Andrew Morrison | I started writing my annual Top 10 Best New Restaurants column for the newspaper yesterday when I learned that the keeper of the #9 spot, Fat Dragon, was going to close for good next Saturday (December 22). It’s a bummer, for sure, that they couldn’t last nine months. My family loved the place; it was casual, affordable, and “Chinese BBQ meets Southern US spice” concepts don’t come along every day. The people, however, never fell for it the same way that the critics did (I wasn’t alone in my affections. My colleagues at the Globe & Mail, The Courier, and the Vancouver Sun also loved The Fat Dragon). I think that had lot of that had to do with the simple fact that few of them ever bothered to go, which was a bit of a shocker considering how the owners – the same people who brought us Refuel and the two Campagnolos – are highly respected for track record of uncompromising quality.
No, I suspect the real reason why it couldn’t make it was its address. Located just down the street from Oppenheimer Park, the 500 block of Powell St. hasn’t attracted much in the way of gastronomically adventurous foot traffic since the old days of Japantown. It’s unfortunate that a lot of Vancouver diners still dread the core of the Downtown Eastside as if it were an urban Hades, a place where their cars would be broken into by crack addicts and their persons robbed by HIV-infected needle-point, but I understand that nothing stifles an appetite quite like anxiety, however baseless and prejudicial the anxiety might be. What is true, however, is that many of my neighbours on the DTES didn’t give the Fat Dragon a warm reception. The owners were (sadly, predictably, falsely, laughably) decried as gentrifiers by a lot of them before the restaurant was even open, and I was disgusted and ashamed to hear – just a few weeks after opening – that someone felt it necessary to introduce a pile of feces to the handle of the front door.
If Fat Dragon had opened, say, where Secret Location is in Gastown, in the old Grub space on Main, or on the 100 block of East Pender in Chinatown, I’m sure it would be thriving. Alas, no. It took a big chance by opening in the heart of the DTES, which proved – rather quickly – a bridge too far. We had our last meal there yesterday, and we hope that our readers can get in there for some noodles, fried chicken and bao buns before the 23rd.
Hats off to co-owner Tom Doughty, whose recovery from a debilitating stroke last year has been nothing short of miraculous (long may he pour). Ditto to co-owner/chef Robert Belcham, a guy whose inability to compromise on the quality of his ingredients keeps him busy, but never busy enough to keep him from his volunteer work as the thankless Marketing Manager of the Chefs Table Society of BC. Equal kudos to co-owner/chef Ted Anderson, whose first kick at the independence can was an original food concept that he can be very proud of. And much respect to the staff. I never saw a foot fall wrong at The Fat Dragon. The crew both front and back were very good at their jobs. I was glad to hear that they got plenty of notice and that a lot of them have already secured positions elsewhere.
Finally, those who like the place will be happy to remember that the owners have a 10 year lease on it. Belcham told me this afternoon that he has no plans to sell it just yet, and that there is a good chance that he and his partners will try again down the road with a new concept. My vote is for 24 hour schnitzel.
NOTE: When my Top 10 comes out in the paper next Thursday, don’t bother snickering at Fat Dragon’s inclusion. Open or closed, they earned their spot fair and square.
Andrew Morrison lives and works in Vancouver as editor-in-chief of Scout, food columnist at the Westender, and National Referee & Judge at the Canadian Culinary Championships. He also contributes regularly to a wide range of publications, radio programs, and television shows on local food, culture and travel; collects inexpensive things; and enjoys rare birds, skateboards, cocktails, shoes, good pastas, many songs, and the smell of camp fires.