Chambar celebrates its 15th anniversary this month with special menus and plenty of good times. This short retrospective checks the fundamentals of its success and is dedicated to my old friend, colleague and Chambar veteran, Alistair Stewart, who brightened the lives of all who knew him.
Am I wrong to think of Chambar as a special restaurant of generational importance? In hospitality circles, it’s pretty well accepted that after 15 years in operation, Chambar is still Vancouver’s most important restaurant. (I’m going to go ahead and work that into a headline. There we go.)
When Karri and Nico Schuermans first opened the singular Belgian-Moroccan eatery’s doors in September of 2004, it was as if a new era had dawned in our city’s hospitality scene. Chambar has since endured nearly every trauma a restaurant can possibly face – flood, fire, accidents, tragedies, almost 100% staff turnover (only two staffers are originals), surprise inspections, divorces, dine-and-dashers, even a physical change of address – and yet it has somehow come out stronger. That resiliency has to come from somewhere, and it starts with Karri and Nico.
When they met near the end of the last millennium, Nico was a Michelin-trained chef from Belgium working in Australia, while Karri was a marketing professional from Alberta by way of New Zealand who was working for the Sydney Organising Committee for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games. They made the move to Vancouver at exactly the right time, just when the role of the restaurant in the wider world was flush with a new sort of social currency, one that was buttressed on one side by a suddenly food-fascinated television and print media and on the other side by newfangled online forums, food blogs and social media.
Vancouver was suddenly sexy and delicious. Think of its special geographic and demographic situations as ingredients — not only was the city positioned between an ocean brimming with seafoods and a bountiful interior dotted with farms and vineyards, but it was also very much in the world’s spotlight as the upcoming host of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. More importantly, Vancouver was home to an uncommonly diverse and food-curious population versed in dozens of international cuisines, and they were co-mingling in the name of taste. It seemed our city was finally ready to play itself, not at the artificial entreaty of Expo Ernie or Bob Rennie, but rather through new things to drink and increasingly exciting things to eat. Good food and hospitality could always be found in Vancouver, but almost out of nowhere there seemed to be lots of both, and a sense (which turned out to be accurate) that there was so much more to come.
I remember the midwifing of Chambar as a very exciting time. The online chatter surrounding its imminence caught the attentions of local keyboarding gourmands, and it was so eloquently previewed by food writer Jamie Maw in a Vancouver Magazine feature that reservations were nearly impossible to get for many months after opening day. The punters would soon become aware of the new restaurant after it scooped several “Best New Restaurant” awards, and its cliffhanger birth would enthral television viewers as the Opening Soon series captured it in all its dramatic glory (watch the full episode below).
Good press will not sustain a restaurant over time, of course. At some point (these days usually very quickly) the media will lose interest and focus on the next bright and shiny object coming into view. Critics have revisited Chambar over the years and heaped more praise upon it, but accolade engines seldom drive establishments over ten years old. And that’s been just fine for Chambar. Though it’s no slouch when it comes to the social media game (it has many thousands of fans and followers), it has never had to depend on hashtags, social subterfuge, gimmicks or other bullshit to put bums in seats. Nor has it ever relied on location. (The block of Beatty St. between Pender St. and Dunsmuir St. might as well have been the moon in 2004. The idea of “Crosstown” as a marketable neighbourhood seemed a little silly, and then Chambar came along.) No, by my count there are five main reasons why Chambar has been so successful…
First: the food. This stuff is famously hard to pin down. It has been said that there are Belgian, French, Moroccan, West Coast and Asian influences at play in the kitchen, and while all of that is certainly true, such descriptors fail to capture the nature of Nico’s idiosyncratic style. And remember, the food at Chambar was not an evolution or an academic process of trial and error; it launched fully formed, like Minerva as sprung from the head of Jupiter. I’m actually eating dinner at Chambar as I write this, and I recognise five items that were on the menu 15 years ago. Instead of doing a drill-down of these plates to illustrate the thread of uniqueness sewing them all together, let me ask you where else you’ve had mussels like this? Have you ever had lamb this good? Like, in your entire life? Me neither. There may have been quibbles about the pink peppercorn poutine, but no one can say it wasn’t unique. (Side note: the poutine hasn’t been on the menu for ages but they’ll still make it for you if you ask.)
Second: the drinks. It’s easy to forget (because it’s been 15 years), but Chambar opened with a deeeeep selection of uncommon beers. This was several years before Vancouver was properly weened off lager. Most of the beers were Belgian, and most of us had never even heard of them before. Some were wildly acquired tastes. Honestly, how many restaurants do you know of would be so bold as to put a bottle of Lambic in front of a guest whose imported beer experience amounted to Heineken and Corona?
Just as ballsy was the emphasis Chambar put on original cocktails in 2004. Again, this was a few trailblazing years before craft cocktail culture hit Vancouver’s restaurant scene like a sledgehammer, and it was Chambar more than any other restaurant or bar that built that sledgehammer. The restaurant ruled (and still rules) on the wine front, too; its bright young string of sommeliers stocking a cellar that has only ever gotten better and more interesting over time.
Third: the atmosphere. The original location was brick-lined, art-filled, brilliantly soundtracked, moodily lit and rambunctious as fuck. It opened with a hopping lounge area dotted with cozy chairs and couches, the area being steadily anchored by a bar with a back that curved like a wave, going over-vertical from the bottles to the ceiling. The bar led to a tight little corseted waist of a middle with a couple of small tables and a bustling kitchen pass. From there the space opened up again to the rear dining room with its signature curved red booths and picture windows looking out towards Chinatown and Strathcona. On a busy night (they were all busy nights), Chambar was a thing of exhilaration.
That magic didn’t change when the restaurant moved into the much larger space next door. Brick, wooden beams and red leather booths still abound, and the soundtrack still has people tapping toes. The restaurant gained a patio and despite about a million more seats, it has never run a deficit of charm.
Fourth: the service style. Chambar’s tagline has long been “A casual fling with fine dining.” That’s pretty bang on. When it opened, the front of house struck a sharp balance between casual and formal, hitting many high end service notes without ever really leaving the purposely relaxed octave. That’s not easy to do. The reverse is just as tricky; being familiar with guests without surrendering the perception of professionalism.
That Chambar can swing both ways without guests really being aware is no small achievement. And that they do it in the “team service” style – with servers supporting one another, bussing each others tables and expediting each other’s food and drinks instead of going it alone in their own respective sections – is hard to make sense of. It was harder still 15 years ago. You try it. (I did for a magazine story back in 2006, spending an evening serving tables at Chambar, and was flummoxed by it.) Their level and style of service immediately set an example that is is still being followed by many Vancouver restaurants to this day.
Which brings me to the fifth and most important reason why Chambar has been so consistently successful over time: the people. The restaurant has been undeniably adept at attracting and managing good people. On several occasions over the past 15 years I’ve written about the so-called Chambar Effect, which Scout’s dictionary defines thusly: “The strange phenomenon in which a job at Chambar, a celebrated Belgian-Moroccan eatery on Beatty Street, can propel an individual toward a brighter, more independent future in the restaurant scene. To wit, here are some past Chambar employees and the names of the establishments they’ve opened since moving on: Tannis Ling (Bao Bei, Kissa Tanto), Roger Collins (Calabash), Mark Brand (Boneta, Save On Meats, Sea Monstr Sushi), Eleanor Chow (Cadeaux), Paul Grunberg (L’Abattoir, Savio Volpe, Pepino’s, La Tana), Robbie Kane (Cafe Medina), Josh Pape (The Diamond, Wildebeest, Lucky Taco, Bells and Whistles, Bufala), Frankie Harrington (Meat & Bread, Como Taperia), David Robertson (Dirty Apron), and Justin Tisdall (Juke Fried Chicken).” To visualize that influence on a map, click on any of the following…
And those are just the former staffers who have gone on to become restaurateurs themselves. There are literally dozens of other former Chambar staffers – servers, managers, somms, cooks – who continue to influence operations in other restaurants as employees. It’s been a while since once one of them has opened a spot of their own, but Karri and Nico employ 150 people right now. It’s only a matter of time.
And speaking of time, Chambar marches on as more than just the sum of its many parts, remaining both a benchmark and a high water line that reminds every would-be restaurateur of what’s possible when you have an original idea and the talent to help you execute it. So yeah, I think it’s been Vancouver’s most important restaurant to open in the past 15 years. Let’s see about 20.