Vancouver Weekend: We're Thinking....Vancouver Institutions
Need something to do this weekend? In celebration of the Georgia Straight's 50th anniversary issue, here are five restaurants that have been around longer than some of us have been alive. (Namely, more than, just short of, or around 50 years.)
Bodega on Main, 1014 Main Street
For more than four decades, La Bodega was Vancouver's favourite—and for many years, only—Iberian outpost, a place to share a big table with friends, down a few too many pitchers of sangria, and eat gambas al ajillo in a dark corner. With its plaster walls, dark wood, and tile floors, the hideaway on Howe Street actually felt like the real Spain, just as its food tasted authentic.
Inevitably, with its prime downtown location, the restaurant made way for highrises, closing in 2014 when owner Francisco "Paco" Rivas retired. But fortunately, his son Paul Rivas, who worked at the restaurant throughout his teens and into adulthood, is carrying on the tradition on Main Street, mixing older menu items with new offerings and decorating the chic, narrow heritage space with some of the decor of the old haunt—the classic black-iron chandeliers, matador posters, and the iconic sculpted-wood Chateau Madrid sign (from the restaurant the elder Rivas once ran upstairs on Howe).
You can still soak your crusty bread with the gambas' garlicky olive oil, and the patatas bravas still have the essential mix of heat and tang in the sauce. The potato omelette, with aioli and paella, will help absorb the perfectly spiced sangria. The place, a bit brighter than the old hangout, still has the buzz of a Madrid tabernaabout it, conversation competing with the clink of glasses and cutlery. Paco, who passed away in December, would be proud of his legacy.
The Naam, 2724 West 4th Avenue
Okay, so the Naam falls just shy of the big five-oh—but 49 is the new 50, right? Built in 1968, the vegetarian restaurant might have missed the Summer of Love, but it’s the best place in Vancouver to relive it today. With servers favouring tie-dye shirts, folded bandanas, and mandala tattoos, the Naam is a hippie’s paradise—and one of the healthiest spots in the city.
Fittingly located in Kitsilano, the restaurant features old wooden tables, seating nooks that are full of character, and a conservatory area that overlooks a small garden. The menu offers a number of vegetarian mainstays like exotic salads, pita pizzas, and bursting burritos, but the kitchen really shines with its dragon bowls: various combinations of root vegetables, potatoes, salsa, garnishes, peanut sauce, and the Naam’s own miso gravy.
Desserts are homemade and delectable, and, like the rest of the menu, feature plenty of options for those who avoid dairy, gluten, sugar, and animal products. Plus, it’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week—which means that there’s absolutely no excuse not to trade that greasy kebab for a healthy stuffed chapati after a wild night out at Bimini’s.
Tomahawk Restaurant, 1550 Philip Avenue, North Vancouver
It doesn't look like much from the street—in fact, the building housing it is so nondescript that it doesn't really look like anything—but the Tomahawk is a bona fide North Shore institution. Former North Van mayor Murray Dykeman worked as a busboy at the 'Hawk in the 1950s but the long-running burger joint, which Chick Chamberlain opened in 1926, also has a place in rock 'n' roll history.
Bryan Adams was employed as busboy there in his teen years. Or maybe he was a dishwasher. Or maybe the whole thing is an urban legend and the "Summer of '69" singer never worked at the restaurant at all. At this point, the myth is more important than the truth anyway. One thing we know for sure is that if you hang out at the Tomahawk enough, you're almost guaranteed to have a Nardwuar sighting. The Human Serviette has been a Tomahawk booster for years, introducing many a touring band to the delights of his beloved Skookum Chief Burger (an organic beef patty topped with onions, lettuce, tomato, cheese, bacon, an egg, and a wiener).
Nardwuar's own band, the Evaporators, even shot the music video for "Hot Dog High" at the Tomahawk; call it up on YouTube and behold the sight of a certain Straight music editor busting dance moves that would put the Addams Family's Lurch to shame. If the rock 'n' roll connection isn't enough to get you in the door, the Tomahawk's impressive collection of totem poles, masks, and other Northwest Coast First Nations artifacts might be.
Chamberlain started building the collection some 80 years ago, and several of the 'Hawk's burgers are named in tribute to local chiefs he admired, including Simon Baker, Mathias Joe, and August Jack. If a mere burger won't satisfy your appetite, however, order the Mixed Grill, which is basically everything on the menu piled on a plate. Don't blame us if you can't finish it. Doot doola doot doo...
Argo Café, 1836 Ontario Street
This unassuming hole-in-the-wall has been serving Vancouverites since 1954, making it a good deal older than many of its patrons. And while the lime-green countertops and mishmash of vinyl tile flooring suggest a restaurant that’s stuck in its glory days, there’s a reason locals continue to flock to the tiny diner.
Over the years, Argo’s chefs have managed to update and fine-tune the extensive menu, offering guests a myriad of dishes—from buttermilk flapjacks and French toast to beef-and-broccoli and chow mein—that handily cater to cravings for familiar comfort foods and quality, locally sourced fare.
First-timers won’t be disappointed by the sirloin steak, served with eggs, potatoes, and toast; the fresh-made beef burger; or the clubhouse sandwich, which boasts mouthfuls of juicy, roasted-in-house turkey. An eclectic lineup of specials, meanwhile, gives regulars something to look forward to on the daily. (Past one-off dishes include meatball pasta, panko-crusted halibut, and bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin.)
Affordable prices, tasty desserts, and a location on one of Vancouver’s busiest bike routes mean that this place won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Hy's Steakhouse & Cocktail Bar, 637 Hornby Street
Here's one of the only places still around in Vancouver where you can get a real sense of what the old steakhouse scene was like in the retro, red meat-obsessed '50s and '60s—an era when going out to eat was an occasion, cocktails were still considered good for you, and Frank Sinatra was king of Vegas. After plowing your way through a T-bone the size of a Frisbee, you'd cap the evening off with a trip to the late great Cave for a half-dozen more Manhattans.
Hy's has been renovated, but it still exudes regal, dark-panelled luxury, with its burgundy leather chairs, library room, and long woody bar. What's amazing is that, after all these years, the labyrinthine space still earns awards for best steak in the city—and for good reason. Try the melt-in-your-mouth porterhouse or the grass fed, Black Angus rib-eye, with an old-school baked potato on the side—and a golf ball of butter, of course.
This is definitely a place for a special occasion, but we secretly love it best at lunch, when the businessmen gather like it's 1965 and three-hour lunches—complete with four martinis—are still a thing.