DINER | Donnelly Putting New Foot Forward With “Blackbird Public House & Oyster Bar”

September 25, 2013.

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by Andrew Morrison | Vancouver’s Donnelly Group is opening up a behemoth of a restaurant on the corner of Hornby and Dunsmuir next month. They took possession of the space that used to be the Keg Caesars back in February and started construction in May (under Brandi’s strip club and the Swedish Touch massage parlour, natch). The two-storey, 8,800 sqft Blackbird Public House & Oyster Bar will see over 100 seats on the main floor – including a 10 seat oyster bar but not including a 35 seat street front patio on Dunsmuir – with a barbershop run by Yaletown’s Ian Daburn occupying the corner prow. The second floor will have 200 seats, a stage for live music 7 days a week, a games cloister (billiards, foosball, shuffleboard), a long under-lit feature bar inspired by the freaky one in The Shining, and a racetrack-shaped scotch bar (serving 70 whiskies) tucked away in a corner with commanding views of the entire room and the street corner below. Altogether, it’s the largest property that the Donnelly Group has ever gotten its hands on.

I’m sure some readers are wondering why I’m writing about a Donnelly joint in the first place. They’ve never been my particular thing, and I haven’t exactly been shy about saying so. I could go on about my general antipathy towards establishments that ask me for my identification, cry foul over their disastrous usurpation of the word “pub”, or pen a paragraph about them being the flame to which douche moths gather to mate, but that would be exceptionally lazy (and repetitive) of me, and not entirely fair. Basically, my general dislike of the chain, or any chain for that matter (Donnelly’s “public houses” might all have different names, but they’re a chain, epitomizing the soullessness of homogeneity since the start) all comes down to the fact that I’m a bit of an asshole (what a surprise, said no one). So instead of continuing an admittedly elitist crusade to marginalize the growing culture of cologne-soaked roid freaks and pop tarts who believe that cash machines, cover charges, bouncers, and an inordinate number of TVs are exciting facets of modern restaurant design, let’s just agree that the line that divides me from the Donnelly Group was drawn solely in my imagination by a holier-than-thou attitude that has cemented through years of its practical application. I’m sorry, but snobbery is a class I never had to take.

I’m not alone. The company is almost universally and mercilessly mocked within the local restaurant industry with a venom that is as unnerving as it is largely unfair. Bring it up in a conversation with people who work in the trade and eyes involuntarily roll. The prejudice is rife. Some of that is certain to stem from jealousy (they’re on track to bring in $40 million in revenues this year), but even the Yelp crowd has a hate on for them. Seriously, just go to to any Donnelly page on Yelp and search for the keywords “douche”, “horrible”, and “awful”. If schadenfreude is your thing, pour yourself a glass and enjoy. Clearly, it’s a rep in need of a fix.

So let’s say you’re Jeff Donnelly. You’re a young, smart guy; the proprietor of a wildly successful company with all the money you could ever need. You’re also a social animal with plenty of friends and you love the living shit out of what you do. But there’s a problem. A big problem. Your name has become synonymous with a lack of inspiration, quality, and vision, not to mention the general dulling and ubiquitization of Vancouver’s entertainment landscape. Do you sit back and light a fat “fuck you” Cohiba with a $100 bill? Of course not. Why? Because smoking is bad, and you care quite a bit about how you’re viewed by your own community. It probably pisses you off that the clientele you attract requires your participation in the Barwatch program, just as it probably makes you angry that someone called your Lamplighter establishment “an Ed Hardy vacuum cleaner“. You’re likely still haunted by the shooting deaths at Loft Six, the recent bachelorette violence, the accusations of racism, the beating of movie star Shia LaBeouf, and the countless other episodes that have tarnished your brand by association. And you’ll be damned if you’re going to stand idly by and allow such things to represent you any longer. You’ve just been elected into the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame for christ’s sake, and yet people still go home after visiting your businesses and feel compelled to write things like “the fate of humanity seemed so hopeless to me that global incineration struck me as the only appropriate option.” I mean, what the hell?

So what do you do? Two words: do better. But how? For starters, you join Green Table and Ocean Wise to show that you give a damn where your food comes from. You bring in Jay Jones and Trevor Kallies  – two of Vancouver’s most respected and knowledgeable bartenders – to draw up craft beer and cocktail lists and to train your staff. You convince an up-and-coming, super conscientious kitchen star, Alvin Pillay (ex-Campagnolo, Irish Heather), to revamp your food program. You get Craig Stanghetta – the darling designer of Meat & Bread, Revolver, and Pidgin – to dress your new rooms. You hire Shannon Heth, the best PR rep in the local restaurant business, to help steer your image to cleaner shores. You produce a slick commercial and you go on TV and say that you’ve always been “really product-focused” with a straight face (oh, the laughs). But most importantly, you grow up a little with your concepts. It’s what the Cactus Club did, with great success. Witness the hirings of Rob Feenie and Sebastien Le Goff, not to mention the Warhols, Gilmores and Henningsens hanging on the walls. Earls did it, too. Wait…nope…no they didn’t.

Hence Blackbird, which looks and sounds like it will be a lot more mature than anything we’ve ever seen Donnelly do. And I don’t think its coming was motivated by any prophetic business acumen. When you’re making money hand over fist, any ball worth its crystal would dictate that you stay the course. So I rather suspect the decision to make such sea changes was deeply personal; born of a desire to fix a bad reputation that has contrarily run amok in Vancouver’s cultural zeitgeist like a shrieking banshee soaked in Paco Rabanne (I could be wrong on that score, but I’d wager I’m right). The new operational outlook can already be seen at the latest Donnelly offerings (eg. The New Oxford, Killjoy, Clough Club), where the crowd is less fratty and the quality and consistency is (usually) on target. These new eateries/bars were clearly designed with an elevation of the Donnelly brand in mind, but they are mere frigates in this fight when measured against the battleship that will be The Blackbird.

To wit, for the first time ever in a Donnelly joint, tables will actually be set (you know…with knives, forks, and glassware…like in a proper restaurant). The wine list will be the longest and deepest that the company has ever seen. There will be 24 taps of mostly craft beer flowing into each of the monster’s three bars (it’s a killer system). The cocktails will be classic and booze-heavy (they’re doing a full “Bloody” program), and Jay Jones will be omnipresent together with Kallies and a host of other bartenders, among them Brad Stanton (ex-Hawksworth), Justin Anello (ex-West), and Kris Jensen (ex-Refinery). We can also expect significant improvements on the food front, too. I’ve seen what Pillay’s been working on, and it reads deliciously. There will be lobster and wild salmon next to ramen and organic greens on a menu that will also offer licks of 10 year old Ardbeg whisky on freshly shucked oysters. But will Pillay be remote like other corporate chefs? Nope. “I’m pretty much going to be living here,” he told me. And I believe him.

And perhaps most startling of all, banished – it seems – is the trademark “Donnelly Darkness”, the appalling design aesthetic that surrenders light in favour of darkness worsened by the blue flicker of a gabillion flat screen televisions. On my walk-through the other day, I saw bright marble flooring, lighter wood grains, gun-metal grey walls (not black, so…babysteps), bespoke light fixtures, and a great many other details that made it clear to me that The Blackbird wasn’t just going straight for the jugulars of the Glowbal Group and the other mid-range, so-called “casual fine dining” chains nearby, they were also aiming at a more discerning clientele in general. It’s enough to make someone who has trouble surrendering the benefit of the doubt take interest. Even the “public house” on the second floor sounds awesome. C’mon, a scotch bar and live music? Sign me up.

While some might say (and believe me, they already have) that The Blackbird is just the Donnelly Group trying to graduate from young douchebags to old douchebags, I see it as a multi-million dollar exercise in self-improvement. Even the snob in me has to respect that. It feels a little weird putting a Donnelly establishment on your radar, let alone on our Anticipated Openings list, but in this case I think it should be on both. Watch for it in early October.

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