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Stella Shurety, proprietor of The Diner on 10th Avenue, is a keeper of the faith. On the final block of prim shops before the University Endowment Lands, Pane e Formaggio sells apricot biscotti and Liberty Wine Merchants pushes high-end vino, but the Diner (“Ye-old-English-Restaurant,” says the business card) has doled out the same gravy-dressed shepherd’s pie and endless cups of sugary Joe for half a century.
The window displays a massive model of London’s Tower Bridge (it belongs to the Royal Society of St. George). A vintage photo of Princess Elizabeth is nailed to the wall, a castoff from the old post office. Literally hundreds of other pictures, plus commemorative plates and informative tea towels from the mother country, compete for space on the pale blue walls. Stella, as she’s known by the expat Brits and college kids who make the Diner their second home, looks up at the cluttered décor while topping off a coffee: “Well, it saves on wallpaper, anyway.”
Stella never stops working, and won’t stop haranguing her customers, either. “Some of them just come for the abuse, I’m sure,” she jokes. Then she turns on a trio of young men and jabs a finger at the skinny guy’s plate. “Eat that tomato. There’s a good boy, then!” If someone asks a stupid question, he’ll win a sharp “Twit!” from Stella, while her 50-something daughter, Jean, hollers “Duh!” and lugs an armload of dishes to the back.
Vancouver’s diner scene has other authentic sites, as you’ll see on these pages; but gentrification is gradually replacing our classics with Disneyfied versions. (Sophie’s Cosmic Café in Kitsilano and even Granville Street’s Templeton lack that crusty, bona fide aura.) The recession brings us back to the comfort of inexpensive carbs and bottomless coffee. While some of the city’s high-end rooms are bedevilled by rumours of unpaid bills, unhappy suppliers, and imminent foreclosure, diners—serving up traditional fare at bargain prices—are thriving.
Stella’s no-nonsense kitchen draws its method from England; nouveau diner offerings are conspicuously absent. (Good luck ordering fair-trade coffee or low-fat turkey sausage.) The recipes derive from the kitchens of the old P & O liners, where her brother worked as a cook. Everything is homemade, and certain stalwart items-steak-and-kidney pie, Yorkshire pudding, and the classic British breakfast fry-up-are plated with the assured, heart-attacks-don’t-scare-me air that dishes accrue with decades of unperturbed rehearsal. “We are, by the grace of God, unique,” says Stella. “It’s all Brit food and Brit atmosphere-I nag them if they don’t finish. Brits aren’t afraid of ribbing you.”
Born in London and raised in Sussex, Stella came to Vancouver in 1958 and worked for three months as a server at the Terminal City Club. By 1959 she was able to purchase the Do-Nut Diner, and soon dropped the Do-Nut. Suddenly, a patch of Coronation Street was available to Vancouverites. Each year, employees dress up as the Queen or some other English icon and march in the community’s parade; at Christmas, regulars convene to sing carols; on Robbie Burns Day the haggis is passed around; and anytime someone from the old country visits, Stella will see if they know her favourite songs. Local teens are hired at 14- including a teenaged Chris Haddock, who later became the brains behind Da Vinci’s Inquest and Intelligence. “He only lasted a few months,” Stella recalls. “What a lousy worker!”
Stella’s a great-grandmother, her daughter confides while Mom’s checking on something in the kitchen (“But don’t bring that up, or we’ll all be out on our ear”). Retirement, though, doesn’t figure in her plans. “People say I could volunteer if I retire,” says Stella, scanning the restaurant for cooling cups. “I don’t understand, though-work without getting money? It’s ridiculous.”
The Diner runs on more than a healthy work ethic. You see it in the hugs that Stella gives to customers (“They’re all my family”). You see it in the lineup of children’s photos (“my rogues’ gallery”), and you hear it in the hum of kitchen conversation. Stella’s is a place where sleepy lovers go for a 1 p.m. hangover cure and university housemates pass a rainy Sunday (or a weekday hooky session) in crib matches.
Diners have long been an iconic fixture of urban North America. (In 2000, 21 New Yorkers were imported by an alternative art space in Stockholm to re-create the atmosphere of New York’s own Diner, an eatery in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.) Happily, as you’ll see in the following listings, Vancouver has many hole-in-the-wall eateries in which to hunker down and wait out the stock market. And the Diner? It isn’t disappearing anytime soon.
“Not until He decides,” says Stella, pointing heavenward. “Some of my old customers have already gone to St. Peter’s diner, upstairs.”
Stella remains an oasis of down-home warmth in a tony part of town. Whatever face-lift the neighbourhood receives, the Diner lounges on the concrete landscape, as though to say “Oh, really?” to newcomers. “And you know,” says Stella, leaning back into the booth’s plush cushion, “they do come back. Those students who came here in the ’60s, they come back, they say, ‘It’s so good to see that some things don’t change.'”
– The Editors and Dee Hon
Deacon’s Corner 101 Main St., 604-684-1555. Deaconscorner.caJust two blocks from the desolate intersection of Main and Hastings, the city’s newest diner caters to lawyers (from the nearby provincial court) and animators (from Studio B upstairs) who perch on classic chrome-ring barstools and tuck in to mac ’n’ cheese ($8.50) or fried chicken with buttermilk biscuits ($10). Breakfasts are buoyed by young urbanites claiming the DTES as a reworked “grit” neighbourhood. Coffee From Los Beans down the street. Breakfast special Bacon, eggs, and hash browns (which, happily, taste more like potatoes than warmed-over wood chips), $5.75. Weekdays only from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Helen’s Grill4102 Main St., 604-874-4413A former Vancouverite recently visited Helen’s and duplicated the last breakfast he’d had there, in 1967—mushroom omelette, dry wheat toast, orange juice, and coffee—right down to favourite tunes on the Seeburg High Fidelity in-booth jukebox (G3, “Chantilly Lace”; N5, “Duke of Earl”). Yes, the bill was now $12.80, and Helen sold the diner to a Greek couple in the late 1970s, and gyros and souvlaki have been added to the menu, but otherwise the place might as well have been preserved in amber. The Breakfast Anytime sign, the spider plants, the massive dune of hash browns—all seemed eternal. Coffee $1.90, free refills. Piping hot and willingly refilled by Dina. Breakfast special Two eggs, bacon or ham, hash browns, toast, $6.95. 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Argo Café 1836 Ontario St., 604-876-3620Accounts differ about when the diner opened (sometime between 1947 and 1958), but half a century of elbows bear their own testimony in the café’s lime-green countertop. French and Chinese accent the flavours, thanks to chef Denis Larouche and his co-owner, Kirby Wong. Neighbourhood mechanics and industrial designers cram in for workday lunches of wasabi-and-sesame-crusted seared tuna ($10 with sides) and duck confit ($10), along with diner standards. Coffee $1.25, free refills. Breakfast special One meat, two eggs, French toast or pancake, toast, and potatoes, $7. Breakfast is served 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Homer Café 892 Homer St., 604-687-2228No diner offers more of a class shake-up than the Homer. Nestled among the posh condos and boutiques of Yaletown, this hangover joint is usually filled with both the blue-rinse set and out-of-work Studio 58 grads. A cafeteria-style, pay-before-you-eat setup keeps things unassuming, and the grub is ultra cheap but…grublike. Coffee Swill. But it’s the burned swill Grandma used to make. Breakfast special Two eggs, two sausages, and toast, $3.95. Breakfast served daily from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.**NOTE: Homer Cafe is closed for renovations
Docker’s Diner 1869 Powell St., 604-254-3732Tucked in between artists’ studios and abandoned curiosity shops on Powell Street sits a well-worn room papered with vintage photos of the nearby working docks. The attentive all-female staff doles out plenty of sass to blue-collar workers and hipster-doofus couples packing the tables. Diner standards are in force: triple-decker sandwiches, hefty burgers, and mile-high stacks of pancakes that nail the fluffy/crispy/chewy ratio. Coffee Never unfilled. Mismatched vintage coffee cups are just right. Breakfast special Two eggs, bacon or sausage, hash browns, and toast, $4.95. Breakfast served 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Wallflower Modern Diner 2420 Main St., 604-568-7554Occupying the shell of the now departed Aurora Bistro, this space is definitely more modern than diner, but it serves affordable breakfasts until 3 p.m., when it switches to affordable comfort food for dinner. A daily pot pie special ($12) is a thoughtfully constructed dish prepared with no shortage of flavours. Highballs are $3.50. (Yes, $3.50.) Coffee JJ Bean, $2. Breakfast special Breakfast burger with egg, cheddar, and bacon, $7. Breakfast served 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Copa Café4030 Cambie St., 604-873-8974The Copa is one of three Cambie Village Canto-diners serving the resurgent cha chaan teng cuisine—literally, “tea-meal room” food. Here fashionable Hongcouverites twiddle iPhones over classics like pork chops baked in a tomato cream sauce over rice. French toast, two slices deep-fried and glued together with a filling of sweet condensed milk, is an altogether superior species to its Western ancestor. Coffee Coffee and other drinks come free, including cups of de rigueur Chinese tea. 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Ovaltine Café 251 E. Hastings St., 604-685-7021Nothing evokes the faded glamour of East Hastings more than the Ovaltine (est. 1943). Inside, time has not just stopped but gone mute; breakfast at the Big O is perhaps the quietest meal in town. Choose a counterside stool for hushed conviviality or a vinyl-benched booth to hunker over eggs, meat, or—recommended—mile-high pancakes (stack of three, with two eggs, $4.50). Coffee The pot’s been topped up with fresh for six decades. It ain’t weak. Breakfast special Two eggs, bacon or ham or sausage, potatoes, toast, $3.50. Breakfast from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
The Templeton 1087 Granville St., 604-685-4612True, the booths, stools, and working jukeboxes are pure ’50s, but the handmade turkey sausage, free-range eggs, and rosemary potatoes are perfectly contemporary. Despite the porn shops lining that end of Granville Street, the Templeton maintains a sweet mystique that attracts maroon-haired bohemians and folksy 20-somethings. Coffee Served in jumbo mugs, the brew is sweet and unassuming. Breakfast special Three eggs, sausage or bacon, pan fries, and toast, $8. Breakfast served daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Sunshine Diner 2756 W. Broadway, 604-733-7717Naugahyde heaven. This ’50s kitsch emporium has a loyal Kits following. Fancy pepper and salt grinders elicit tiny ooh-la-las, but overall the setup is mid-range. The experience of 20 Elvis faces watching you chow down is only mildly disconcerting. Coffee While servers are eager to refill your cup, Sunshine’s relatively pricey java ($2.35) could break your caffeine habit. Breakfast special Two eggs, three sausages, pan fries, and toast, $9.95. Breakfast daily from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.