Five Years Ago Today, Inside What Would Become a Popular Gastown Hangout

For this edition of #ThrowbackThursday we return to the very beginnings of Gastown’s popular Birds and the Beets cafe, back to when it was completely gutted and miles away from being finished.

Five years ago today I met up with first-time restaurateur Matthew Senecal-Junkeer to tour 55 Powell Street in Gastown. It was an address most diners in the neighbourhood – myself included – knew intimately as Mark Brand and Alex Usow’s casual Sea Monstr Sushi (now lovingly interred in Vancouver’s Restaurant Graveyard). Matthew was planning on turning it into an “an insanely food-focused counter-service cafe.”

Here are some of my notes from that day…

I did a walk-through of the construction site with Matthew over the weekend, just a day after they took possession. The architect on the project, Bill Simcic from Simcic + Uhrich (see also JuniperTimbertrain), is working with design/construction gurus Cam Johnson and James Bank of Harmony Pacific, and kitchen maestro Jason Gilron of Pacific Restaurant Supply. It’s a solid crew.

As Matthew describes it, Birds & The Beets will be “an insanely food-focused counter-service cafe.” While he’ll be focusing on the coffee and service components (think Bows x Arrows and Matchstick coffees via a La Mazorocco Linea PB espresso machine, Fetco Batch Brew, and made-to-order from an Aeropress bar), Trevor  will handle the food program. The idea behind it, Matthew says, is to get people to rethink the traditional “coffee and baked goods” cafe model.

To that end, they’ll be dishing out breakfast items like Bircher muesli; house-made yogurt with granola and fruit; and brioche bun breakfast sandwiches. For lunch, we can expect things like albacore tuna salad with egg and avocado yogurt; lamb leg sandwiches with mint apple jelly, harissa yogurt spread, arugula, and roasted fennel; and special salads of pickled vegetables, fresh herbs, and sous vide proteins.

All told, we can expect a short, focused menu designed around goodies brought up from the property’s refurbished cellar. In addition to making their own yogurts, pickled vegetables and savoury/sweet preserves, they’ll also be fermenting sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and ginger beer in house, not to mention crafting their own soda syrups and baking their own brioche loaves. Bonus: they have a liquor license, so can anticipate a handful of local beers (and a cider) on tap.

That day I recognized Matthew from when he’d previously worked at Matchstick Coffee in Chinatown and 33 Acres Brewing Company in Mt. Pleasant — a humble, hospitable guy. I recall him looking a little overwhelmed, covered in dust and working side by with his Dad, who was busily demolishing a wall. I also remember how odd it was to start seeing the property as one continuous space from its Powell St. frontage to its lower Alexander St. frontage (the latter being where retail store Sharks + Hammers once ruled). I couldn’t then imagine what it would look like when it was finished, but Scout was there on opening day and took a bunch of photos.

The current Covid-19 nightmare aside, from the outside it looks to have been a good first five years for Birds and the Beets, a beautiful, relaxing respite in the daytime that transitions into the wine-focused Juice Bar at night. (Matthew went on to open Hunnybee with Sean Cunningham on the edge of Strathcona in 2018.) This is what it looked like in those early days, before the Sea Monstr Sushi signage was down and the first service was still three months away…

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