by Stevie Wilson | Vancouver has always been a city with a great love for food, particularly of diner fare. The first Aristocratic Restaurant, a family-oriented cafe that would become locally famous for its “courteous service, quality food, all over town”, popped up at Kingsway and Fraser in 1932. It featured a popular drive-in service catering to a growing car culture across the city. This drive-in, and those which would follow, underscored the early-to-mid-century cultural emphasis on convenience, great gimmicks, and fast food (particularly the 15-cent hamburger). When founder Frank Hunter sold the chain in 1947, he had established nine successful locations all across Vancouver. These include addresses at 13th & Cambie, 10th & Alma, Main & King Edward (now Helen’s Grill) and – perhaps the most iconic of them all – at Granville & Smithe.
The company evolved into Aristocratic Restaurants Ltd and expanded to include the development of several other restaurants across the city: Risty’s, the Silk Hat, Henri’s Grill & Smorgasbord, and the Flame Super Club. Additional locations of the original Aristocratic were established at the Lee Building on Main & Broadway and on Marine Drive in North Vancouver. Hunter’s company did exceptionally well, and eventually a dozen locations of the Aristocratic dotted the Vancouver and Burnaby landscape. Not bad for a former baker who took a chance on the industry he used to cater to!
The 1950s were a decade of change for the Aristocratic restaurants. Hank Oliver became chain manager in 1953, when the rising number of restaurants, growing competition, and commercial missteps led to a degradation of quality and popularity. The business employed 95 staff and featured its own butcher shop at the Cambie location (sold to White Spot in 1975). Despite being a successful manager and consultant, Oliver was let go from the business, only to be called back to work in 1956 in an attempt to revitalize operations. Oliver took things a step further by buying into the company and taking ownership of five locations.
The Aristocratic empire was eventually reduced to one location – Broadway and Granville – which served up diner-style food until its closure in 1997. It’s worth noting that however nostalgic and charming the familiar “Risty” sign decorating the entrance to the Chapters at Broadway and Granville might be, it’s not authentic. The original – from the 1960’s – can be found in the Vancouver Museum (thanks to curator Joan Sidel). It’s a 10’x11’ installation that is a little too heavy for the bookstore’s window. The replica was designed after the location closed to make way for redevelopment.
Some heritage fans have noted, quite aptly, that the small scale of the reproduction encourages visitors to forget the impressive size (literally) and history of the landmark restaurant, but what is nostalgia if not an edited, customized version of history? Whether you’re on your way to a five-star meal or a quick stop at a greasy spoon, be sure take note of the miniature reminder next time you pass by.
YOU SHOULD KNOW EVEN MORE
Stevie Wilson is a historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to reveal to readers the many historial things that they already see but might not undertstand.
A friend sent the article you did on the Aristocratic Restaurant to my Mom and she sent it to me. I enjoyed it very much. You see, my Dad Managed all those restaurants from 1950 – 1953 ( approx ). My Mom worked in the one you have pictured ( Broadway and Granville ). In fact, the man in the suit with his back to the camera is my Dad ( Walter Jensen ) the man he’s talking to is a life-long friend and the man at the end of the counter is my cousin. They all worked for the Aristocratic at one time or another. The article brought back many happy memories of time spent at any one of the many locations. No one made a better hamburger not even the White Spot.
Thanks for the memories!
Dear Stevie Wilson,
It’s been a long time since I thought about the Aristocrat, which is what we called it for short. I know it’s not much of a txt shorthand – see what I did there – but at least I get the irony.
I couldn’t believe it when I read your article and realized that the last of what I always considered to be a one-of-a-kind sign post in history, was going to be turned into an afterthought of today’s generation (that’s okay, I’m not sentimental).
I’m not saying that’s bad, I just didn’t realize that I would actually miss seeing the old joint wiped out I guess (crap … maybe I am sentimental)!
In any case, may I wonder out loud for a bit … (dot dot dot).
I’ve learned from today’s great pillars of success and why, why could I not have simply watched and learned?
For instance, if only I had put in more hours at creating a stronger logo, or done more to understand my target audience. If only someone had explained to me the value of proper training for my staff, or let me know that I should hire cooks that actually cared about the product (sorry, Chefs).
Perhaps then, maybe, I could have created a restaurant that people might have cared to visit. If only… I don’t know, I was never a restauranteur. Oh, and I’m not a writer so go gentle.
What I wouldn’t have done for a Facebook, a Twitter, or a Pinterest to let people know that we had courteous service and good food. I don’t know how we did it frankly!
Not to talk about what we did (I wish), but to learn about great customer service and the importance of great food on every plate as each and every guest experienced it… well, I’m sorry but that information just wasn’t available back then.
I do know this, those people could have kept me on the right track when I championed naive notions of courteous service and good food at all cost, as complicated as that sounds, and I know they could have helped me to understand why profit should come first (and success second or third).
I just didn’t realize at the time how doomed for failure notions of courteous service and a good product were. [I’m older.]
In any case, as I was writing this I did remember one other thing. I remember seeing all those people morning, noon, and night, and how grateful I was to meet them.
The Aristocratic showed the soul of so many people. I remember giving those people a familiar face, and the smiles they left me with was a singular satisfaction for me.
I used to say, “every body said hi, and every server said bye…” Today I guess that would be “Every Yelp! meant a sorry and a pie!” What!
Stevie, what I’ve really been trying to say is that your article has given me a great gift. You’ve reminded me of a time in which the sacrifices I made for my business, were to ensure my family had a better life in a harder time.
I wanted a grande life my family — my wife, my son, my daughter — the Aristocratic started that, and it’s demise saddens me.
I thank you for your article and the memories it conjured up. I can almost see my hand being grasped by my sweet daughter out front as she asked “may I have a do-nut today?”
The Aristocratic may be gone, but my love for those moments with her will always be on that corner.
Thank you Aristocratic. Thank you family. Thank you daughter.
Courteous service and good food!
It’s so lovely to hear some history other than that terribly dull clock that makes a whistling sound.
Enjoyed your article S.W., and the stock photos presented!
Happened to look up the Aristocratic, and was reminded of the familiar nickname “Risty” and the character on the sign with the monocle (glasses). As a kid I thought he looked like a peanut (man). A cartoon like figure. With a city changing into a glass forest downtown in some ways, it sure would have been nice if more of these classic buidling/ store-fronts survived to keep character in a neighbourhood. Helen’s Grill is still going though, on 25th and Main.
What a blast from the past! I was going over some family history with some long lost siblings and thought about the Aristocratic when relating where I worked when I was in University. Indeed, I was a waitress at the Aristocratic, it was a great place to work and eat! I would have worked there in the late 70’s or so. I will enjoy showing my daughter (who is in University now) this article, (yes I’m a late bloomer with a 21yr old daughter).
The Aristocratic sold “Kentucky Fried Chicken” as a menu item before the brand evolved into stand alone fast food chain. They were also one of, if not the first restaurant to sell coffee to go in a paper cup.
I dated the guy who ran that gas station for a bit – Ken Parke.