Bourdain’s Beloved ‘Lunch Lady’ Opening New Vietnamese Eatery in Vancouver

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.

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There are 13 comments

  1. Sad. I’ll miss Five Elements. They’ve been saying they were going to reopen, but they didn’t say it was going to be a different restaurant entirely.
    If Five Elements IS closed and gone, they needed to tell people that – not that they were reopening.

  2. As the article states, they are pretty sensitive to their regulars (my family included) and plan on keeping some Five Elements dishes on the menu.

  3. To all time customers of Five Elements Cafe. My extensive menu is going beyond what Five Elements has been serving for the past decade, its growing larger and more choices, more options not less. You will find a lot of my dishes are still going strong throughout the menu. The Satay peanut soup, the sizzling hot plates are our homemade Recipes and it will stay with us and your families to enjoy for years to come. And what’s more we are bringing more fresh seafood into the menu as being recommend in the past. And we are trying to be as healthy as possible by carefully choosing how and what we are putting in our each recipe and staying with the true tastes and it’s authentic origin. More opening hours so we don’t have to disappointing those works late or early birds for breakfast brunch. I am as maybe semi retired but as a mother I will never retired from my children or my Commercial Drive families which is all of you. You are my family and we will continue to support the local and continue to be your favorite. Much love to you all and will see you all soon
    Victoria

  4. Dearest Victoria,
    We are very excited and looking forward to the growth of your business. We know that our family will soon be Regulars at the Lunch Lady as we are huge fans of Five Elements. Congratulations!

  5. Anyone not excited for this concept should be ashamed!! This is possibly the most exciting restaurant announcement in Vancouver

  6. Looking forward to the opening. Some errors in this story: The building dates from 1909 (not 1918), around the time most of the older buildings on the Drive were erected.

  7. I don’t even eat out much, but I really miss Five Elements! Where’s my vegan pho gone? #9 was the best. And the salad rolls were so good! I hope you open soon…

  8. I was fortunate enough to eat at the Lunch Lady’s spot in HCMC a few years ago. She was a great lady and the food was excellent. She runs a tight and efficient ship!

  9. I am looking forward to the Lunch Lady opening up on Commercial Drive here in Vancouver. I live blocks away so it will be a short walk for me. I loved Bourdains shows and watched any I could find. Of all the foodies he is the one I would miss the most.

  10. It’s an amazing concept but having eaten twice at the Lunch Lady in HCMC, I don’t get how it’s going to work. Her dishes are based on what prime ingredients are available locally. Noodles made fresh within blocks, everything assembled for its peak freshness etc. That’s the real joy of her food. I just don’t know how the recipes can translate to Vancouver. I hope I am wrong though.

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