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DINER: Highly Respected DTES Restaurant “Fat Dragon” Set To Close On December 22

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.

There are 43 comments

  1. Not for nothing, but I never tried them for two reasons. The location is awful… and I live in the neighbourhood. Also, looking at the menu, they really didn’t seem to offer enough value for me. To be fair, I’m typically a solo diner and am definitely on the frugal side… so I certainly may not represent the intended demographic.

    They also papered the hood in tacky paper-posters which I found annoying.

    It sucks to see any place close, but I thought I would share my thoughts. I hope it’s not in poor taste.

  2. This was my favorite new restaurant to have opened this year.
    I’m very sad to hear this. I look forward to what they have planned in the future.

    It makes me sick to my stomach that out here, talented chefs and restauranteurs have to shut there doors yet every other day another Earlsjoeyscactusclubmilestones and the Pint(honestly what the fuck is that place) pops up and fills its seats.
    Vancouver has a lot of potential for an amazing food scene but it can’t seem to ween itself off of the mediocre teet of chain restaurants.

  3. This is just… awful news. We ate very well there the one time we went, and I thought that the value was good.

  4. I too am sorry to lose them, however I must take issue with your description of “affordable”. I feel like they were operating in a grey area between fine dining quality and prices and a casual, relaxed serving environment. I loved every bite of food I ever ate there, but it was not a price point that made me go out of my way (and yes, it is a little out of the way). I recall once the special was a buttermilk marinated deep fried entire Polderside chicken, and while I appreciate the quality of the product and the time and labour that went into making what I am quite sure was probably the best fried chicken I would ever have, $80 for a single chicken is just not something I am willing to spend. I’ll miss them, but then again I rarely went as it was out of a feeling that it was too pricey for everyday eating. Just my two cents, and I’ll eagerly await their next project.

  5. I find it mind boggling that you can simultaneously claim it’s “laughable” that if this place had succeeded it wouldn’t have contributed to gentrification while simultaneously acknowledging that it failed because it’s target clientele are too snobby to get near Oppenheimer Park. In other words, its success was conditional on the area gentrifying quickly enough for well-to-do assholes to feel comfortable in the neighborhood. I’m curious, how does your head not explode? In any case, kudos to whomever shat on the doorhandle. 🙂

  6. Oh, Thomas, you very silly person. You really read that the way that you really wanted to read that, didn’t you?

  7. Um, the story does NOT say that its success was incumbent upon gentrification and Andrew does NOT make mention of a target clientele. He also does NOT say that this phantom target clientele was too “snobby”. So when you say – “in other words” – they are your words, not his. Oh, and the happy face on your rejoinder really says more than you ever needed to. Stay classy.

  8. I never went, and regret it. I wish I had been there at least once. It wouldn’t of saved them but I least I would’ve known what the fuss was about.

  9. There’s still time. They don’t close until the end of service on December 22nd.

  10. It’s too bad. It’s one of those places I’d intended to get to, heard good things about, but just never did. Definitely a brave location with some risk attached. Unfortunate it didn’t pan out.

  11. I will say that Thomas’ opinion was a bit on the class-less side … however, his observation is not all unwarranted.

    To paraphrase, you say “it’s too bad the joint didn’t work out since the owners tried hard, meant well … but the area was too rough for it’s target clientele to overcome …” and then “even the surrounding DTES residents did not welcome the new business …”

    The article is all over the place.

    It is what it is.

    Putting a nice restaurant smack dab in the middle of the DTES and trying to make sense of it all why it failed … is just a make work project. It’s as simple as simple can be.

    People that can afford to eat at the Fat Dragon ain’t gonna park their cars and walk to the front door in the heart of the DTES in the dark of night.

    Simple. Don’t try to over-analyze the rationale … it’s right in front of your face.

    DTES residents and supporters resent outsiders who come in and create a business that does not directly and positively affect DTES residents and their welfare. The Fat Dragon only attracts people who are not homologous to the DTES to dine and run. They enjoy the atmosphere, food and in the company of their affluent friends (compared to the surrounding demographics) and when their done flee to their decent cars to escape the DTES to the comfort of their suburban home.

    No matter what honorable intentions the owners have, that’s the way it shook down.


  12. And Eli piles on with even more parsing, paraphrasing and assumption. Yawn. The downtown eastside has got to be the most over-analyzed, over-politicized patches of earth west of Gaza, and all the bullshit shovelled in its name by clueless pedants and undergraduates majoring in Whining does nothing to improve the situation, EVER. It’s so sickening to listen to and read, year after year, all these armchair PHS grads “telling it like it is” between cocktails. Fucking double yawn.

    This restaurant failed because the area is an embarrassing abomination that 99% of Vancouverites are ashamed of. Let’s be clear, the residents and their “supporters” are the worst NIMBYs in the city. The only thing more staggering than their hypocrisy is their lack of appreciation for irony.

    How’s that for simple?

  13. So sad, great people running a great restaurant, glad I have a few visits under my belt.

    The industry’s a complicated thing and it’s easy to knee-jerk assumptions as to why things don’t always pan out as planned. I still have so much respect for Dale who, when shuttering his restaurants (esp. Ensemble) – owned up that they had to close because they weren’t managed/run properly, when so many were armed & ready with cries of Cursed Location!, Bad Location!, Unfair Rent!, Too High-End! etc.

    My instinct is that location could have played a part, but not in the way it seems to be lobbed back and forth here. More than anything, and this is from a Fat Dragon patron, it’s just fairly out of the way, and I’m just living at Main/5th. Via transit or foot, it’s simply much easier for many to access so many other great places without having to walk an extra 5 blocks on an idle rainy Tuesday. That and, the nights we do venture out for dinner we’re likely to want to hit more than one spot, extra drinks or whatever elsewhere. Literally doubles the effort/commute involved with the location. Has it prevented us from going there when we’ve had a hankering? Not always, but occasionally- yes. No fear of the DTES’s social ills, just a simple matter of logistics. I’m sure we’re not alone in this, with many of their market w/o a vehicle.

    These are smart gents, and boy – do we love the Campagnolos, I’m sure they were under no illusions that this venture wasn’t a bit of a gamble. I look forward to whatever they bring next, wherever it may be.

  14. The odds were always long that FD would succeed. They were a classic destination spot, in an area that many would think twice about visiting and without a particularly visiible personality (chef/owner) to drive the media buzz once past their opening. (Rumors of health issues with the upper management may have been part of the low profile.) In addition most of us are well aware of the odds of succeeding in the restaurant business in this city regardless of location.

    I’ve eaten there twice -early and late- and neither time was it close to busy. I ate well (two different versions of pork belly were stand-outs) and I’d go back as part of my rotation of dining-out spots but that’s the thing; there’s a hell of a lot of choice in the city and out of sight is out of mind.

    I give huge points for attempting to pioneer an area that has not a lot going on in the evening and look with interest to whatever they plan to do in the future.

  15. While a fan of the Campagnolo’s, I never understood this place or concept. Location aside the prices were f@#& ridiculous. In a city and area, chinatown with excellent traditional chinese bbq abound I never understood how anyone could justify visiting more than couple times for the “hipster” experience. Then factor in trying to get a cab, walking to gastown on a rainy vancouver night or keeping an eye on your car while dining, no thanks. I can’t say I didn’t see this closure coming, but wish the team all the success in the future. Oh, and I’ll save all you self righteous to cool hipsters the time and say thay I must be a douchbag because thats the only response you seem to have when someone doesnt agree with you.

  16. You are right there is still time to visit and thinking about it, I will. I think we owe it to the pioneers that take the chance and try to settle in somewhere no one else has the courage to. Where would Gastown have been without the Sean Heathers? It too was once deemed too far to dangerous. The first few pionneers will get stuck with arrows in their back but eventually the arrows will run out if we keep trying.

  17. An A+ in logic for Thomas Warren. That’s the beauty of true logic– it’s undeniable.

  18. I’d been running on the assumption that if Fat Dragon was able to survive you could literally get away with anything in Vancouver. The location wasn’t the issue. I suggest the writer have another look at the pricing. Then put Bao Bei in your mind. I guess blaming the location could provide some comfort after completely botching the concept. What’s a block north again? Please stop using the dtes as an excuse. Dial in your ideas and do work because i think we all know five years from now that excuse will no longer be valid.

    *Also. If you use the term “hipster” in an argument. You’ve lost the argument.

  19. I think Organmorgan means “logically contingent”. A reader bending the intent/words of a writer to fit his/her prejudicial assumptions is weak. It’s definitely not the way of tautology. Just sayin’.

  20. Grace — I see your point, and maybe “logically contingent” is more accurate. But apart from the author, we’re all left to bend the intent/words of the author to fit our prejudicial assumptions. So it’s not weak IMHO; it’s inevitable.

    Thomas Warren for President!

  21. I ate there last night ( Sunday ) left my car there and went off to see a concert. Came back and lo and behold, my car was still there, undamaged.

    I have been to Fat Dragon about a dozen times, the first being their first day. I have enjoyed all of the food, without exception.

    I admire Chef Belcham’s eye for quality food and his unwavering insistance in using it. I think in today’s chain restaurant climate, people lose sight of the fact that quality food costs money and unless you have the power of a huge company, selling quality at a loss is not going to happen.

    I had a conversation with Chef Belcham early on about his choice of locale and he educated me on something and opened my eyes a bit.
    He told me that people lived here, that this was their neighbourhood, and for some of them, a long time. With all that goes on in the DTES, you tend to forget that in between all of the things you do not want to see are people going about their lives. Hats of to Chef Rob, Tom and their team for taking a chance on that spot and I hope that they plan to open up again with yet another intereting offering in that spot.

    Seriously, it has to be the only restaurant in town with free parking!!!

    Anyways, I think that there will be one more visit this week if not just for the chicken wings alone.

  22. Some real dick responses on here.
    F*** your i told you so’s, I’m going to go DESTROY some snout fried rice this week and all of the bao!

  23. The chef and sous chef, AJ and Paulis, were the muscle, and they deserve some applause for their work. I ate there several times and was floored by two things: the consistency, and that I had the room mostly to myself. People want to blame the prices, justly inflated due to quality of product, but there are luxury doughnut shops that thrive despite charging 2-3 times the amount that their competitors get by on. Naysayers can get bent, this place was good and deserved a longer life. The whole thing was ballsy, and nothing about it ever felt like anyone was playing it safe. It’s the kind of thinking that takes place in the best food cities in the world, and Vancouver would be lucky for anyone else to dare the way those gentlemen did.

  24. Fat Dragon: “You just don’t understand, MAN” R.I.P. 2012.

    Ya bro! Hammer down those snouts n 2.75 minibunz! Killing it!

    Food was very good, entrance tunnel thing was good. But, it was a one and done spot. Repeat customers were searching for some further meaning. If it wasn’t for the frosted windows it would have closed in October.

    Cut it in half, move it and improve the drink list.

  25. Great! Now the Portland hotel society can open a new soup kitchen/needle exchange for their hard working clients!

  26. Vancouver is a bloody tough market, even for guys as skilled as Robert and Tom. Concept was great, location was challenging. The true shame is how many people will settle with shithouse dinner at Cactus Club and Earls when there are great indy restaurants like this a few minutes away. The results – Indy establishments suffer, as does Vancouver’s food scene in general.

  27. Lots of theory’s, some bull, some interesting. Location, location, location. If a place is 1 block too far, it can be the death knell, this place was certainly a bit far out. Yes it was pricey, but it ain’t easy to use quality,and not charge for it. Maybe Chef Belcham will have to rethink high food cost product in this economy. But really the bottom line is that these are hard times for restaurants. These are tight times for the eating public, and costs are crazy for restaurant businesses. I suspect their are more restauranters out there fighting for survival.

    I have always loved the passion these guys had for the biz. Sad to see them not prosper. Looking forward to their next venture…

  28. Well I ventured over to Fat Dragon to cross it off my list before it closes… I have to agree with some of the other posters. The food was good but I did feel it was overpriced. The location isn’t great and I feel it doesn’t help but it certainly isn’t the most out of the way location, I can think of plenty of other places that are even more off the beaten path but have managed to survive. I think pricing ends up having a big part to due with things in this case. It’s the type of place that needs to be tried, but I didn’t see a reason to add it to my normal rotation. I disagree with some of the comments that Vancouver is dominated by the chains, I think a problem we have is the abundance of great indenpants. There are soo many great restaurants that I find it diffilcult to visit all of them let alone regularly. Hopefully they will return to the area but with slightly more modest price points.

  29. I was very excited when I heard about this restaurant opening in the neighbourhood, but was extremely disappointed with the complete lack of even one vegan main course option. As a thirty something person who lives in the hood, loves creative cuisine, and has a bit of disposable inform, I would have thought I would be included in their target audience. I am still sad it is closing, as it looked delicious, but expensive and meaty.

  30. You know I was really disappointed when Acorn opened and didn’t bother to put one single smoked pork dish on the menu. I obviously wasn’t included in their target audience, but hey, no need to spread dogshit on their door.

  31. To say Vancouver lacks a healthy independent restaurant scene is to say you can’t see roughly 100 pixels over here >>> Which covers maybe half of what actually exists.

    I like a few others on here struggle to even keep up with all the interesting new places to eat. It’s honestly mind boggling, if you know.

    Then to blame Fat Dragon’s lack of success on Cactus Club and Earl’s is even more hilarious. Yes, because these (relatively small) chain restaurants are killing all these east side joints!!! Oh wait… There aren’t even any chains on Main. People in Van have no idea how lucky they are…

  32. I’m heartbroken that Fat Dragon is closing. To me it was by far the hippest, most audacious restaurant in the city. Kudos to the staff and the owners.

  33. We went for dinner, it was dead on a Friday night, as in we were the only table. The meal was good especially the bao, but the prices were high and portions fairly modest. When you compare the food to what else is available on the East side, it was a one visit restaurant. No problem with leaving the car or walking around the neighborhood. If it had been better value or more fun, we would have come back.

  34. Having been to first Refuel, and then Fat Dragon, I’m sad to hear that another one of these fab places is closing down. I visited both these places exactly once, finding that while the food and drink were to die-for, the prices were high enough to make it difficult to make dining here (either place) as anything more than an irregular treat.
    The flavour shazam of Fat Dragon was drool worthy and the drinks were nicely varied from the usual generic swill. Unfortunately the prices were too high for me, especially since the location was far enough away that it was impossible to leave the car at home in order to have a drink or three.
    Good luck int he future; I look forward to the next culinary adventure from this crew!

  35. I just read the article on the Vancouver Courier website about this closing. The owner was very diplomatic about why it didnt succeed,however,let’s call it as it is. The area is the worst,and city hall has no plans on cleaning it up.
    After running a failing bar in the area for a few years, we gave up,sold the property to the city,and closed shop.With the SRO buildings increasing in the area,it will only get worse.
    The city would like us to believe that there will be peace and harmony in the area, between shop keepers and drug addicts,all rainbows and lollipops.
    But that will never happen.Nobody wants to have to deal with Feces,vomit,used needles,and all the other unmentioned troubles with that area,on a daily basis.
    Until they give up this harm reduction strategy, the area from Heatley to Main street will remain a war zone.

  36. Sad to see this place go. I have a story that might be interesting in the context of the article’s comment about how many Vancouverites don’t happily skip over to that part of town:
    The first time I went to Fat Dragon the couple at the table next to us had their car broken into and all their stuff stolen while it was outside. This was at lunch and in the middle of the day. The manager broke the news to them (pardon the pun) and called the cops for them; wouldn’t be surprised if they were comped something, the staff were so gracious about the whole thing. Obviously not the restaurant’s fault at all but a nice example of the excellent care that they took of their customers.

  37. As an avid Vancouver visitor I didn’t realize during my many trips out here that I shouldn’t have parked in that neighbourhood. Imagine my surprise this visit to find out thto Fat Dragon is closed. It’s where I was planning to be for dinner tonight. Plus now I have to think about whether I’m contributing to gentrification (in that hood, seriously?) and whether my car is safe. Things I hadn’t really considered before no matter where I ate.

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