200 Seat “Electric Owl” To Open In American Hotel On Main St.

April 20, 2011.

by Andrew Morrison | If you’ve walked down Main between Terminal and Prior in the last five years, you’ve likely got an eyeful of the eyesore that is the skeletal remains of the old American Hotel. It’s now in the latter stages of its renovation, and we have news of its innards to break.

We’ll get to what will be unveiled in a sec, but it should be remembered first that the 928 Main St. address has written quite the saga for itself in recent years, from the controversial eviction of its low income tenants and subsequent boarding up back in 2006 to the very public speculation ever since on its future affordability to those in need of shelter. It’s also something of a local lightning rod whenever talk turns to change on the periphery of the DTES. Some scream “unfair” and lament further gentrification for fear it will raise the cost of living for the low income set, while others call it inevitable, progress, or a hot bubble bath of condo-dwelling, latter-day hipsters more interested in granite counter tops than social welfare.

I’m not interested in having that debate here, aside from saying the hotel, which has been around since 1907, was in dire need of a facelift and that majoring in boutique hotel entertainment while still minoring in Single Room Occupancy is better than being a total dropout (6 of 42 rooms are set aside at $400 a month with more hovering at the $770 mark).

So, if you must, consider that a little prism through which you can view the coming of Electric Owl, the new 8,000 square foot establishment slated for the main floor. It will include a new, 200+ seat restaurant, live music venue, infused sake bar and lounge. The whole operation – bent on a Japanese izakaya theme – is due to open this May.

That’s pretty darn shortly, but considering it’s been seven years since someone sat down for a paid pint in there (not a legal drop since 2004), even a glass of water would probably be worth the wait. In the schematics above you can trace a front door on Main leading to the lounge and bar area (with off-sales, woot!) opening up to a booth-lined dance floor and a medium stage. At the rear and facing still-sketchy Station St. will be the central bar and restaurant spilling out to a 34 seat patio. They’re aiming for long hours for alcohol service, from 9am until 2am.

So what to think?

An izakaya – in essence a casual Japanese drinking hole with inventive snacks for casual types who tolerate irreverence – may prove a tricky thing to pull off if it’s just a conceptual lark not born out of any interest in or fealty to authenticity. I don’t know if that will be the case. I hope it’s not.

There are many good izakayas in Vancouver – the Guus, Kingyo, Motomachi Shokudo, the four Hapas, etc. – and a distilled version is not something that people interested in food would be all that keen on if it was the least bit lame. A lip-synched phoney would suck for a reason: because our city is awash in superb Japanese food of many stripes, and it would just pale in competitive comparison. Why spend a dime for the Disney version when the real deal is seventeen times more exciting, and cheaper, too?

The owner of the building – Steven Lippman (a partner in “928 Main Holdings Ltd.”) – also counts plenty of other spaces around town in his stable, including Save On Meats (tour it here). He’s likely no dummy. If the newly refurbished London Hotel down the street can brush aside concerns over its authenticity (and be full), then you’d think the American Hotel could, too. But British pub grub and environment is a lot easier to fake than the food and feel of a really good izakaya, so I have my doubts.

As for the owners of Electric Owl, I’m pretty much in the dark there, too. I know only of Adam Levine, who made his money starting and navigating successful turns in the biofuel trade beginning in the early Naughties. Guu might be his favourite restaurant, but how much does he know about owning something like it? I take comfort in the hope that someone suitably capable is doing the soon-to-be-nicknamed “Owl” food and that it won’t be just a loose stab at irony in place of substance (no geishas, naked sushi models or hibachi dudes spinning their blunt blades). Again, I just don’t know, and a hope is just a hope. From someone who lives just blocks away and already has enough silly in his eating life, perhaps it’s a fool’s hope.

Will it end up being a wonderfully staged stroke of genius striking the perfect balance with the neighbourhood a la punk rock shows and kickass karaage or an abject disaster that stinks of invasive Earlism and the end of culture as we know it? I fear the latter, but only out of ignorance. I expect the middle, speculatively.

Dani Vachon on Electric Owl "Where else can you eat dinner, see a show, and leave with a six pack or bottle of wine?"

Handling the entertainment side of things will be Dani Vachon, formerly of Gastown’s Guilt & Company. According to an early copy of press materials that have landed my way, Vachon will “curate everything from emerging artists and renowned music acts to sumo wrestling and Japanese fan dancing.” Do I hear an Etsy-inspired, homemade Samurai fashion show with board games, too?

Prediction: a curious, hopefully not all-that-garish conundrum to people who live in the area and the coolest thing since the last coolest thing that every Skytrainer worth his/her weight in Costco gyozas will celebrate before seeking out a $2,500 per month shoebox nearby (includes small dog). Cue the Starbucks, et cetera.

But would I go check it out? You bet. What about you?



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