The dishes of Vietnam’s legendary ‘Lunch Lady’ – a favourite of the late Anthony Bourdain – will be on the menu at an upcoming new Commercial Drive restaurant that will bear her nickname.
The Lunch Lady – or, more accurately, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thanh – is a friend of Victoria Tran, who is the founder of The Drive’s Five Elements Cafe and mother to Michael Tran, founder of the Pacific Poke chain. They recently closed Five Elements and aim to open the 55-seat Lunch Lady in its place. The Tran family has licensed the name from the famous Ho Chi Minh City cook, who is being flown to Vancouver in a few weeks to dial in the menu (basically recreate the rotating daily soups she’s renowned for) and help train day-to-day kitchen operations/chef Benedict Lim of CWB Kitchen on their nuances.
First featured on a 2009 episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations TV show, Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thanh is a big deal in Vietnam. Her street food stall serves just one dish per day (eg. Bun Bo Hue on Fridays, Bun Thai on Mondays, etc.) and was a hit with locals long before its reputation went global and it became a ‘must visit’ for every food-curious tourist.
When it launches this Spring, the 1,900 sqft Lunch Lady will be open for lunch and dinner, plus weekend brunch. I was told during my walk-through of the construction site that it will have a cocktail program and plenty of Vietnamese beer. Victoria also explained that some popular Five Elements dishes will be making the transition (eg. those addictive peanut-sauced satays), but that she will be semi-retired, leaving Michael in charge. Benedict told me the lunch and dinner menus will be different, with the daytime dishes cleaving to the Lunch Lady’s namesake recipes and the evening plates zeroed in on share plates and snacks inspired by her many neighbours in the street food scene across Vietnam.
Joining us on the tour were interior designers Andrea Greenway and Ella Kane of local firm Studio.CM (see also Bauhaus, Bufala Edgemont). They are taking the lead on the look of the place, with Glasfurd & Walker nailing the branding and identity job (above). Of course, part of the endearing, approachable charm of Five Elements was just how unfussy and basic its interior was, so it’ll be interesting to see how it will be transformed with real deal design pros in charge. Despite the layout provided below, I’m totally in the dark as to the aesthetic choices they’re making, which is really exciting for me. Stripped back, it’s a really interesting building that dates back to 1909, which is sort of like the Stone Age for The Drive.
It’s hard not to be stoked about Lunch Lady. It’s a cool concept from a family that has restaurants and hospitality in their blood. Before they opened Five Elements, the Trans were behind Mekong at 1414 Commercial Drive (now Sake Maki) and eight restaurants in Saskatchewan (Victoria moved to Regina from Vietnam in 1979). I can’t wait to see how this pans out and promise to report back on its development. In the meantime, take a look inside at what they’re working with…
Why it matters: Lunch Lady has an undeniable marketing hook with the importation of recipes from a Vietnamese chef made popular by the accolades of revered superstar, Anthony Bourdain. Combined with the facts that 1046 Commercial Drive is an interesting address (one of the oldest buildings on The Drive) and that the Tran family are beloved in local hospitality makes for a project worth following.