The Mysterious Gem At The Top Of Hotel Van

February 9, 2009.

My friend Owen Lightly (who, incidentally, is leaving Voya to join former West compatriot Brad Miller at the soon to open Au Petit Chauvignol) and I were walking through the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver the other night after a few beers when I stopped and asked him if he’d ever been to the dormant restaurant at the top of the hotel. He’d heard about it, but never seen it before, so we stopped the nearest managerial type, pretended to be incredibly important people, and were promptly given the nickel tour of the place.

Located on the 15th floor (there are two floors above it), the 5,200 square foot “Panorama Roof” (now dubbed rather unpoetically as “The Roof”) opened together with the Hotel in 1939. It enjoyed quite a long run, becoming one of Vancouver’s most famously infamous establishments. It was an “it” spot, perhaps the Chambar of its day, only it may have been even cooler.

The Panorama Roof is where legendary big band leader Dal Richards – aka “The King of Swing” – got his start back in the Spring of 1940 (he was a regular performer there for 25 years), and it was where the city’s swish set raised elbows and got their Saturday night drunks on (for many years, the CBC used the dining room as a “happening” studio from which they broadcast national shows every week).

But then it died in the early 1980’s, circumstances unbenownst to me. The hotel still uses the space as a private function room, but it hasn’t changed since it was last renovated in the 1970’s. It looks like it, too. The pillars are crassly mirrored, the ceiling is hung with strange yellow and dark grey blocks, and the carpet can best be described as “crab blood blue”. There’s an odd, sunken bar on one side that could probably fit thirty bums, but it sports a bar top that only comes up to the guests’ knees. The kitchen is massive, and though in dire need of some TLC, it’s where the old bones of the hotel shine the brightest (many of the fittings looked to predate the Second World War). But it was the view that impressed the most. The north and south vistas were breathtaking…

We stood there for a while, wondering what it must have once been like. It had been a quiet tour, done mostly by flashlight as our guide couldn’t find the switches, but we could nevertheless imagine the space filled with the dapper in the halcyon days of my grandmother, well before rock ‘n roll. If those walls could talk I would have pulled up a banquet chair (the horror!) and opened a bottle. I would have paid to listen…

And so it sits there, almost totally dormant, maybe whispering quietly to itself little reminders of where our food and restaurant scene once was between evenings filled with insurance salesmen trying to get laid at their annual staff party and playing host to the Bobs and Graces of this town celebrating their 75th wedding anniversaries.

I know we’re staring an economic apocalypse in the nostrils at the moment, but that won’t stop me from hoping the times will one day warrant its renovation and reincarnation. With so many new hotels popping up downtown (Voya, Moda, etc) and long-established ones revamping their food and beverage programs (Yew, Beyond, Hawksworth, etc), you’d think the Hotel Vancouver would be keen on doing something better than Griffin’s, its tired old tourist trap on the main floor. Even when dark, empty and severely hamstrung by its ugly 70’s prom dress, “The Roof” offers far more personality, history, and romance.

Just imagine what a few million dollars could do in there…

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Andrew Morrison is a west coast boy who studied history and classics at the Universities of Cape Town and Toronto after an adolescence spent riding skateboards and working in restaurants. He is the editor of Scout Magazine, the weekly food and restaurant columnist for the Westender newspaper, a contributor to Vancouver and Western Living magazines, and a proud board member of the Chef’s Table Society of BC. He lives and works by the beach in Vancouver.

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