The pandemic has put the highly anticipated new Commercial Drive restaurant a little behind schedule, but we should be able to enjoy the dishes and spirit of Vietnam’s legendary ‘Lunch Lady’ (a favourite of the late Anthony Bourdain) on or around July 1st.
Even in the current maelstrom’s chaotic swirl of socio-political upheaval and global pandemic, there remain some reliable certainties, like the sun rising and restaurant openings getting pushed back. Such has been the repeated case with the Tran family’s Lunch Lady, which made feints towards take-out service and meal kits in May before returning to the drawing board. The last time I’d looked in on progress was at the end of April, and judging by the state of construction back then (about 90% finished) a May launch seemed entirely possible. Alas, no. They’ve had to wait, and so have we — for classics like com ga with pork crackling, aromatic pho chay with King Oyster shrooms, and nearly a dozen items inspired by Ho Chi Minh City’s street food scene, not to mention some tropical cocktails and cold Tiger beer.
That hasn’t stopped me from being curious, though. I again checked in on progress late last week and found the whole operation looking loaded for bear. The bar was stocked and the kitchen – to my eye – looked 100% good to go. They were kind enough to remove the paper off the windows so I could take some photos (I’ve arranged these in a gallery at the bottom of this page), but I’m a writer not a photographer, and as usual the images don’t do the room justice.
Studio.CM has done an excellent job with the old space (the building dates to 1909). The choice of shiny stainless patio tables, abundant greenery and framed photographs (especially the HCMC street scenes) all gel with the concept and its origins, while the exterior branding/signage by Glasfurd & Walker is absolutely on point and very reminiscent of the hand-painted beauties of late 1960s Saigon. When it does finally open, Lunch Lady is going to be a fun and lively space to be in.
If this is the first you’re hearing of it or you need a refresher on the restaurant, here’s some backstory from several months ago when we broke the news of its coming:
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 […] 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…
Again, they’re nearly there. They had been hoping to launch today (June 15th) but they’re now thinking of putting opening day back to around the 1st of July. And that’s fine. As much as I’m in a hurry to try new things (ahem: char-grilled, house spice-crusted Cornish Game Hen!) and breathe in the oxygen of normalcy that is – for me – the electrified atmosphere of a new restaurant’s opening night, these are weird and dangerous times. Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast. Shakespeare knew what’s up. Here’s a look at the opening menu (without prices), followed by a gallery of images…