DINER | Inside “The Roof”, The Soon To Be Reimagined Icon Atop The Hotel Vancouver

February 3, 2014 

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by Andrew Morrison | To celebrate its 75th anniversary this year, the Hotel Vancouver will be transforming its main floor lobby and lounge to the tune of $12 million. Construction begins this month and won’t be completed until the Autumn. With both the 900 West bar and Griffin’s eatery shuttered during this time, hotel guests will need to bend elbows somewhere, so they’re turning the long forgotten but once mighty 15th floor restaurant and bar known as The Roof into a pop-up.

the-Roof-1940

You’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of the place. The 5,200 square foot space opened in 1939 and. It enjoyed a very long run as one of Vancouver’s most magnetic establishments. It was the “it” spot, the Chambar or Wildebeest of its day.

the-Roof-dancing-circa-1970

The CBC used it as a “happening” studio during service, and the one and only Dal Richards, aka “The King of Swing”, was the resident band leader from 1940 through to the mid-60′s.  It was where the city’s swish set went to see and be seen as they got their Saturday night drunks on.

the-Roof-bar-circa-1970

Its popularity fizzled out after its last renovation in the 1970′s (yes, those are straws coming out of the pineapple in the photo above), and it’s been pretty a ghost restaurant since the 1990′s, opened only for the occasional private function. That a gem commanding such incredible views of the city exists high in our skies but not in our modern cultural landscape always seemed a crime to me ever since I first toured it four years ago, almost to the day. Here are my notes from way back when…

“ 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 [my friend Owen Lightly and I], 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, 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…”

Indeed. It’s undergoing a complete overhaul as we speak. When it opens – within a week or two (don’t let the pictures fool you, they’re nearly done) – it will be with a completely new kitchen serving 100 dining room seats – complete with wing-backed chairs and cozy banquettes – and another 50 at the exquisitely odd sunken bar (it’s low to the ground so as to maximize guest sight lines). There’s also a grand piano; guests can anticipate live entertainment on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. Chef Cameron Ballendine is at the helm, and he’ll be plating predominately old school classics like prime rib with Yorkshire puddings, porterhouse steaks, creamed spinach, French onion soup, and much more. “We have menus for The Roof that go back to 1939, so we have lots of ideas,” Ballendine says.

The selfishly sad news is that once the main floor is done with its construction this Fall, this gem will revert to its special occasion status. I imagine that it will be reborn as one of the best and most sought after private party space in the city, but it’s just not the same if you can’t just take the elevator up for a Manhattan and a tune or three. One day… 

Hotel VancouverThe Roof LoungeThe Roof in the dark four years agoThe Roof in the dark four years agoThe Roof in the dark four years agoThe Roof today, with food and beverage director Trevor Cool, GM Michael Pye, and Executive Chef Cameron BallendineFairmont Hotel VancouverThe Roof (dancefloor)The RoofFairmont Hotel VancouverBehind the barThe RoofThe viewThe barThe barThe RoofThe RoofThe RoofThe RoofThe RoofThe RoofThe RoofThe RoofThe Roof today, with food and beverage director Trevor Cool, GM Michael Pye, and Executive Chef Cameron BallendineThe ViewReader V.R. | Hotel Vancouver as seen from an office across the street | 3:30pmThe Royal Boulevardier | Fairmont Hotel VancouverThe Royal Boulevardier | Fairmont Hotel Vancouver

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  • Conrad Yablonski

    The views from that room were once wonderful now with all the buildings around the hotel being so much bigger what’s on offer pales in comparison to Coal Harbour waterfront operations.

  • PTC

    Conrad Yablonski = assistant manager at some shitty “Coal Harbour waterfront operation.”

  • Conrad Yablonski

    “Conrad Yablonski = assistant manager at some shitty “Coal Harbour waterfront operation.””

    Not at all just a long time Vancouver resident with a good memory and the desire & means to familiarise myself with different operations around town-you do need to get out more.

  • Hungry Foodie

    Wow PTC great insight…. Not
    Personally I think if people are going to a food establishment for the view they’ve failed as eaters, and if the restaurant is counting on the view they’ve failed as a restaurant. It should be about the food/drinks/vibe, the view is just a bonus. I think if any place can revive the rooftop dining experience, Hotel Van has the best shot. Good luck to em.

  • Conrad Yablonski

    Only in Vancouver can one ‘fail as an eater’.

  • Hungry Foodie

    It’s not just in Vancouver, one can fail as an eater lots of places, Vegans are proof of that. Thanks for coming out though.