Robert Belcham and Tom Doughty, the owner/sommelier duo behind the two Campagnolo restaurants, are opening a Chinese BBQ restaurant called Fat Dragon in the heart of the Downtown Eastside (566 Powell).
Joining them as a first time owner is Ted Anderson, long the chef at Refuel and now at Campagnolo Roma out on East Hastings (always nice to see that happen). The concept is interesting – Chinese food with a Southern US “lick of smoke” – and I’m sure they’ll nail it (the menu reads fantastic, and we’ll get to that soon), but let’s be honest; the thing that will define The Fat Dragon won’t be its food, but rather its location, at least in its first couple of years.
If you thought Salt Tasting Room in Blood Alley was daring back in the day, or really any location remotely worthy of the word in recent years, dinner at Fat Dragon will be – for some – like going to the moon. It’s this section of the DTES around Oppenheimer Park that has been (and still is) considered a bridge too far by restaurateurs, even hungry first-timers with very few funds. There is a community here, and a strong one at that, but it has to face a daily gnarliness that no other neighbourhood in the city has to contend with. I think for most Vancouverites, the idea of dining out hereabouts is repellent, and yet the restaurant, due in under two months, will probably do very well indeed.
A year or two ago I posited in a magazine article that new restaurant development in these parts was on its way. I likened the advance to that of an invading force employing a pincer movement around the most seemingly prohibitive blocks of the DTES. The concentration of the attack was building up eastward pressure from Cambie through to Carrall in Gastown, where dozens of new establishments had opened since 2006. The left pincer was heading down Powell, Alexander, and Cordova (Big Lou’s, Nicli Antica, Cadeaux, etc), while the right pincer was pushing up Keefer through Chinatown to hit Main around Strathcona (The Union, The Keefer, Brixton, etc). The two hooking flanks, I wrote, had already connected on East Hastings at Au Petit Chavignol (2009) and The Waldorf Hotel (2010), effectively enveloping the whole of the DTES with a ring of new eateries (for the military historians out there, remember the Battles of Marathon, Cannae, and The Falaise Gap).
Thus surrounded, the main concentration, what the eminent strategist Von Clauswitz would call the “schwerpunkt”, has been getting ready to burst eastward on Hastings proper for the past year (witness the comings of Wildebeest, Save On Meats, Bitter, Acme Cafe, etc). All that remains to be conquered – to put it indelicately – are the blocks within the ring, at the center of which lies Fat Dragon, with its 12 SROs above.
But why assume it will do well? For starters, the folks behind Campagnolo are no slouches. They’ve opened four small businesses in the past five years, with all but one of them opening where (mostly) others were afraid to. 566 Powell may be where angels still fear to tread, but no matter if the West Side is too shit scared to make the trip at first, others will come (I live within the ring, and suspect many of my neighbours are drooling as they read this). Those restaurants that make up the pincers and the schwerpunkt have revealed that much to be true, as not a single one of them has flopped.
Secondly, it’s a solid food concept. I’ve seen the menu, and it has everything from smoked I-San style pork hot links with cucumber and coriander relish to marinated and smoked crispy tofu Bao buns with bean sprout kimchi and holy basil (I won’t reveal anything else just yet, save to say we’ll also see whole fish and pig’s head). Chef Adam Johnson (ex-Pourhouse, Campagnolo) will have a smoker in house, and I imagine he’ll take good advantage of all the markets that are just around the corner (and let’s not forget that the kitchen tag-team of Anderson/Belcham snared Robert the 2009 Chef of the Year title).
In the end, however, it’s all about supply and demand. There are shockingly few restaurants in Vancouver that hybridize Chinese cuisine, pairing it successfully with booze and leaning large on aesthetics, and I think demand for more is considerably high (just try and get a table at Bao Bei during the dinner rush).
Third, the design is going to be pretty awesome. Marc Bricault is on the case (think Vij’s, the recent West redux, Thierry, Campagnolo, Refuel), and he’s making it look like a 1920’s style opium den with a lot of reclaimed fir, grass cloth, and design motifs that gel with the food concept. The old space (previously “The Bakery”, where one could freely buy weed) is long and wide, and will seat some 50 people, with an additional 13 seats at a central bar that is some 18ft wide. The tables are butcher block-style and over-sized to accommodate many dishes (everything is served family style), while the adjoining chairs are wooden and not a little rickety, which again dovetails nicely with the theme. The building dates from just prior to the First World War, and so has solid, fantastic-looking brick bones. Its high, beautifully decrepit ceilings will be criss-crossed with string, from which bulbs will hang, market-style. The clincher? A neon sign – in the form of a fat dragon, natch – will brighten the gloomy frontage. Take a look at what I saw last night…