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The Mysterious Gem At The Top Of Hotel Van

My friend Owen Lightly (who, incidentally, is leaving Voya to join former West compatriot Brad Miller at the soon to open Au Petit Chauvignol) and I were walking through the lobby of the Hotel Vancouver the other night after a few beers when I stopped and asked him if he’d ever been to the dormant restaurant at the top of the hotel. He’d heard about it, but never seen it before, so we stopped the nearest managerial type, pretended to be incredibly important people, and were promptly given the nickel tour of the place.

Located on the 15th floor (there are two floors above it), the 5,200 square foot “Panorama Roof” (now dubbed rather unpoetically as “The Roof”) opened together with the Hotel in 1939. It enjoyed quite a long run, becoming one of Vancouver’s most famously infamous establishments. It was an “it” spot, perhaps the Chambar of its day, only it may have been even cooler.

The Panorama Roof is where legendary big band leader Dal Richards – aka “The King of Swing” – got his start back in the Spring of 1940 (he was a regular performer there for 25 years), and it was where the city’s swish set raised elbows and got their Saturday night drunks on (for many years, the CBC used the dining room as a “happening” studio from which they broadcast national shows every week).

But then it died in the early 1980’s, circumstances unbenownst to me. The hotel still uses the space as a private function room, but it hasn’t changed since it was last renovated in the 1970’s. It looks like it, too. The pillars are crassly mirrored, the ceiling is hung with strange yellow and dark grey blocks, and the carpet can best be described as “crab blood blue”. There’s an odd, sunken bar on one side that could probably fit thirty bums, but it sports a bar top that only comes up to the guests’ knees. The kitchen is massive, and though in dire need of some TLC, it’s where the old bones of the hotel shine the brightest (many of the fittings looked to predate the Second World War). But it was the view that impressed the most. The north and south vistas were breathtaking…

We stood there for a while, wondering what it must have once been like. It had been a quiet tour, done mostly by flashlight as our guide couldn’t find the switches, but we could nevertheless imagine the space filled with the dapper in the halcyon days of my grandmother, well before rock ‘n roll. If those walls could talk I would have pulled up a banquet chair (the horror!) and opened a bottle. I would have paid to listen…

And so it sits there, almost totally dormant, maybe whispering quietly to itself little reminders of where our food and restaurant scene once was between evenings filled with insurance salesmen trying to get laid at their annual staff party and playing host to the Bobs and Graces of this town celebrating their 75th wedding anniversaries.

I know we’re staring an economic apocalypse in the nostrils at the moment, but that won’t stop me from hoping the times will one day warrant its renovation and reincarnation. With so many new hotels popping up downtown (Voya, Moda, etc) and long-established ones revamping their food and beverage programs (Yew, Beyond, Hawksworth, etc), you’d think the Hotel Vancouver would be keen on doing something better than Griffin’s, its tired old tourist trap on the main floor. Even when dark, empty and severely hamstrung by its ugly 70’s prom dress, “The Roof” offers far more personality, history, and romance.

Just imagine what a few million dollars could do in there…


Andrew Morrison is a west coast boy who studied history and classics at the Universities of Cape Town and Toronto after an adolescence spent riding skateboards and working in restaurants. He is the editor of Scout Magazine, the weekly food and restaurant columnist for the Westender newspaper, a contributor to Vancouver and Western Living magazines, and a proud board member of the Chef’s Table Society of BC. He lives and works by the beach in Vancouver.


There are 11 comments

  1. I worked at the Hotel Van for about 4 years, and periodically, every GM had been asked about the possibility of re-opening the Panorama Roof. The response was always the same: It would cost well over a million dollars to renovate, and with 900 West having been closed, there was no reason to believe that it would be busy enough to be viable. For more nostalgia, go into the Lobby Lounge, sit at the bar and ask Peter or Jack about some of the stories that they have from working up there. Apparently, it was an insane place to work in the early 70s.

  2. I was in there a couple of months ago and I couldn’t stop thinking about how nice it *could* be. Thanks for the bit of history. I didn’t realize that so much had gone on up there.

  3. I remember dining there once at about age 12 (in your grandmother’s halcyon days, Andrew) and eating “Pheasant Under Glass”, if you can believe it. The slogan in those days was “Dine in the Stars .. at the Panorama Roof”.

    In later years the Hotel Van used the space to hold a pretty good Christmas Buffet there every year that was a big hit with the office party crowd. I think they called it the “Dickens Buffet”. I still miss that.

  4. @Rhonda. My gran is the coolest lady ever, and she’s still very much enjoying her halcyon days.

  5. @ Rhonda,

    Not sure if they did it this past December, but they brought the Dickens Buffet back about 5 or 6 years ago. Now they do it in the Pacific Ballroom, usually in mid-December for one day with Dal Richards still playing on stage. It usually sells out quickly through November. I’m not sure if she is still there, but maybe around September or October call Lisa Boyle, or whoever is now the Director of Catering, and ask about making reservations.

  6. I had the tour in 1999 – (pre-amble to a potential job interview) – and I was told that it was not about money; fire code.

    No way to get the room cleared by the fire marshal to 21st century standards.

  7. I went to a Vancouver Art Gallery function there years ago. Dinner and dancing with an open bar! Nice views as well.

  8. Thank you! Your piece brought back great memories. In the late 1970s a group of us (3 couples) went there a few times. Oh, how grown up we felt…Looking back, we were so young, only in our early twenties.