by Andrew Morrison | Way back in June of last year we learned that the Portland Hotel Society was looking to midwife a reincarnation of The Only restaurant at 20 East Hastings. The first step was restoring the beautiful old neon sign, a task that is already complete (to glorious effect). The rest remains a tall order, especially since the space is in a remarkably gnarly state of disrepair, a far cry from its 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s heyday when Hastings was the city’s heart, soul, navel, and middle finger.
You might recall that the ancient restaurant, which first opened in 1917, had its business license revoked for a third and final time in 2009 after a police raid on it came up with a lot of cocaine, heroin and cash (oh my!). It was also filthy, in contravention Food Premises Regulation to the Health Act, and “causing a drain on police and City resources”. During the Business License Hearing, policeman Brandon Davies described the premises as “one of the dirtiest places I have ever crawled through.” The panel was unanimous in its decision to shut it down.
I can’t imagine it being an easy ride towards the end for then owners Wendy Wong and Ching Wu. With a cheap as chips menu, food costs on the rise, and the absence of a liquor license, they couldn’t have been making money hand over fist. The location wasn’t exactly a magnet, either. 20 East Hastings may have been an ideal address back in the day when loggers ruled, but that day is long gone, and well before the DTES became internationally known – however inaccurately – as “Canada’s poorest postal code”.
Wu and Wong took over the restaurant in 1992, right when the neighbourhood’s woes were accelerating from bad to worse. “The area went to hell,” former owner Tyke Thodos (son of co-founder Nickolas Thodos) was quoted as saying of the time. “I closed it down…I was losing my ass.” That’s not difficult to believe.
Wong was one of the waitresses when she and Wu took over. She had some history with the place, and could even trace her connection to the restaurant back to its afterglow in the 1970’s, back to when her sister Lois worked the same job as hers. But just 8 years after she became her own boss (and well before the advent of Ocean Wise), she and her partner would plead guilty to “three counts each of purchasing, selling or possessing fish contrary to the Fisheries Act.” They were fined $12,000 after a Fisheries and Oceans’ Special Investigations Unit found “more than 100 undersized Dungeness crab, as well as 18 sockeye and 246 Manilla clams” on the premises “for which appropriate documents to prove the commercial source, legal possession, and processing of the product could not be produced.” Ouch. And yet they continued on, right up to the time when the cops raided the place and found Tony Montana in the corner with his face buried in a bowl of Colombian chowder.
It has since sat dormant. Sort of. In the two years between the time that it was shut down and when the lease was picked up by the PHS, copper thieves, not-so-talented graffiti artists, and not a few wayward pigeons made solid use of the two storey building without permission. There’s even a story about the dilapidated back room of The Only acting – for months on end during this time – as the home of a crippled drug dealer whose particular fondness for sports cars was the stuff of DTES legend. Go figure.
Tall tale? Who knows. I toured the building just the other day with Shelley Bolton and Craig Sinclair of the PHS, and after half an hour of being careful where I took every step, I’d believe just about anything. It was a sad but hopeful walkabout. As you can see from the photos, everything that wasn’t bolted down (except for a couple of coffee cups) was long gone. The wiring was all fucked up (we toured by flashlight), and the whole place smelled unlike Spring. Sinclair explained that some of the badly needed work had already been done since the PHS took over (asbestos removal, yay!), but it was clear that they still had a long way to go, much longer than the six to eight months that Mark Townsend, executive director of the PHS, estimated in a Vancouver Sun article last year. Still, the character of the place – much like the neighbourhood that it belongs to – was unbowed, even when subject to the drip drip drip of leaks and a blanket of caked hard bird shit.
The restaurant itself is tiny; just 25 seats and a sliver of an open kitchen with a hood vent that goes up through to the roof. With the right tenant in place and a sizeable infusion of capital, it could rise again. Likewise the second story, which used to house the Logger’s Social Club (aka Logger’s Club, Logger’s Recreation Club), a storied private gaming house that looks out through big windows onto East Hastings and the top of The Only’s neon sign.
I’d never been up there before. To be perfectly honest, I never even knew it existed. So I was pretty well floored when it was revealed to me in all its faded glory at the top of the staircase. The 5,000 sqft charmer comes complete with heavy curtains, an empty (awesome-looking) safe, a barren kitchen in need of a complete overhaul, overturned gaming tables, a billiards table, and bolted-to-the-floor seats wrapping around a low, horseshoe lunch counter. It, too, has been out of commission for quite some time. This web snippet from an out of town dude whose “friends” were looking to score weed on the DTES back in 2008 doesn’t paint an especially flattering picture…
They ask this kid who just finished smoking probably about a 10 inch joint with his friends and he leads us down Hastings to this unmarked door where we went up the staircase and there was an old rough-looking asian dude in a booth selling 1/8th’s for like 35 bucks, which I guess they told me afterwards is fairly standard for that much. I couldn’t believe that this even existed. Have you heard of that place? I don’t smoke weed myself, but I figure it’s gotta be pretty handy to have a place like that around. It’s called the Logger’s Club if any of you are ever in Vancouver…
Thanks brother. Back in 1974, it was the largest gambling joint in the city, a “dimly lit hall with tarnished brass spittoons and a multi-scarred tile floor that serves as a common ashtray. It has a membership of several thousand, comprising loggers, professional gamblers, and skid road types with just enough money for a cheap game.” Sounds pretty amazing.
It would make a cool location for a new restaurant. The Only, too. And that’s exactly what the Portland Hotel Society is looking for. The rear storage area (4,000 sqft) and the full footprint basement will also need uses as well, but keep in mind that they aren’t going to let just anyone scoop the space(s) up. It’s not going to end up being an Earls on top of a fast food shitfest next to an Aldo in front of a Money Mart. They hope, rather, to parcel it out to one or two local companies that – in partnership with the PHS – take a long-view, social enterprise approach to their businesses, employing and serving the people of the DTES community. The deal breaker for prospective tenants of The Only is that they must keep the name and retain some sort of a seafood concept. I think with that amazing sign outside, they’d be crazy not to. Take a look…
All interested (serious) parties looking to score these locations can email Shelley Bolton at [email protected].
Andrew Morrison lives and works in Vancouver as the editor-in-chief of Scout and the National Referee & BC Judge at the Canadian Culinary Championships. He also contributes regularly to a wide range of publications, radio programs, and television shows on local food, culture and travel; collects inexpensive things; and enjoys rare birds, skateboards, cocktails, shoes, good pastas, many songs, and the smell of camp fires.