On the same day that East Vancouver restaurant Escobar launched its new tapas-focused winter menu (November 6), news coverage revived the controversy about the name that has dogged the establishment since its opening in May.
The Vancouver Food Policy Council (VFPC) released an open letter on October 30, in solidarity with Latin American community members, to request the Fraserhood dining spot to change its name due to concerns about associations of the name with notorious cocaine kingpin and narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar, who has been denounced by Colombian and American governments and has been called a mass murderer.
As a result of wars between drug cartels, Escobar's Colombian hometown of Medellín had once been known as the most violent city in the world, with high rates of crime and homicide that have since declined after Escobar's death and efforts by mayors against the cartels.
"When a restaurant is named after someone who is responsible for heinous crimes, mass displacement and the death of thousands of people, it automatically targets, victimizes, and alienates members of the community who have been affected by those historical events," the VFPC letter states. The letter, which goes into detail about the name being "culturally inappropriate" and that it "trivializes the oppressive infrastructures set up by Escobar during his reign of terror, which continue to affect people’s lives in Colombia and around the world to this day", also asks the City of Vancouver to take action.
In addition to a petition against the name that has collected over 1,700 signatures, protesters demonstrated outside the restaurant, which incorporates Latin American, Spanish, and West Coast culinary influences, on its opening night on May 11.
The Colombian Embassy in Canada, the Consulate of Colombia in Vancouver, and Latin American community members have all expressed their concerns about and opposition to the name.
“As you should be aware by now, your choice of name has generated a strong negative reaction from Colombian and non-Colombian nationals alike, who remember all the pain and violence that Escobar brought,” Colombian ambassador Nicolás Lloreda Ricaurte of the Embassy of Colombia to Canada wrote in a letter to the restaurant.“I dare to think that Canadians would be similarly offended if someone opened a restaurant named after Robert ‘Willie’ Pickton, Marc Lepine, or after the individual responsible for the senseless recent attack on innocent people in Toronto.”
In response to the VFPC letter, owners Ari Demosten and Alex Kyriazis (who previously ran The Eastwood in the same location) issued a statement that they are "very displeased that our restaurant is being targeted once again for the issue of our name".
They stated that they have met with three members of the Latin American community: Latincouver's executive director Paola Murillo and ExpoPlaza Latina project leader Yudi Sonnichsen; and Jorge Posada, as a representative of Vancouver's Colombian community.
The owners also consider the VFPC to be "extremely unprofessional" for not contacting them or visiting their restaurant, and that they have made "false claims" in the open letter.
The owners confirmed in the statement that they are not planning to change their name.
"Our restaurant has absolutely nothing to do with anything narcoterrorist related," the restaurant's statement explained. "Our guests can attest to the fact that there is no theme of narcoterrorism anywhere in our establishment; yet we are receiving threats again."
An April 16 news release for the opening of the restaurant, which was headlined "Fun, Fresh, and a little bit dangerous, Escobar restaurant is coming to Vancouver this spring", incorporated a theme of danger and risk.
"Both food and drink will push guests to explore new flavors and experiences," it stated. "The team at Escobar believes that a little bit of risk invites great rewards."
The release went on to describe the menu and restaurant as combining elements such as "the familiar and new", "Latin America and the Pacific North West", and "comfort and adventure".
It went on to expand upon this concept by stating: "This sense of duality—in honour of their namesake, Pablo Escobar, who was perceived as a great man to some and a villain to others—is threaded throughout the restaurant, from the dishes to the décor to the atmosphere."
The sense of edginess continued in statements such as "This May, Escobar invites you into their home. Proceed with curiosity, an open-mind and just a little caution."
However, the owners and executive chef maintain that the restaurant is not about Pablo Escobar or anything related to him.
In an April 30 Instagram post, the Escobar owners had stated "Please know we are taking everyone’s comments and concerns seriously….We are in no way glorifying or promoting violence and hope that everyone can reflect upon the same."
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Please know we are taking everyone’s comments and concerns seriously. We have been working hard to address your concerns, however due to the overwhelming responses we can only respond to so much. We are being transparent with our responses and addressing them through the media to reach everyone. At this time any violent or threatening comments or personal attacks will not be addressed through any social platforms. We are in no way glorifying or promoting violence and hope that everyone can reflect upon the same. We value all your opinions and appreciate the concerns. Thank you.
In an April 30 interview in the Georgia Straight, Demosten expressed how they were taken aback by the attention.
"All I can really say is that Escobar is just a play on words, emphasizing ‘bar’ and Latin influence,” explained Demosten. “We aren’t trying to celebrate in any way the negative elements of drug cartels, violence, or murder. We’re really here celebrating a Latin American-inspired bar atmosphere.”
Also, in a May 1 article in the National Post, executive chef Sarah Kashani echoed this sentiment by stating “We are by no means trying to promote Pablo Escobar, we didn’t name our restaurant Pablo Escobar, we named it Escobar, which is a play on words,” she said of the bar and restaurant."
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight about the VFPC letter, Demosten said that he doesn't really understand why the council is after them.
"Attacking a restaurant for its name does not seem like it's part of their business structure of what they do," he said.
As stated in the VFPC letter, the mandate of the council, which advises Vancouver city council on food policy and systems, includes ensuring that all food for citizens is “safe, nutritious, and culturally appropriate” and is “produced, processed, marketed, consumed, and waste products reused or managed in a manner that protects the health and dignity of people”.
Demosten also said that he doesn't understand why only one side of the story has been repeatedly represented and that they haven't been contacted for their side of the story.
"We're not really getting a fair hearing from anybody realistically," he said. "Whatever's getting portrayed in the media is not what our establishment is in any way."
However, several publications, including the Georgia Straight, have run articles about the restaurant with quotes from either Demosten or Kashani in response to the controversy.
When the Georgia Straight pointed out articles from news outlets stating that they had not received a response from owners for interview requests, Demosten said it is untrue if anyone has reported that they haven't gotten back about interview requests.
Demosten confirmed that they have had to create online blocks on social media because he alleged that they are "constantly getting threats and harassment" and claimed that their customers are also being harassed. When asked if any of the threats involved physical violence or damage, Demosten said he could not comment.
When the Georgia Straight questioned Demosten about the April news release that referenced Pablo Escobar, he said: "There's nothing in here Pablo Escobar–esque at all and nothing to promote any violence or anything else for that matter," he said. "All we're trying to do is provide great food, great drinks, and a great atmosphere for people to come and enjoy."
Entertainment and tourism related to Escobar, including other restaurants and nightclubs with the name in cities around the world, have repeatedly raised controversy and criticism.
Interest in Escobar was revived by the Netflix crime-drama series Narcos, which ran for four seasons from 2015 to 2017 and depicted the life of Escobar as well as the aftermath of his death in 1993.
Colombia is still contending with the impact Escobar had on the country.
In September of this year, a museum about Pablo Escobar, run by his brother, in his hometown and place of death of Medellín, Colombia, was shut down by police for not having a tourism licence to operate.
The city's mayor Federico Gutierrez has been reported as condemning narcotourism in the city for promoting mafia culture and glorifying drug traffickers.
Gutierrez has also announced demolition plans for a six-storey building that belonged to Escobar with the intention to turn it into a park with a memorial for the victims of Escobar's drug cartels.More