Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij talk about their famous restaurant’s legacy as it prepares to relocate from South Granville to Cambie Village.
Just over a year ago, Vikram Vij graced the cover of our third annual Food Issue. The accompanying profile detailed a period of great forward momentum in the life of the beloved restaurateur and his wife, Meeru Dhalwala, whose recipes helped make Vij’s perhaps the most acclaimed Indian restaurant in North America. Among many other activities, they were continuing to renovate a Cambie Street space (acquired in 2008) that would house a new, larger, more deluxe Vij’s. (The current Vij’s space will eventually become a new restaurant named Mian Bawarchi.) It was projected to open this past January. Fast-forward to August, when the two of them declared to us that—fingers crossed—the new Vij’s would finally open in late September. To follow is an interview we conducted with Dhalwala and Vij about their much-anticipated, long-in-coming room. Be sure to pick up our fourth annual Food Issue, on newsstands now. How will the new Vij’s differ from the current one? Vij: As far as the passion and love behind the food is concerned, it will be exactly the same. Vij’s was born in 1996. It’s been here for a while. It needs a little bit of modernization. The new Viji’s on Cambie Street is going to be called Viji’s Lantern, which is going to be lit from inside out. It’s going to be a building that people are going to talk about, like, “Oh, we’re two blocks away from Vij’s Lantern.” It’s almost like a little legacy for the building that we want to create. But it will have a little bit better flow into the restaurant. We’ll have a cocktail list. And it’s going to have a rooftop patio for somebody to come in and just enjoy appetizers if they want. A few things are going to be quite a bit different, and we’re looking forward to it. It’s been seven, eight years in the making. People say, “Why is it taking so long?” Well, it took 20 years for the Taj Mahal to be built. Things happen, but it’s going to be a beautiful building. Dhalwala: As far as I’m concerned, Vikram’s got his vision for the new Vij’s and I’ve got my vision. And actually, you know what? Our staff has been with us for 10 years, 15 years—they each have their own vision for the new Vij’s. So what we want is that same extremely, extremely intimate, personal family feel, but we want to move along with the times as well. is when Vikram and I were 31 years old; I was out-to-here pregnant. Now we’re 51 years old and we’re established Vancouverites. We weren’t 20 years ago. I’d just moved to Vancouver around that time. The new Vij’s needs to reflect everything we’ve gained from the current Vij’s and then take it to the next . I still want it to be exotic and I still want it to feel cozy. I want it to feel like, “We have entered this really amazing oasis of a jewelry box.” That’s what this is for me, is a jewelry box. “For the next three hours, we are a part of this glimmering jewelry box.” Why did you want the new Vij’s to be in Cambie Village? Dhalwala: We live there. It’s our neighbourhood. And we really wanted to have our flagship—with all of us it’s just been so personal—we wanted our flagship in our neighbourhood, in our part of Vancouver. Vij: I always wanted to be a landlord and a tenant in my own building. I wanted to be the owner of my own property that I’m running. And maybe there’s a little bit of that Indian-ness that comes out of me: I love to own the property that I do business in so that nobody can throw me out. And it’s a great neighbourhood. I believe in the neighbourhood. I knew that the people were going to respect and understand where we were coming from. And it’s not too far away from where now. Also, this Viji’s has become really tight now. People say it’s a little too tight. It’s 65 seats. So we just need to give a little bit of breathing space for everybody. You know, we’ve had people come in here for over 20 years, and it would be lovely to have them see my journey—the way they helped me come from a 16-seat restaurant to a 60-seat restaurant and then to Rangoli, and they supported me. It’s actually out of respect and love to the people who have supported me over the years, to say, “I’ve been listening to you and that’s what I’m going to do.” Why is your connection to Cambie Village so deep? Dhalwala: When bought our house 17 years ago—Vikram wanted to live a little bit closer to the water, because he loves the water, but I said no. I said I needed something walky: I was fat, I’d just delivered a baby. I didn’t want to have to get into a car every time I had to go to work. I said, “Look at this—it’s calm!” And Main Street at that time was too far away. I said, “This is gonna be the hip neighbourhood.” That’s where we were all moving when we didn’t have a lot of money. (laughs) I think you’re always the hippest when you’re on the cusp on making money, then you slowly lose hipness. I also loved the diversity of the Cambie area. I really liked the fact that there were brown people and white people and Asian people. I’m an immigrant and I’m from Washington, D.C… I need to be where I can see different skin colours. Given how loved the current Vij’s is and how much history is in it, was it difficult to make the decision to overhaul it so dramatically? Vij: Yes. Difficult. But more in the sense of what people are going to perceive, how people are going to see it. But in reality, life is that you should constantly move forward. You know, the way that a river on top of a mountain has a goal to meet the ocean—I think that’s our goal, to keep flowing. You have obstacles, you have issues, but you keep flowing down toward the ocean because that’s where you want to go. And our goal, ultimately, is for people to come in to the restaurant and relax and enjoy themselves and be comfortable about what they’re going to get. And that is my commitment to Vancouverites, and that’s my commitment to the regulars who have supported me over the years and to the new ones that are going to come onboard—that they will not feel disappointed by coming to the restaurant. It’s going to take us some time to iron out all those things, but our goal is to provide the best food and the best service and the best experience, at a certain level. Dhalwala: There’s always a reluctance behind something that’s so cherished, but you can’t give in to that. I think being brave is more important than being reluctant. I want people to know that the new Vij’s is a new location only. It is the exact same woman who has been cooking their food for 21 years now; the exact same wo-men cooking with the wo-man; the exact same man overseeing the front of the house. It’s the same family. It’s as if the same family is having a new baby. No new mom and dad. We’re just moving home. Will Mian Bawarchi be quite a dramatic transformation compared to what Vij’s looks like now? Vij: It’s going to change completely. Either people are going to say “Vikram is brilliant” or people are going to say “Vikram is absolutely crazy.” There’s no fine line there. But we’re only going to create the concept once we have mastered Vij’s on Cambie. That’s the important part. I’m going to change it once I’m comfortable with . So it could be six months, it could be a year, it could be three months. I don’t know yet.