly appeared on West 4th Avenue to ward off their guests.
It was clear there were saner ways to make a living than serving virtually unchanged items from a 40-year-old menu in a hundred year-old building in an area that was never quite on the beaten path tourist traffic. But I always assumed Andrew would be happy grumbling about how challenging keeping the Topanga afloat was until the end of time. I also assumed that if he’d ever seriously considered moving he would have moved long ago.
Right after my dad died in 2016—I think it was the day I met the minister to discuss the service—I went to the Topanga to collect my thoughts and my words. I had to write a eulogy.
When I sat down in front of my Diet Coke, Andrew asked what was wrong. I told him. He brought me the usual—and a piece of cake. That meal was on the house.
Many moons ago I heard CBC interviewer Vicki Gabereau ask a food critic to name the best restaurant in his hometown.
His answer: “The best restaurant is one where they know you.”
For me the Topanga was and always will be the best restaurant in Vancouver.
As much as I’ll miss the Topanga, my friend Bronwen Smith lived above the Topanga and she and her husband lost everything in yesterday's fire—on the day of their 15-year wedding anniversary. There's a GoFundMe page to help them out.