Guided by the 90s was a weekly eight part series written for the Vancouver online magazine, Vancouver is Awesome. The series was an editorial experiment of sorts in that it investigated urban development by using an outdated travel guide to tour the city of Vancouver in the present.
We’re setting out on an offbeat tour of Vancouver and want you to come along! Over the next several weeks self-proclaimed historian, writer, and Vancouver resident, David Look will use a Lonely Planet Vancouver guidebook published in 1999 to embark on a disjointed adventure around town.
Are the remnants of rum running gangsters still in the West End? Can Yaletown still hold its own as an up and coming dining destination? Are there any singing monks left in Gastown? Does the Irish Heather still serve the most pints of Guinness in the Lower Mainland? Is Vancouver a better place now than it was then? Or has it all gone downhill since Steve Francis refused to play for the Grizzlies, David Duchovny complained about the rain, and the non-event that was Y2K forced us into a new millennium without Planet Hollywood?
Look for instalments of this informative, and somewhat ridiculous, essay on Vancouver’s history every Throwback Thursday, where David and his crease-covered friend relive the past, meditate on the present, and theorize the future. With each neighbourhood jaunt you’ll witness a city that never stops changing, but in some respects is always the same, while the staff of local businesses, tourists, and random weirdos on the street have their say about what makes - and made - Vancouver Awesome.
This was a dumb idea. It’s just after 5 am on a Saturday morning and I’m sitting beside the Nine O’clock Gun in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. I’m here under the advice of my guide, to experience Vancouver’s #1 tourist attraction: the beauty of nature from the city’s most loved park. After the bar I was in closed, and after a nightcap at home, sunrise seemed like the ideal time to do it. A sound plan, except for the fact that you can’t see the sunrise if you can’t see the sun. It’s cloudy, cold and about to rain.
“The natural world intrudes on the city’s busy urban life at every corner,” my guide says. When I hatched this plan under the misguided influence of alcohol, I envisioned a rising, easterly sun with the north shore mountains making their towering presence known, birds awakening in cheerful song, and light reflecting in the pacific waters that shape the various neighbourhoods I’ve called home for 16 years. Then I’d peel off all my clothes off, climb onto the back of a mist-spouting Orca whale, and ride into the past with my guide — nude and at one with nature — where we'd never feel out of place, surrounded by a constant comfort of sameness. Instead, it’s just begun to rain.
“Vancouver’s annual precipitation averages 1113mm,” my guide announces. I can’t tell if it’s reciprocating my desire for consistency, trying to piss me off, or showing me it still has some element of accuracy contained within its pages. I found it at the back of a Commercial Drive thrift store only days earlier, where it probably would have sat forever, because let’s face it, nobody wants an outdated guidebook. It’s kind of sad really, but for now, we’re both in this thing together and it’s time to get going.
My mission: to travel through time. My guide: a Lonely Planet travel book published in 1999; the same year I moved to Vancouver. My goal: see if the city I fell in love when I first arrived still exists, and ultimately decide if it’s still worth living in. When I’m done this experiment, my guide will undoubtedly be returned to a life without purpose, so I’m going to light it on fire and destroy it on the sands of Sunset Beach instead. It’s better to burn out than to fade away on a bookshelf.
Beluga Whales living in Stanley Park’s aquarium:
- 1999: 5
- 2015: 2
Price of entree at Stanley Park's Teahouse
- 1999: Aprox. $22.00
- 2015: $16.00 to $35.00
At this hour, from this park, in this rain, Vancouver doesn’t look like it’s changed much since the 90’s. My guide goes on at length, and in full colour, about Halleluiah Point (the point the gun sits on), Brockton Point, just about every other point in the park, and the 9000 sea creatures that call the Vancouver Aquarium their home at that time.
Except for the recent closure of the Stanley Park Fish House, reducing the park’s restaurant options to two, it’s a pretty safe bet that everything my guide suggests we visit is still here. And when it tells me that Stanley Park mirrors the size of Vancouver’s downtown core almost exactly, I decide the caged gun is all I can manage. I’m already tired.
“Vancouver has a lot more to offer than its postcard good looks,” the guide says, sensing my boredom and realizing it has failed to show me a beautiful sunrise free of cloud and drizzle. I almost detect a desperation, a nervousness, a fear in its words as we step out of Stanley Park’s safe, seemingly static nature, for something more challenging: the ever changing grid of the city.
The West End
Our first destination out of Stanley Park is the West End, tucked neatly into the shadow of Vancouver’s tallest buildings. Although it’s quiet at this early hour, the densely populated mix of residential dwellings and impressive strip of restaurants, pubs, bars, and clubs my guide describes sounds exactly like the West End of today.
“It’s a lively place to spend time,” the guide happily reports, slightly overcompensating for the lack of action on Davie Street at 6:30am. “Traditionally the West End was the area where gay men tended to live and play.”
Population of the West End
- 1999: 40, 000
- 2011: 44, 000
“No way, really?” I deadpan as we walk by a rainbow painted crosswalk, beside a pink garbage bin, complemented by a pink-polled bus stop. My need for a coffee is even more apparent than the City of Vancouver’s embracement of Davie Street as the epicentre of gay culture in British Columbia, but I’m not going to trust the task of getting caffeinated to 1999.
Instead, I head straight to JJ Bean on the corner of Bidwell and Davie. Even though I didn’t consult its wisdom for a cafe in the area, as we approach the unique, Spanish stylings of this relatively new JJ Bean location, my guide’s unavoidable purpose goes to work. It can’t be stopped. It must guide.
“Mescalero is a trendy combination of Spanish and Tex-Mex restaurant serving the usual assortment of items, plus paella, ostrich, and tapas.” I don’t bother correcting its understandable mistake since the building still looks like the monasterial class C heritage structure featured in the pages of my guide — except for the 21 story condominium that’s been dumped on its head.
Originally built in the 1920’s, the JJ Bean occupying 1209 Bidwell is said to be haunted by its the associates of its original tenant, Madame Maxine McGillvary, owner of Maxine’s Beauty School.
The boarding house and beauty school has long-since been the source of illicit rumours that suggest it was the cover for a "gentlemen's club" involved with mob-connected rum-running to keep its stock of then illegal liquor flowing. No evidence has ever been found to suggest they actually existed, but two underground tunnels are said to have terminated under Maxine’s: one started where the English Bay bathhouse is currently located, making it easy to smuggle in the kind of contraband that makes for a good party; the second connected Maxine’s to the Gabriola Mansion, just up Davie Street.
B.T. Rogers, of Rogers Sugar fame, was the owner of the Gabriola Mansion during Maxine’s heyday, and he reportedly used a personally-built, red velvet lined tunnel for discreet visits to the “beauty school.”
During the 90s, the Gabriola Mansion housed the Macaroni Grill. The familiar words bring my guide back to life as I swing open the door to JJ Bean, “Romano’s Macaroni Grill has a bag of tricks to bring in the business — including opera singers, cooking exhibitions, and pay-what-you-drink-jugs of...”
“Ok. Enough. I get it!” my un-coffeed, easily irritated response cuts short the helpful soliloquy it was about to launch into. The barista seems freaked out by my still-wearing-last-night’s-party looks and heated conversation with a book. Revealing my travel companion seems like the best way to ease the tension.
Average rent for a 1 Bedroom Apartment in the West End
- 1999: $718.00
- 2015: $1250.00
“So I’m touring the city with this guide. It’s from the 90s. Apparently this place is haunted, have you seen or heard anything funny going on?” I say, completing my transaction.
“I’ve only been working here a month, so, uhm, not really.”
“Well, don’t be surprised if you do,” the much needed coffee warms my words with excitement, “It used to be a brothel. I can only imagine the stuff that went on in here!” I’m probably a bit too exuberant for a kid working an opening shift in a coffee shop, but his face lights up with interest, so I go on.
With my guide in hand beside me, I tell the tall tales of mob bosses, rum tunnels, "Madame" Maxine, and haunted lounges. I make it all sound really good, and not only has the rest of the staff joined in to listen, every customer in the cafe is listening to the story about JJ Bean’s mysterious past. Questions start coming, and my guide and I do our best to answer them. Suddenly, we’re a team! With caffeine in my veins, and the guide enjoying a newfound relevance, our exploration of the past has taken on a promising future.
As we cut up Davie Street, the guide suggests some of the West End’s most popular gay bars, like Celebrities or Numbers, but it's too early. Instead, we stop outside the empty, cold, and abandoned mansion that was once the home of B.T. Rogers and Romano’s Macaroni Grill. I can’t help wonder what our taxidermic approach to heritage preservation will be created out of the condominium that will inevitably be built here. Will there be enough of a facade of the mansion left to remind us of B.T. Rogers traversing a red velvet tunnel by candlelight? Will the aura of camaraderie that seeped into the the walls of the Macaroni Grill by way of opera singers and pay-what-you-drink jugs of wine survive the historical lobotomy of new construction? Does it even matter? For answers, there is only one place I can turn.
“In the mid-1950’s, over the space of 13-years, 220 apartment buildings went up in the West End, and in so doing took away many of the fine old buildings that had made the West End a gracious place in which to live.” In an effort to hear comforting words from the past, my guide has instead described a West End that parallels my current lament — it always has been, and always will be, developing.
Emerging from the West End’s residential core under a melancholy induced by the past’s vulnerability to demolition, my guide and I welcome the distracting flood of people crowding the sidewalk on Robson Street.
“If you like shopping, you’ll love Robson St. A collage of tourist shops, fashion boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants,” my guide says, resuming its duty to describe the area for me with a tone that sounds like its under the influence of retail therapy. “Locals, international tourists, and recent immigrants all throng here giving the street the feeling of a mini United Nations.” As we pass through an impressive stretch of izakayas, ramen bars, and bubble tea houses that have come to define its terminus near Denman over the past decade, my guide’s 15 year out-of-date descriptions of Robson sound incredibly robust with a zest for usefulness. But as we head east, its ability to keep time with the present begins to crack.
“Part of the fun of browsing here is that the shops are really eclectic — you can find everything from Giorgio Armani suits, to hologram portraits of Elvis, to a shop dedicated to fancy condoms.” The disconnect between what the guide says and what I’m seeing creates a dementia people tend to sympathize with, but avoid addressing at all costs. Uncomfortable silence has begun to permeate any glaringly obvious moments when I realize my guide is frozen in time while the rest of world is constantly evolving.
I’m not seeing the diversity of stores described by my guide in the J Crew, Banana Republic, Gap, Sephora, Forever21 and Club Monaco that welcome shoppers along Robson Street’s main arcade of activity today. As much as I’d love to put the guide into a bespoke Armani suit for its final day of touring before I end its suffering on the shores of Sunset Beach, none can be found here. Since the 90s, tastes have changed, and Robson Street has evolved to meet the fashions of its customers, but doing so has created an assemblage of brand-name chain stores not unlike any other major urban shopping district, if not Pacific Centre just up the street. The area’s designation as an upscale shopping destination seems threatened by its nearby sibling, Alberni Street, where Burberry, Tory Burch, and Versace have all recently set up, leaving a noticeable amount of For Lease signs up and down “Vancouver’s Runway.”
Dining and drinking along Robson Street can still satisfy an appetite for something less franchised though. After sheepishly running through suggestions like Cactus Club, Earls, and Milestones, I push into the guide for something more unique and find several mainstays that have survived escalating rents along Robson Street for more than 20 years. Zefferelli’s “large open room,” Cin Cin’s “sophisticated ambience,” and the “traditional Northwest cooking” at Joe Fortes Seafood & Chophouse all sound inviting and keep the fine dining flag flying high over Robson Street’s south end, while Hon’s Wun-Tun House, and Shenanigans, a pub on the bottom floor of the Blue Horizon Hotel, have their own thing going on, and haven't changed from how they’re described in the guide.
Price of Nirvana's Nevermind on compact disc
- 1990: $10 to $15.00
- 2015: $5.62
As much as I’d love to get to know my guide better over a beer in the comforts of the Expo 86 influenced interior design of Shenanigans, it’s still too early for revelry, and we’ve got lots of work to do. Instead, I consult it for anything else worth seeing; turns out it loves bookstores — go figure. Rather than bring down the hammer of the present, I decide to just let go, and let the 90s in.
“Manhattan Books & Magazines has an excellent selection of foreign (mainly French) language books, magazines and newspapers.”
The guide starts again, “Manhattan Books...”
“No dummy,” I snap back in confusion on the corner of Robson and Thurlow Street, “I know! That’s where I live?”
I had no idea Manhattan Apartments, one of the oldest residential buildings in the West End, the building I’ve called home for almost 10 years, had a cool little bookstore on its bottom floor. It would have been nice to stop in, but we can’t. Instead, I move quickly by the jewellery store that’s replaced Manhattan Books with my guide tucked tightly under my arm so it can’t see that a member of its extended family is no longer with us.
But the guide’s love of bookstores won’t rest that easily. It wants books, so books it is. It goes on at length about Duthie’s Books, a family-run chain that opened in 1957, and the huge selection at Chapters; any trace of their existence today only lives in the endangered pages of my guide. Then I hear the word, “mega” and my memory of the 90s is rekindled with familiarity. Nothing says 90s more than “mega,” and nothing represents the height and power of tangible media in mid-90s Vancouver more than the Virgin Megastore!
“Virgin Megastore is the largest music and entertainment store in Canada and the selection is simply staggering,” says the guide, crackling with an excitement, oblivious to what has happened to the building standing in front of us at the corner of Robson and Burrard.
A better example of media technology’s progression from book, to disc, to an uncontainable cloud can’t be found in Vancouver beyond the building that maintains the address of 750 Burrard St. From 1957 to 1995 it housed Vancouver’s Central Library. In 1997, at the height of the disc drive era, it became a media “megastore,” owned and operated by Virgin. When Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Will Smith helped to celebrate the opening of the Planet Hollywood restaurant inside of it, the building seemed to act as living proof that Hollywood had come north. Most of us know the rest of the story: it was sold to HMV, just as the concept of file sharing was beginning to make its destruction upon the idea of ownership known.
Standing in front of the Victoria’s Secret that maintains a mega inventory of panties there today, my book, my guide, with its bent paper covers and well worn pages, once again has fallen silent.
Granville Entertainment District
It can’t be much fun living with the feeling that you’re obsolete, that what you have to say about the world around you has no meaning in the present. After my guide’s inability to surface a single bookstore along Robson Street, making it seem like it could be the only book left in the world, its moral has to be low. If anybody needs a pick-me-up, it’s this Lonely Planet. What better place to find it than on Granville Street.
“Many of the music clubs are found along Granville St. while many of the dance clubs are found along Richards Street.” Although its words sound deflated and disinterested, I know my guide has to be hiding a more intriguing rendition of Granville Street than the Saturday afternoon version we’re standing on today. Instead of heading to the closest incinerator to enact on its planned euthanasia earlier than I had expected, I intend on finding it, and pledge to continue its suffering a little longer for the entertainment of us all. Besides, it deserves another chance to get back in the game. I wouldn’t expect anyone, professional guide or otherwise, to be enthused about suggesting a visit to the Granville Entertainment District, but this is different: this is the 90s!
Price of a first run movie ticket
- 1999: $8.75
- 2015: $12.99
My impression of Granville Street back then was a place that had a little something for everyone. The newly renovated Vogue Theatre brought internationally recognized acts to music fans looking for an alternative to arena-type shows; the Sugar Refinery featured more eclectic programming for the many Emily Carr Institute-types that frequented it; and a concentration of multiplex and repertory cinema screens offered endless hours of entertainment for the younger set. All this, plus it was flanked by the Starfish Room and Richards on Richards to the east, the city’s best blues bar, The Yale to the south, and let’s not forget Bosmans’s Motor Hotel, and its Side Bar Lounge just one block west. And of course, for the pervert that resides in us all, a healthy display of adult themed theatres and stores, which made it seem all the more exciting.
My guide sees it another way. The map it uses to suggest a tour of downtown cuts a wide swath of avoidance around this seven block artery of light that seems perfectly positioned to feed life, and tourist dollars, into the downtown core. Reference to Granville Street is spread throughout disparate sections of the guide that cover the obvious clubs and bars Granville was known for then, and mostly abhorred for now. Unlike other less worthy areas of the city, there is no section dedicated to Granville Street; no introductory paragraph to set the table with a little history about its designation as “theatre row;” no recognition of its impressive collection of neon signs; and although it mentions “plenty of greasy-spoon cafes and restaurants,” it suggests I visit very few of them — The Templeton is the only one that still exists today. Some place called The Goulash House, stands alone as the only dining room in the mid-range budget category it deems worth a visit, and having long since closed its doors, I only mention it because of the way my guide describes it as being “in an unfortunate part of the city, but worth the walk past the adult video stores and seedy hotels just for the delicious food.” There is merely a brief mention of one of Granville Street’s longest running clubs, a place that like the guide, has endured despite being completely irrelevant to current taste or style. “The Roxy has local and sometimes big name rock bands.” Great. Thanks.
Had it not been sitting on a shelf for over a decade, my guide would have likely known that as the 2010 Olympics approached, Granville Street underwent a gentrification program to clean up its image of a place dominated by movie theatres, pinball arcades, and sex shops. But as most of us can appreciate, that didn’t make it a more pleasurable place to visit. The more liberal approach to liquor laws — don’t laugh, you couldn’t even walk around a bar holding a beer until the 70s — that ushered in Expo 86, combined with a raise in rent to drive out the sleeze, resulted in an entirely booze-based entertainment zone that only big clubs or condos can afford. It’s all pretty one dimensional, and the relatively recent strategy to contain the madness has only given it a three ring circus vibe that can only be appreciated by people that don’t have to deal with it weekend after weekend.
Still, a return to the variety that the Granville Street of the 90s seemed to offer might be on the horizon. The Commodore Ballroom’s revitalization in 1999 continued the Vogue’s nod to the area’s past for a new millennium, and while the Yale’s interior was entirely scraped clean of its history by a condo development, the street facing facade still exists, and is set to open as a BBQ serving saloon. Just this summer, Studio Records introduced Granville’s first all-in-one bar, record store, and performance space into what was a pretty predictable mix of establishments, and brought back an infamous neon sign that adorned the street from 1949 to 1972. None of these recent improvements has any bearing on my guide’s view of Granville, though. The bars it suggests we visit are either gone or closed, and there’s a long wait for a table at the Templeton. Anyone from any decade knows that only fools stand in line for brunch.
“There is a great selection of cinemas throughout the city,” my guide says, making another suggestion with the usual lack of enthusiasm that’s plagued this leg of our tour — notice how it also refuses to mention Granville Street? So I finally push back, and decide that although it can’t suggest a single cinema on Granville Street that hasn’t been torn down, turned into a condo, or wrapped in a chain link fence to await development, there’s still one left. A place that, despite rumours that it’s been of another era since the day it opened, has reached a legendary status for its ability to survive; just like The Roxy; just like my guide. Without protest from its pages, we walk through the doors of Movieland Arcade and into a double barrelled river of pinball machines that flood the senses with flashing lights and raging sounds. We proceed straight to the back of the room with a stack of quarters, to the “Theatre for Men,” where Granville Street’s last remaining multiplex resides in several, separately licensed, personal movie screens. Each show classic, short, looping erotica on real 35mm film — a cultural dinosaur kept alive for mysterious, unprofitable ends. While the rest of the world progresses around it, Movieland Arcade has stayed the same, helping it to reach a level of respect few other establishments along Granville enjoy today.
While we didn’t find a bookstore to make my Lonely Planet feel a little less lonely, we found a like-minded survivor in an unexpected place, the “seedy” underbelly of Granville Street. And with it, the realization that being a little out of sync with everything around you can be appreciated, as long as you hang on to the past long enough.
Forcing my guide around Granville Street when it clearly had no interest in being forced it into a snit. And after getting chastised by readers about missing all the great places that were on Granville in the 90s, now I’m in one too. Good thing it’s happy hour, and with it, a new challenge for the guide: to find the latest, hippest, funkiest, coolest neighbourhood the 90s ever knew in Vancouver. A place where we can lose ourselves in libations and start working as a team again; where we can tour the decade and go to every single place that anyone ever thought was cool there; a place we can visit to make everyone in Vancouver happy with us again. In mere seconds, the guide spits back its answer to my query: Yaletown.
“This is currently the trendy part of town so there are plenty of restaurants, bars, clubs and shops, including more designer-furniture shops than you have probably ever seen gathered together in one area.”
“Yaletown is perfect. Seriously, I would have never thought of coming here for a drink,” I state in a charming tone, trying to hide a hint of sarcasm I just couldn’t hold back. I mean, come on, everyone knows Yaletown has been a bit of a drag for at least the past 6 or 7 years in terms of being the edgy, industrial up and coming destination the guide sells it as. Just between me and you, I wasn't lying, this is truly the last place I would take anyone for a drink, but if we’re going to do this leg of the tour right, we’ve got to work as a team.
“Large industrial garbage containers sit on the streets, and there is little in the way way of proper street lighting.” I can barely keep from rolling my eyes as the guide continues to introduce me to the perils of Yaletown. “Despite all the retail stores that have moved into the area it’s still zoned as an industrial district,” it continues with an air of insider knowledge as we stroll down Mainland Street, painting a picture of a nascent industrial wasteland of warehouses featuring the kind of rawness and desolation that inspires opportunity.
My guide isn’t entirely off. Yaletown still looks industrial. The garbage cans are here, the streets are still lined with cobblestone, and the warehouses are all still intact and looking fabulous. I’m not sure what it means about the lighting, but the way it describes the it spot to dine in Yaletown in the 90s, Century Grill, as the place to be seen while seeing sports stars and celebrities — a torch that’s been picked up by Blue Water Cafe in Century’s spot at 1095 Mainland — shows the neighbourhood’s edge in a pretty smooth light.
Yaletown’s story is a story many major urban centres can tell. An industrial neighborhood priced for utility becomes attractive to hungry upstarts looking for cheap digs. And so the story goes. Interesting people, willing to take a chance on something undefined-but-different move in, and suddenly the place is cool. We all know how it ends: The Keg, Earls, Cactus Club and Milestones. Instead of pointing out the abundance of dining franchises, personal waxing bars, and salons that have replaced the pool parlours and other smaller, unique establishments that are no longer around, I refocus my guide’s attention on alcohol.
“A real find here is De Niro’s.” Starting with a dining suggestion seems like an obvious passive aggressive tactic that threatens the happiest hour of the day — the golden hour for drinking. But I’m intrigued when I realize it’s referring to the fabled De Niro’s Supper Club that was sued by Robert De Niro in 1999 over section three of British Columbia’s Privacy Act. Instead of suffering from the publicity, De Niro's changed its name to Section (3) and thrived for 13 more years as the crown destination of the Yaletown experience. Visiting the Romer’s Burger Bar that replaced it in 2012 is a must. The guide and I tuck into a booth with two Sangria Blasters, the day’s drink special. This is it, we’re at the flashpoint of Yaletown in the 90s.
“This restaurant used to be called Section (3), right?” I quip with my waitress while she hurriedly drops the burger I ordered in front of me.
“Yep,” she says curtly, and leaves, killing any chance of continuing the conversation.
“Well there goes that plan,” I say, looking at my guide while it sits there in silence with a full drink in front of its smug face. Much to my surprise, despite being in the literary industry, the guide isn’t a drinker. After finishing the Sangria Blaster sitting in front of it, we both leave Romer’s one less sober than the other. We’re not going to give up on happy hour, Yaletown, or the 90s just yet.
The guide bounces back quickly — it’s earlier sullen mood on Granville Street seems like a distant memory — and suggests Capones. “A long and narrow restaurant that goes on forever until you see the stage at the back where jazz bands play Wednesday through Saturday.” Jazz!? I love jazz! If anything is lacking in Vancouver, it’s a steady, solid jazz club. Could one possibly be alive and well in Yaletown? Of course not.
Today, Capones is called The New Oxford, one of the The Donnelly Group’s multitude of venues dispersed throughout the city. Although each has a unique name that deftly conjures up a particular genre of time, place and style, there are tell-tale signs — pinball machines, a particular type of leather topped bar stool, dark wood beverage tables, neon signage, and a hint of damask wallpaper — that once you learn them, will reveal each as near facsimiles of each other. My guide and I are the only one taking seats at the bar when our server asks what I’m having. I order a Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc, and then point to my guide and order it a Stella, the beer for amateurs.
“No really,” I say, confirming my request that he pour a drink for my imaginary friend, “it’s having a rough day. It’s been showing me around all the places it thinks are cool, but they’re all closed. That or they’re not worth going into.” A few sips in, I hope for some perspective beyond the white pages of the guide and ask my server how he thinks Yaletown has changed since the 90s
“I was born in 1993, so I don’t really know,” he says, if not a little sheepishly.
I feel old, irrelevant even. Now I know how my guide feels. I drink my beer. I drink my guide’s beer. My plan to kill the guide at the end of this adventure, instead of returning it to a meaningless, never ending shelf life now includes me. Just as I’m finishing a vision of the guide and I walking into the ocean under suicide pact, I see the remnants of the Capones' stage at the back of the room. It’s filled with a row of pinball machines. There is no jazz in yaletown. We pay our bill and leave.
We’re done with Yaletown.
I’m sorry. Time travel is proving more difficult than I thought, and over the course of the day, my guide and I have become long long-winded, melodramatic, insufferable bores. As I step onto Water Street and into Gastown, it’s obvious I am having some kind of existential breakdown. What’s changed here since the 90s? Is it better? Worse? What does it matter?! I’m dying. You’re dying. We’re all dying! Hell, my guide is already dead! And any attempt to catalogue a world that’s moving at a blinding pace, with or without us, seems ultimately futile.
Suddenly, my mini-meltdown is interrupted by the Gastown steam clock, ushering in 6pm. I hate this goddamn clock! But tonight, something in its baritone chime sounds different, comforting, romantic even. With my guide in hand, I impulsively walk up to it and wrap my arms around its glass spire as it rings in the last chortle of the hour. Flashbulbs from the small audience gathered at the corner of Water and Cambie go off at a paparazzi-like pace. I feel free of the need to hold onto the past, so I let go. I mean, I’m probably just drunk from drinking all my guide’s drinks in Yaletown, but if there’s anything I am sure of, it’s that this steam clock will be here forever. And in a small way, so will my guide and I — our images captured with the clock by random strangers, instantly stored in the cryptic permanence of cloud archives that belong to all that witnessed this random act of here and now — forever.
“This is the world’s first steam-powered clock and, despite its antique appearance, was built in 1977,” my guide says in an attempt to sober the moment with a caution about Gastown’s authenticity, and the validity of our portrait. Its reportage has a business-like tone that symbolically wipes the tears from my eyes, hands me a moist wipe, and gives me a stiff smack on the back that says — let’s get back to work, finish what we started and when we’re done, destroy me so I never have to go through this again. And so our story begins.
Many places operating here in the 90s mirrored Gastown’s origin story. In the 1970s, it was was decaying, and in an attempt to revitalize the area, city planners laid quaint cobblestone streets lit with Victorian lamps, making the area look historic and charming. It lead many a tourist and local alike to believe its antiquity was 100% authentic. The Old Spaghetti Factory, one of the establishments still operating that my guide suggests for dinner, was one of the first restaurants here. Its old-timey knick knacks, endless loaves of free bread, cheap wine, and large tables to gather friends at make it a great spot to experience the remnants of Gastown’s original underpinnings as a museum-like heritage park.
The Managers Favourite at Old Spaghetti Factory:
- 1999: "About $13"
- 2015: $12.40
Nothing in the guide’s dining descriptions captures my imagination like Brother’s Restaurant, though. Apparently, aspiring actors would often find their way into a robe there as servers. Diners were entertained with theatre and song while they ate. “With Gregorian chants emanating from its front door and wait staff dressed in monks’ habits, the ‘Brothers’ serve items like the Monastery Burger ($8).” As much as I’d love to revel in Gastown’s campy caricatures of the past, where Brother’s and Old Spaghetti Factory existed with the converted railway dining car of the The Chew Chew Club on Alexander, magic nights and jazz at Blake’s on Carrall, and live music at Mick’s Restaurant & Rhythm Bar at 332 Water, they were anomalies. By the 90s, Gastown had begun its evolution into something more contemporary, something entirely its own.
Today, Gastown has fully evolved. The Secret Location, a mash-up of lifestyle boutique and restaurant, has replaced Brother’s at 1 Water Street, Blacktail entertains with small plates instead of the live music that was found at Mick’s, while Six Acres, The Diamond, Pourhouse, and the Revel Room, have all helped to continue the work Steamworks started in ushering the craft beer and cocktail era that's currently flourishing here.
Drinking in Gastown in the 90s
- Craft beer brewpubs: 1
- Craft cocktail lounges: 0
My guide keeps up with its business-like reports, helping to keep us focused on our mission as we step into Gaolers Mews, “the location of the city’s first jail, customs house and home to Gastown’s first constable.” Now it’s the apex of dining 2.0 in Gastown. Places like L'Abattoire’s French influenced West Coast fare, Pekinpah’s southern BBQ, Cork & Fin’s fresh seafood, and just out the lane and into Blood Alley, sits Salt Tasting Room. None of these places are chains. Each is unique unto itself. A refreshing sight after time spent along Robson Street, and in Yaletown. But not as quenching as more alcohol to stave off another episode of anxiety about my own mortality that this journey seems to be exacerbating.
“Guide,” I say, “let’s party like it’s 1999.”
“Club 212 presents the latest in progressive dance music,” it returns within seconds.
“Perfect!” As we march onto Carrall Street together, expecting to find a raging dance party just after 6pm. It's not much of a surprise when we instead find the Irish Heather at 212 Carrall,which was here in the 90s too, but where L'Abattoire now resides. Surprisingly, neither my guide or I are affected by the sudden change in plans, and we quickly adapt to pubbing over clubbing — why it it remains silent about the Blarney Stone, one of Gastown’s longest running pubs is at once mysterious, yet totally obvious.
“The Irish Heather not only pours the best Guinness in town - but supposedly sells the second-most pints of the dark stuff in Canada,” my guide says. I check to see if the fact holds true with our bartender as we take a seat at the bar. Indeed, the Irish Heather still runs a close second behind a pub in Whistler when it comes to pouring Guinness. I order 2, stand my guide up on the bar, wrap its pages around one of them, and have a chat with the our server. We talk at length about Club 212, the low income residents that Gastown’s revitalization in the 1970’s displaced further east, and the unavoidable displeasures of change — even with something as trivial as drinking. The addition of a bumpy, embossed harp on the Guinness glass, which had remained unchanged for decades, is a real sore spot for our bartender.
“It just doesn’t feel feckin right. If Guinness forced us to use the their new glass with the harp in it, we’d stop servin' Guinness. That’s 'ow strongly we believe in honorin' the past,” my Irish bartender says with confidence while finishing the 2nd pour. If there wasn’t a bar separating us, the guide and I would hug him too. Instead, the three of us sit in silence, united by our unbranded, rogue Guinness glasses.
Downtown East Side & Chinatown
Before we can get to Chinatown, we’ll have to cross Hastings Street. I only mention it as a challenge because night has fallen, and my guide seems gripped with warning as we approach the divide between us and dinner. Our entire journey has been peppered with little comments about “seedy” characters and “rough” neighbourhoods, but the Downtown East Side is never directly referenced.
“Hastings Street on either side of Main Street is a less-than-wholesome part of town, especially at night,” it says as I cross Hastings at Carrall, warmed by the happy hour Guinness we just downed in Gastown.
I get it, this is tourism, where most people are looking for an escape from reality, not a means to take it head on. But this is also time travel, and with hindsight on my side, I think the guide could have done a better job of contextualizing the drugs, crime, mental illness, poverty, and homelessness that’s all part of the Downtown East Side with the vibrancy, history, and sense of community that’s also at play here. To my guide, the DTES doesn’t exist. Every establishment it mentions is conveniently blended into Gastown and Chinatown.
Rather than traverse Hastings quickly, we stroll slowly towards Columbia Street, and pass the spot where The Only Seafoods used to hang its neon seahorse. My guide’s description of Only’s clam chowder, the Vancouver Police Centennial Museum’s quirkiness, and the Patricia Hotel’s clean, affordable rooms are the only places in what we now call the DTES mentioned with any enthusiasm. Bodai Vegetarian Restaurant’s simulated meat dishes at 337 E. Hastings, Pho Day’s $3 specials at 333 E. Hastings, and Pho Pasteur’s all-night hours at the corner of Gore and Hastings get a more utilitarian treatment, describing simple dishes at fair prices. Today, they’re just memories that have given way to a neighbourhood in transition, where the affordable rent is becoming too tantalizing to ignore any longer. New owners have taken over the Ovaltine Cafe, extended its hours, improved the food quality, and seem to have embraced a sensitivity interested in being part of the community here, instead of being contrary to it. In an ironic twist, a Texas BBQ, with a smoker brought straight from Austin, is set to open where Bodai Vegetarian used to operate.
Once we land on Pender Street and walk into Chinatown, my guide loosens up a bit and gets back to its life’s work: trying to find authentic and unique experiences for those that have the opportunity to seek them, but it’s proving difficult. It has no idea about Chinatown’s recent adoption by the creative class, where places it would likely salivate over are in abundance today. It would love Bao Bei’s pairing of contemporary cocktails with traditional Chinese cafe fair; Bestie’s craft beer, ethically sourced bratwurst and Bauhaus-inspired interior; the taxidermied walls at Mamie Taylor’s; the den-like opulence of the Emerald, and simplicity of Oyster Express on Gore. But this is the 90s, and back then people seemed to be leaving Chinatown instead of setting up shop.
“For the most part, this is a real Chinese market and business district, where nearly all the signs are in Chinese. For years the area has contended with the run-down blights of Hastings and Main Streets which is finally taking its toll,” my guide says, describing how many Chinatown residents moved their businesses to Richmond throughout the 90s.
While my guide and I stand on the cold corner of Columbia and Pender, where Foo’s Ho Ho has been replaced with a globally-inspired dining room called Sai Woo, I need to pause our story for a second to communicate the gravity of this moment. What follows will be my guide’s last suggestion. I’ve mentioned it adnauseum, so you should know by now that since we started this adventure together, I had always planned on burning the book on Sunset Beach to keep warm after dinner. If you don’t know what it’s like to feel unwanted, undoubtedly, one day you will. I can’t put my book, my companion in time travel, my guide, my friend, back on a shelf where it will sit in uselessness for the rest of time. So consider this upcoming dining suggestion as its last gift to us all.
“New Town Bakery & Restaurant has dishes for $8,” my guide says.
“Good! But closed for the night.”
Not to be deterred, it tries again. “A local favourite, the Park Lock, specializes in great seafood dishes. Don’t let the modest street level entry put you off.”
“No longer with us.”
“For Cambodian cuisine, go to Phnom Penh where you can expect to pay around $12 for most dishes.”
“Oh come on,” I say, getting cold and impatient, “Phnom Pen is great, but it’s in every guidebook known to mankind. You can do better.”
Then, something magical happens. Two simple words are uttered from the pages of my guide: Gain Wah. I feel a sensation that instantly replaces the cold, hunger, and dread of having to kill it after dinner with something else. It is the precious essence of joy. It has transcended time, arriving here from the 90s in the form of a restaurant in Chinatown I used to frequent many years ago because it was the only thing in the area open past 10pm. In its last moments, the guide has done well. Gain Wah is the ultimate dinner suggestion.
Cut to the guide and I bounding up Pender, towards Keefer where hopes that Gain Wah is still tucked safely behind Main are in peril. The 2nd floor bombed-out looking windows of Park Lock on Main Street, just before Keefer, have us both reeling in fear that the guide's last gesture will be in vain. Then we round the corner, and for what seems like the first time since we started, find exactly what the guide said would be there.
“Gain Wah has 16 varieties of congee (a rice or noodle soup loaded with goodies) starting at $4,” my guide says as we step into its familiarity. The restaurant is exactly as it was the last time I was here. The same guy, standing at the entrance, chopping BBQ pork and duck with a meat cleaver; the same woman working the tables, many of which are empty, surrounded by the same brown vinyl chairs. The hand written signs, the non-existent music, the stack of newspapers by the till, the people eating here in quiet solitude — EVERYTHING THE SAME. As our waitress approaches, I mention with excitement that I haven’t been here in 7 years, and that nothing has changed since. She smiles.
My agenda to engage with people about what’s transpired at Gain Wah since the 90s, or the new condo called “The Keefer” they’re building down the street, seems ridiculous here. There is nothing "cool” about this place. No pre-canned urban house music, no inspirational cocktails, organic wines, craft beers, local this, ethical that. Just a hard working couple, cooking the same food they were likely served as children for a clientele of other hard working people that need affordable food.
Rather than mine the past, the guide and I just sit for a long time over a half litre of unnamed house wine, Gai Lan in oyster sauce, fried rice, and BBQ pork chopped by the guy with the meat cleaver. The changing tides of trend have no bearing here. While I’m paying my bill, I realize that anything this guide could say would be appreciated as long as it was said within these walls, because in Gain Wah, time means nothing. Instead of destroying my guide, I discreetly slip it under a pile of other dated reading materials by the front entrance, silently say goodbye, and walk out the door, into the night, alone.
This Lonely Planet. My guide to Vancouver in the 90s. My friend and squire. Our adventure has ended, and over the time we spent together, my guide became me and I became it, each of us united in our attempts to be useful, helpful, and most of all, entertaining to our readers. I’m not sure if we were successful in our efforts to serve the audience of Vancouver Is Awesome, or in determining exactly how the city has changed since the new millennium was spawned, but one thing is certain, everyone has their own version of the past.
To me, the same issues at play here almost 20 years ago are the same things that are on the minds of many of us today: a desire for unique and authentic experiences, a love of the past, and an insatiable appetite to destroy it; progress, and its effect on marginalized people; the simple pleasures of good food and drink; and the fleeting nature of a moment in time. These core topics will never leave us, but how they’re represented in the city we call home is under constant and rapid change. It’s near impossible to keep up with.
During my walk home from Chinatown, where I left my Lonely Planet amongst a stack of other outdated reading materials in the protective cocoon of sameness that is Gain Wah, the day’s events replay in my mind like a movie. The sun coming up in Stanley Park, sharing ghost stories with tourists in the West End, our attempts at book shopping along Robson Street, watching porn on Granville, slamming Sangria Blasters in Yaletown, the pursuit of a dance floor in Gastown, and lingering over fried rice and white wine in Chinatown. We could have kept going with a visit to Kitsilano or Commercial Drive; we could have further investigated the entire sections the guide devoted to brunch, internet cafes, brew pubs, Richmond, Victoria, and Granville Island, but spending time in the past is not only disorienting, it’s difficult. So it’s time to say goodbye.
Winter is here, the night is cold, but as I continue home without guidance from any thing or time, I find myself unwittingly retracing the path my Lonely Planet took me on earlier in the day: back across the DTES into Gastown, onto Granville Street, across Robson, and up to Davie Street. At every turn, I’m overwhelmed by the energy and vibrancy of the people that are on these streets, living in the moment of a Saturday night. I feel inspired to do the same, and instead of going home to bed, I continue onward to Sunset Beach so I can end this journey the same way it began; in the stillness of nature. The rain and clouds are gone, the night is crisp and clear, and I’m just about freezing as I step onto the thick, frosty sand. The guide’s pages were supposed to burn here and keep me warm, but over the space of the day we became friends and I couldn’t do it. Looking out at the moon, I know that I still love Vancouver as much as I did when I came here in the 90s. I’m sure if my guide was still with me, it would say something about Sunset Beach being a favourite spot for Vancouverites to gather in the evenings to end their day in the natural beauty of the city, and I would take pleasure in noting that it’s still the same. But now I know better.
Everything changes, even nature. We’re just not here long enough to notice it.