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.
by Andrew Morrison | Scout broke the news that Ensemble Restaurant chef/owner Dale Mackay was opening a new restaurant back in September, but we’ve been sitting on the details of the new joint (name, location, etc) ever since by request. Here’s the skinny we had two months ago:
…the concept sounds like a BBQ and beer-heavy pub that will serve the kind of fare that you’d normally associate with the milieu (nachos, burgers, bangers, pot pies, etc) only elevated to a level where just about everything is made in house from scratch and by hand. It’ll be sports heavy, too, with some fifteen 45″ flat screen TVs. Helming the kitchen will be chef de cuisine Bradley Hendrickson (now at Ensemble), with former DB Bistro sous chefs Alex Amos (recently Mission Hill) and Greg Reid (recently Quail’s Gate) in support. There will be a 40 foot bar of reclaimed wood to tend, and another 80 seats in an expansive dining room (with mezzanine). Running the show will be current Ensemble barman Christopher Cho, with operations back-up from the lovely and talented Ali Maher, formerly the maitre’d at DB Bistro.
The new, short story: it’s called ensemble Tap; a 130 seater in the old Azia location by Earls Paramount (990 Smithe). They’re about to go public with all of that and more, so here’s a draft copy of their first release, which should be hitting the press tomorrow.
Top Chef Canada Winner Dale MacKay, best known for his precision execution and presentation of technical French cuisine, is opening a second restaurant in downtown Vancouver during the first week of December, 2011. As the name implies, ensemble Tap promises icy cold fresh beer on tap – no less than a dozen of the 40+ world titles on the menu. The lunch and dinner food menus are decidedly ‘un-fancy’, but predictably extraordinary and beyond comforting. “I’ve always dreamed of opening a world-class pub-style restaurant where I can go after work or on my day off to watch a game and order a sleeve of extraordinary beer and the best comfort food imaginable,” says Chef MacKay.
Chef MacKay is excited about spreading his culinary wings and showing a side of himself that his culinary career thus far has not encouraged, or in fact permitted. “My Chef de Cuisine at ensemble restaurant and bar, Brad Hendrickson and I have been talking about what constitutes the perfect pub-style restaurant for years,” says MacKay. “My heart and my person will always be at ensemble restaurant, but I’ve always wanted to use what I’ve learned over the years cooking with Gordon Ramsay and Daniel Boulud, to create ‘ultimate’ timeworn tap-house favourites like chicken wings, meat pies, ribs, fish and chips, burgers and sandwiches. Big, comfortable food that guests can sink into with a fantastic beer or glass of wine. We hope to redefine comfort and pub-style food in much the same way the ensemble restaurant redefined fine dining.”
In assuming the role of Executive Chef of ensemble Tap, Hendrickson leaves the ensemble restaurant kitchen behind. He takes with him, an unflappable, uncompromising diligence that comes from working side by side with Chef MacKay and stepping in as head chef when MacKay was away competing in or doing appearances for Top Chef Canada. “My ideal for the food at Tap is to take classic pub-style fare and comfort food and be as diligent as we would be in a high-end restaurant kitchen. I love comfort food, especially sandwiches, and I believe there is a reason for the sentiment. I have cravings for comfort food and when I find a restaurant that does comfort well, I want everyone to know about it. I really look forward to ensemble Tap because it promises three of my favourite things – great food, great beer, and a modern-rustic atmosphere. That’s me in a nutshell,” says Hendrickson.
More after the jump… Read more
by Andrew Morrison | Steve Jenning’s London Pub has opened on the southeast corner of Main and Georgia on Chinatown’s southern border with Strathcona. I popped in yesterday for a gander… Read more
by Andrew Morrison | A couple of days ago I made mention of a new pub under construction near my house on the southeast corner of Main and Georgia in Chinatown. There was some speculation as to who was behind the project in the comments so I went by for another recce yesterday evening and found it to be the work of the affable Steve Jennings. He’s a “life-long pub lover” who’s striking out on his own after many years working with Donnelly Hospitality Management (Republic, Library Square, etc).
His room, which should be open to the public by the end of October, will seat 160, including 14 at an L-shaped bar (which will serve nearly a dozen local craft beers on tap). It will being staying open until 3am on the weekends with a kitchen plating bangers and mash, pot pies, and so forth. Nothing fancy. Just pub grub. We had a good debate on the desirable number of television screens. Jennings was thinking 9, while myself and an English construction worker lobbied for as few as 3. Though I’m a devout Canucks fan who very seldom misses a game, this ain’t the Granville Strip. What my neighbourhood needs is a place of bent elbows and conversation, not a sports bar.
Indeed, what will be particularly interesting to see is the clientele. It’s my belief that the customer base Jennings is used to from his lengthy DHM experience will not be making the trip (it’s too rough). He’ll more than likely have to rely on the residents of Chinatown, Strathcona and Mt. Pleasant to deliver the ducats, and as far as my read of the landscape goes, they ain’t the 9 TV breed of peeps.
I guess we’ll see how it goes.
The Charles Bar, brand new to Gastown, is now a proud member supporter of Scout. We will be publishing their news and press releases on our front page and hosting a page for them in our list of recommended places to check out. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank them for their support of our little website. Click ahead to read on or jump directly to their Scout page… Read more
Here are a few photos of the nearly completed “London Pub” and neighbouring Brixton Caffe at 700 Main St (at Georgia in Chinatown). I’ve been passing this property every day for a couple of months now and it’s finally taking promising shape (we could use a fresh watering hole in my neck of the woods). As you can see from the unearthed mosaic, it was once upon a time the London Hotel. Lovely old bones. The brick archways are particularly nice. I reckon they’re about a month away. More after the jump… Read more
News from Scout supporter The Irish Heather:
Vancouver, BC | The Irish Heather is hosting two sittings for Mother’s Day for everyone who wants to treat their mothers. If your mom doesn’t live in Vancouver you are welcome to come for dinner anyway – there will definitely be a mother at the table who will adopt you for the evening!
In anticipation of some warmer weather we have added some lighter, summer dishes e.g. Flat Iron Steak, Baby Back Ribs, Poached Salmon, Baked Ham and a variety of cold sides to match. We have also dropped the price back to $12 on Mondays.
June 15th will be the 1st Anniversary of the Long Table Series. To celebrate we will be launching the LTS lunch & breakfast, as well as a couple of late night, weekend events. We’ll also be running a couple of super cheap nights…keep watching for details.
As always, we are delighted to accommodate any dietary requests, all we ask is 24 hours notice if possible. We have included a vegetarian dish that will be featured each week. For those who don’t want to drink alcohol, we are offering Boylan’s Vintage Soda Pop, courtesy of their Canadian agents and our pals, Dovre Imports.
LTS reservations can be made by emailing email@example.com and are strongly recommended. You can visit the blog for photos, menus, dates and prices at www.ltsmenu.blogspot.com.
In addition to providing daily editorial, Scout is dedicated to supporting and promoting cool, interesting, and independent British Columbian businesses through the publication of their press releases and event info. To learn how to get your news up on our front page, check out our supporter details page here.
News from Scout supporter The Irish Heather:
Vancouver, BC | Here at the Irish Heather Gastropub, we are delighted to announce that starting this Sunday, April the 18th, we will be taking full advantage of our pub’s liquor license by opening until 2am for 7 nights a week. To tweak your interest, from Sunday to Wednesday, midnight to 2am, we will be serving FREE bar snacks from Chef Lee Humphries’ kitchen. Think house made potato chips with truffle mayo, spiced mixed nuts, devilled eggs, pickled onions and pork scratchings. Combine these with the best poured (and one of the cheapest) pints of Guinness in the city or a whisk(e)y from the city’s largest selection and you’ll have a relaxing finish to your evening. See you on Sunday! Read more
Hours Of Operation
Monday – 11:00AM – 1:00AM
Tuesday – 11:00AM – 1:00AM
Wednesday – 11:00AM – 1:00AM
Thursday – 11:00AM – 1:00AM
Friday – 11:00AM – 2:00AM
Saturday – 10:00AM – 2:00AM
Sunday – 10:00AM – 1:00AM
Who We Are
General Manager: Chris Hannan
Bar Manager: Mike Bailey
An icon and a landmark location in Vancouver, Woodward’s gave us nearly a century of authentic yet forward-thinking style. The concept was built around the welcoming of newcomers into a thriving new neighbourhood; a city on the rise where art and commerce would merge to create a social hub of unique personalities. A consummate business professional and politician, Mr. Woodward never tolerated improprieties, yet he remained approachable and as always ready to shake one’s hand. Attention to detail and creativity were some of his trademarks, becoming infamous for his “25 cent days” and his mail order catalogues. Today that entrepreneurial spirit continues in the burgeoning renaissance of Gastown, the beating heart and architectural soul of Vancouver. Enjoy craft brews, classic cocktails and contemporary casual fare in a truly original West coast atmosphere: industrial wood, iron and brick. This structural foundation inspired us to design a space where a new generation of vanguards could explore ideas and push the envelope. We like to think of this as the type of fine establishment that Mr. Woodward would frequent and truly get to be himself; a place where he could meet friends and business colleagues alike, and be comfortable being called by his first name. Welcome to The Charles Bar.