by Andrew Morrison | Rachel Chen, who owns the little Perks cafe at 39 East Pender in Chinatown, has agreed to take over the Ovaltine Cafe at 291 East Hastings from the current owner, an old family friend.
The Ovaltine, as you’re very likely aware, is one of the most iconic diners in the city. It has stood as a beacon of continuity on the Downtown Eastside since 1942. Conversations about the eatery these days seldom dwell on its grilled cheese sandwiches and hot coffee, focusing instead on either the lasting beauty of its facade (with its competing horizontal and vertical neon signs) or the likelihood of it being able to stick around much longer in this new age of greed/opportunity on the DTES.
The neighbourhood is for sale, it seems, and as we’ve seen especially of late, preservation is evidently not Vancouver’s official strong suit. Worry that the Ovaltine might be demolished to make way for cheesy condominiums or be replaced with a new restaurant that was somehow inappropriate for the area (say, a foie gras and leather bar) has been in the back and fore of many local heads. In Scout’s irreverent dictionary, the Vancouver Lexicon, the cafe’s own entry offers the following as its usage in speech: “I’m taking bets on how long the Ovaltine will last…”. The angst continued in a recent Vancouver Courier article:
[Local historian John] Atkin worries about the Ovaltine’s chances for survival with scant customers and low-priced fare. Diminished evening hours mean customers no longer see neon reflected down the long counter, but he doesn’t want the cafe “hipsterized” and serving craft beer.
Invoking the dreaded hipster/craft beer nexus is merely another way of employing the G-Word without actually saying it. Gentrification cometh, but in the case of the Ovaltine, it looks like Atkin needn’t worry too much. Rachel and her mother Grace aren’t going to be doing much to the place except give it a good clean, a lick of paint, and a menu makeover that might make it busy again.
It certainly deserves the love. The place has been through the ringer in recent years. And when it hasn’t been serving its regulars – some of whom can measure their patronage in decades – it’s been starring in countless TV shows and even a blockbuster or two. The building itself – a four-storey Edwardian Italian Renaissance Revival pile housing the Afton Hotel – was put together some 102 years ago. The cafe may have given the property a quaint Rockwellian coffee counter, varnished wood panelling, worn cloisters, and smoky mirrors, but the address kept other restaurants before it, not to mention a tailor’s shop, government offices, apartments, even a postal substation. It’s definitely got as much history as it does personality.
And so does Grace, who is something of a legend on the DTES. She used to own the diner at Save On Meats. She took it over in 1999, long before it was reimagined by restaurateur Mark Brand in 2011. Grace gave Rachel her start in the business when she was 11. The youngster would pull shifts after school and on the weekends, both serving and cooking; enduring Welfare Wednesday rushes with her mom and grandmother by the time she was 15.
Needless to say, Rachel and Grace will be drawing on their Save On Meats experiences and repertoire for the Ovaltine Cafe’s new menu, offering up things like root beer pulled pork, fully loaded 1/2 lb bacon cheeseburgers, and fish and chips using the old recipe from The Only Seafood, which still lies beautifully dormant a couple blocks east (the last owner is a friend of the family, too). I asked Rachel what such a burger with all the fixings might cost, and she quoted me $7 with fries, which is about as much a Big Mac meal goes for these days.
Oh, and did you know that the Ovaltine Cafe was sitting on a full liquor license? True story. And Rachel aims to take advantage of it. Will we see them selling local craft beer? Most probably. Will there be hipsters in attendance? It’s guaranteed. But neither of those apparent detriments should prove obstacles enough to dampen what Atkin was hoping for in the broader scheme of things. From the same Courier piece:
Atkin hopes the Downtown Eastside will morph into a neighbourhood that includes healthy businesses, old and new, alongside affordable housing, service organizations, artists and cultural venues. “If this neighbourhood continues to evolve and returns to what it was in 1978, that’s the perfect balance because you had the hotels serving a certain type of clientele — now you’ve got a ton of social housing here — but you had vibrant and viable retail and you had a slight edge to the neighbourhood,” he said.
I’m glad to see that The Ovaltine will remain, craft beer or no craft beer, and regardless of the maintenance of the neighbourhood’s “slight edge”. That it will continue on much as it had before with new, proven owners (who are very familiar with what area residents view as value for dollar) is a great development.
As far as a timeline is concerned, the Chens take possession of the space early next week. The current cooking regime will be maintained as things get organised, adjusted, and primed (a few days), and then they will briefly shut it down for cleaning, painting, and reopening. The plan is to launch before September is through – same decor, same signage, same name – refreshed and ready, one hopes, for another 72 years. Long live the Ovaltine!