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.