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.
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.