by Andrew Morrison | About a month ago, first-time restaurateurs Matt Schmidt (left) and Justin Devlin (right) pounced on the 322 Water Street address in Gastown after its most recent incarnation – McLean’s (previously So.cial at Le Magasin) – finally caved. Schmidt (28), an Emily Carr alum (film) who was a minority shareholder in the Barcelona nightclub on Granville, and Devlin (27), a marketing fellow with no experience (that I know of) in the restaurant field, have been hard at work ever since, renovating it to match the kind of space they’d like to hang out in. They were kind enough to give me a tour the other day, and to expound on their plans for turning it into a 140 seat, casual supper club called House Guest.
They’ve totally redone the bar (given it a trophy springbok centrepiece); dropped down the hefty bauble light fixtures (dumping the modern sconces); dressed the walls with dozens upon dozens of “curated” framed images; kept the awesome, pressed tin ceilings (now in gold); painted Leonard Cohen and Baudelaire quotes on the stairs; hand-painted the washroom walls with wholly readable poems and memorable passages; introduced all manner of antique esoterica to every nook and cran with the help of Schmidt’s father Phil (a production designer on some 58 films and TV programs); and otherwise made it unrecognizable from what it was before. And it’s stunning. If So.cial was a 5 on the charming scale (out of 10) and McLeans was a generous 2, House Guest is a solid 8, and it isn’t even finished yet. Though I’m seldom sold on “hey presto!” character, I’d be lying if I said the 110 seat main floor didn’t look pretty darn fetching.
The 30 seat lounge downstairs had always suffered a lack of ambience, and it’s the only facet of House Guest that may not ring entirely true. I really dig the low-slung, buttoned red banquettes and the bar stools, but the addition of books on the surrounding shelves (paired a little obscenely with flatscreen TVs) might be a bridge too far for some, dispelling the carefully constructed facade of antique tinsel. I read their titles, and they’re the same cloth-bound kind of Introduction To Chemistry crap that never sells at garage sales except to those adolescents looking to cheaply fill bookshelves to impress the smart girls (think Carl Sagan remainders and Reader’s Digest). It’s no big deal, but I wonder if they won’t just reveal the character of the whole to be something of a sham (remember those books at Revolver on Cambie? They were Hemingway, Miller and Fitzgerald), but then again, not many customers are going to ask who shot the springbok or the baker’s dozen of tiny bucks whose antlers adorn the various other walls. Everyone will assume the owners didn’t win all the trophies, labour over the vintage typewriter, adventure with the steamer trucks or play with the wooden tennis rackets, because they’ll all be in on the lie, willingly. And why not?
The books – and the restaurant as a whole (even though it isn’t open yet) – signal a yearning for a bourgeois, Anglo-centric aesthetic that no longer exists except in the interiors of proper Ralph Lauren stores everywhere from Riyadh to LA. I totally expect this eastern Yankee, Ivy league-wannabe, class-starved aspirationalism to appeal to Vancouverites of the young and impressionable set. There’s probably a slice of post-drinking age youth that is wholly disillusioned with Granville Entertainment District’s inherent douchiness and tired of the chain restaurants that their friends go to. It’s certainly fair game as a concept. No one has really touched it since Hy’s Encore, and that was a generation or two ago.
Anyone who has watched the trailer for Brideshead Revisited, read the first chapter of The Sun Also Rises or had the measurable misfortune of suffering through The Skulls in its gross entirety will allow themselves to be taken away by House Guest’s design. It is an expression of a very base desire: to be richer and more interesting than we actually are, and who doesn’t fall for that every once in a while? It’s a saleable vision that could have come from any other restaurateur looking to buy food, dress it up and sell it for a profit, but it came from two relative neophytes and one of their Dads, and that’s pretty neat. So aside from the transparently lame books down here, the only thing one might take optical issue with is the symmetrical stacking of golden skulls in an installation that can only be described as 4 feet by 5 feet of eventual regret. It’s the only ordered motif in the building, and it doesn’t really work.
Still, the look and feel of the whole project has the patina of age, like grandpa’s private study, circa 1955 (if grandpa wore a Barbour coat and smoked a pipe). That’s pretty awesome, and not at all an easy thing to achieve, so honour is due on that score. But there are disconcerting warning signs to go beyond Devlin and Schmidt’s lack of experience and the glitches in their design matrix. A row of Crystal Head Vodka (again with the skulls!) along one of the main floor bar’s top shelves worries, if only because the high end of bar culture thinks vodka is the nectar of those bereft of imagination and that this particular stuff is swilled solely by the worst kind of person in the world (behold the rare double helix of snobbiness intertwined with snobbier snobbery). The cocktail list actually reads rather well, but if they’ve hired a bar manager with any profile or pedigree worth mentioning, I suspect they would have told me. On the bright side, there’s not a drop of any offensive spirit or brightly coloured saccharine liqueur to be seen on the menu. The availability of Cristal at $700 a bottle nevertheless foretells a Granville-ish scene, which begs a fair question: will this bar remind us of the best of Gastown, or will we have to wait twenty minutes in a cologne-soaked, wannabe frat boy hell for a good Old Fashioned while the bartender – say a good-looking, Donnelly Hospitality refugee named Chet – frets over three beers, his haircut and an audition in the morning? I have no idea, but let’s hope not. I don’t think that that’s the scene the owners want, but if it is what they get, I trust House Guest’s spot in Gastown’s pantheon of worthwhile establishments will be low indeed. Again, the place isn’t even open yet, so we can still cross our fingers.
Whether it’s worthwhile or not will come down to the food, which could prove a real challenge. If the cuisine and the decor are to be in full thematic lockstep, then there will need to be some weird, J.D. Salinger-esque amalgam of oysters, tater tots, ribeye steak and tuna casserole available. And believe it or not, that’s exactly what they have on their menu, not to mention chili dogs, Shepherd’s Pie and Sloppy Joes. How fitting is that? The full dorm room dance card reads appetizingly, and all of it seems to fit the concept (see snippets of the menu in the photos below). Former Wild Rice sous chef Kayla Dhaliwall is in charge in the kitchen, so it’s her ball to drop or carry. We wish her, Justin and Matt the very best of luck, and hope their target opening date of October 14th goes off without a hitch.
I don’t mean this as a slight in the very least, more a commendation on style and aesthetic, but I do quite dig that it looks like the culinary companion to Mt. Pleasant’s Mr. Lee’s General Store & Haberdashery. A very Portland/Brooklyn-esque (sure – feel free to toss out the H-word!) fashion, which is kinda oddly missing from the restaurant landscape. Looks good right now, but are we mid shark-jump on the look, or if done well, can it be timeless?
You didn’t say a thing about wine. Any splashes worth noting?
Not really, K. The cellar read fairly empty.
The Ace Hotel NY called, they want their everything back — save for the chili dogs. Why are the owners so sad looking? Did they lose a puppy?
Best of luck guys, this space has been almost as big of a disappointment over the years as the Transcontinental/Rogue space.
Not sold on the decor, but lets be honest restaurants should be about the food. I’ll give it a shot when it opens, if for no other reason then to celebrate the death of McLeans/So.Cial V2.0.
Any word on what’s happening with the Deli space along Cordova?
They have the option to take it over but haven’t committed to do so yet.
What they have going on here seems like a great addition to Gastown.
The interior has the appeal of what i would expect to draw the same customer as you would find at Diamond, Labotoir, Boneta, and Guilt and Co.
The article written seems unnecessarily derogatory towards the 2 entrepreneurs.
To me this reflects poorly on the writer considering the fact that these are 2 young, new business owners. You, the writer, have made a blatant attempt to stain they’re reputation before they have even had the chance to build one.
@ gastown local, did you read the article? The way I read it, it seemed Andrew really likes the place. He was being totally supportive of these guys, and qualified the negatives with positives like he normally does. You make it out to be a hit piece, and that’s clearly not the case. Good luck to Justin and Matt. The place looks great.
“The interior has the appeal of what i would expect to draw the same customer as you would find at Diamond, Labotoir, Boneta, and Guilt and Co.”
No way! Different scene. Bartenders like Sean Layton and Josh Pape would be embarrassed to have to serve Dan Ackroyd’s skull vodka! :-p!
attended an event here last weekend. interior is fantastic and the food is tremendous. and the addition of a dj booth tucked away in an antique roll top desk is the kicker. congrats matt and justin.
That’s a very strange take on my article, “gastown local”. I may have given my honest opinion on what I saw, but I still think that I was 100% encouraging. There isn’t a “derogatory” word about the owners in there at all, so I don’t know why you’ve invented this “blatant attempt to stain their reputation”. Odd indeed. Truly, I hope they knock it out of the park.
Two very nice fellas. I wish them all the best!
Great to see this space coming back to life – that stretch of Water Street was sinking into tourist town for a long time save for Guu.
Now about that back bar – it seems to be an almost direct copy of a very infamous local spot that will go nameless. If you’ve been you’ll see it straight away…
But best of luck all the same – nice to see new faces opening up shop!
I thought the piece was actually quite constructive and very insightful.
ps: Those books where leftovers from Kirk’s old hockey joint & the food is already really fantastic!!!
Assuming this is a public venue and not a private residence, your knocking of the books on their shelf seems hyper silly. I am not sure if you think it wise to load up nightclub bookshelves with rare and collectable editions of Balzac…? The vintage books on the shelves may serve other requirements to t h e m.. perhaps they like the smell of old paper? What do YOU know?
The contents or installation put together by this group are meant to produce an effect. The pieces are used to tell a story..Their story. There are too few spots that reflect a personal point of view. My interest in spaces that have been carefully crafted in a boardroom has flatlined. I am tired of knock offs of knockoffs…The beauty of vintage is that it c a n n o t be duplicated..
Back to the books…I am fairly confident these guys are not expecting avid readers to take up seats where drinkers could sit!.. This is a f a n t a s y…They have created a space where people can hang out, socialize and take the world less literally…
Plus, I have friends who love c h e m i s t r y.
Well done guys!
Plus…As this is NOT your production, what they serve on their menu will precisely right for their vision.
Wendy Wendy Wendy. Could you be angry because your design for your goalie boy at Macleans was just given a 2 of out of 10? Yeah. Bias much? From the pictures, Houseguest looks like a huge improvement.
Hi Wendy. Just to be clear, I wasn’t knocking the books because they were shitty. I wasn’t knocking them at all, really. I mentioned them because they were the weakest part of what you admit to be a “fantasy”, revealing the whole to be fake. And that’s fine. You might reconsider your point about the books and installations being there to tell their “story”. It’s a bit of an over-reach. Did they go big game hunting in Africa? Are the photos of friends and family? No. Were they purchased from garage sales and collectable shops? Yes. Your defence of your friends is awesome nonetheless. I, too, wish them well.
Andrew, thank you for speaking your mind. Vancouver needs more of your kind. I read Scout because its not an advertisement for every single new restaurant in Vancouver.
I think part of their story could be telling is that they have used very few resources (i.e.$$$) to come up with what looks like a cozy nice room. All of us walk past discarded objects as though they have no value. These guys have assembled these objects to come up with something beautiful by putting them into a context. the context could be richer if there is a story associated with them and maybe there is. guys a salute your effort and attempt to bring us your vision.
It seems that places of recent years that we have come to love in the neighbourhood (6 acres, nelson the seagull) have been brought to us by people that don’t have any restaurant experience and designed the spaces themselves. There is a refreshing honesty and personal that happens when a place comes about this way. Hiring others to tell you what your place should look like is soulless.
geoffro your post made me laugh. at any one point there are 12 people that all have a “unique” idea. We are lucky if one person executes it so we can all experience it!
good luck guys and welcome to the hood.
say what you will about this sort of decor but it has certainly got people talking if only on scout. while not just this style but concept of establishment is more common in most other american cities it really hasn’t been touched by anyone in vancouver except maybe 6 acres. this place may have a restaurant licence but to me it just screams drinks with friends and if the food is just average that is just fine i will probably end up drinking there regardless. i will gladly sacrifice “fine dinning food in a casual setting” vancouver for a little more of that undecorate esthetic.
could this be vancouver’s equivalent of nyc’s freemans? i mean they have pretty average food, actually it can be pretty disappointing at times, but a great vibe and they have been gang busters since 2004.
Well said Antonio and Scott.
I’m excited for the restaurant. Tasted the food last weekend at a private party and it was excellent.
Missing from the article is the contributions from Strathcona Carpentry to the project. Of particular note is the custom oak liquor cabinets. Its a tough city for young upstart entrepreneurs and we proudly support Houseguest as well as another recent project of ours Board of Trade Co on Union St as they try to do something different in a city that needs it.
Great work on those cabinets, Devon.
Its about time that something opened that wasn’t a cactus club or joey’s. How can you rip something that you have never tried people. These are two guys putting there neck on the line to give back to the city. Support young and driven people. I think Matt will kill it with this space and hope everyone will support them. I don’t see anyone of you going about and trying to open a bar/restaurant. Sit back and judge that is easier I guess
My note was to say I a p p l a u d Matt and Justin. Reread. I am not angry about a n y t h i n g..Also, None of this is brainsurgery. I was trying to say that any attempt to express oneself should be supported. Anyone who knows me understands that I love to see people take risks and put themselves out there. You cannot always please everyone, for sure..ha ha.. but its d e c o r a t i n g not world peace.
And I do not have a hockeyboy. That sounds like a dig to Mr. McLean….?
Yeah? This is Scout, dude. There are probably 5 to 10 restaurateurs who have commented on this so far. I’ve opened 2 restos and 1 bar. What about you?
Looking forward to it!!! Welcome guys!
Hear hear Scott!