Two Survivors: A Seafood Place and Old Neon
The Downtown Eastside. To the people who live in the Greater Vancouver area, any mention about this area will bring about thoughts of poverty, despair, homelessness, drug addiction, and prostitution. The 100-200 block of East Hastings Street is considered Canada’s poorest neighbourhood. But amidst all of that despair, there stands a survivor. A relic of the bygone days when this neighbourhood was respectable and prosperous, where business owners could stand proud and put in an honest day’s living. I am referring to the Only Café, located at 20 East Hastings Street.
The Only Café is Vancouver’s longest surviving restaurant in the same location. It has changed very little over the years. It has never been a fancy place. There is no maitre d’, and definitely no valet parking. It is rather plain looking both inside and out. It has an ornamental tin ceiling which is still the original, as well as a full-length wall mirror. There are seventeen chrome button swivel chair-stools on a horseshoe-and-a-half counter and two booths at the back, making for a maximum capacity of twenty-five. Its specialty is seafood, which is where the name was derived from. When this establishment was first opened, it was the only restaurant in all of Vancouver that served seafood, hence its name. It retains an old-fashioned sense in the fact that payment terms are still cash only. No credit cards or Interac. For all patrons, the rules are very simple: no undesirables allowed, and service is refused to anyone who is too drunk to sit up and eat. But to gain a better perspective of how the Only has stood the test of time, let’s turn back the clock.
Vancouver, 1912. Vancouver is a bustling city. Hastings Street is at the heart of the downtown core. It is the place to “see and be seen”. The city’s most popular theatres, restaurants, dance halls, and hotels are all located in the first three blocks of East Hastings Street. In that year, Antonio Demetry establishes a restaurant in the brand-new Craftsman’s Building at 20 East Hastings and names it the Vancouver Oyster Saloon. At the same time, Nick Thodos is working as a cook in the English Kitchen, five doors down at 30 East Hastings. The two Greek men eventually become the most popular cooks in all of Vancouver. In 1916, Nick’s brother Gustave joins him at the English Kitchen, and later that year, they purchase controlling interest in the Vancouver Oyster Saloon. They immediately renamed the establishment the Only Café.
After Nick and Gustave Thodos took control of the Only, the place became a smashing success. People from all over the Greater Vancouver came to sample their great seafood dishes. Nick was an excellent chef, and his unique methods of preparing seafood kept customers coming back for more. As an example, when he steamed clams, he mixed in oregano. That helped bring out the flavour better. He claimed that all of his cooking techniques he learned in his native Greece.
The Only continued to prosper throughout the thirties and forties. Eventually, Tyke Thodos, Nick Thodos’ second son, takes over. By the early fifties, the area begins to decline. The downtown core had long since shifted towards the Granville Street area, and now suburbia was taking over. With new neighbourhoods being built in the outlying areas along with new shopping centres, fewer and fewer people ventured into the downtown core, and even more so into the original downtown. One by one, the grand live theatres along Hastings Street closed, the hotels became seedier, and more pawn shops were moving into the area. But the Only continued to prosper. Tyke Thodos’ regular clientele remained loyal, and every day at lunchtime, there would always be a waiting list for a stool or a booth. Even my dad was once a regular customer there. He made his first visit there in 1946, and the last time he ate there was sometime in the early sixties.
In 1986, the area was dealt another major blow. As a result of Expo 86 and the corresponding construction of the Skytrain line, Hastings Street lost its status as a major transportation corridor. The area went into a tailspin after that. By 1992, drug dealers and homeless people had virtually taken over the area. It was at that point that Tyke Thodos, now reaching retirement age, had had enough. Business had declined dramatically over the past six years, so he decided to close it down.
Just when it seemed that the Only was doomed, in stepped Wendy Wong. She had only worked as a waitress there for one year, but her sister Lois had been the head waitress for twenty-five years. She purchases the Only from Tyke Thodos, and becomes the sole owner. She retains the original menu, and doesn’t make any changes to the decor of the café. About the only changes she made was the addition of fish and chips to the menu, changes the closing time from midnight to 8:00 P.M., and now opened on Sunday. Other than that, the ambiance had hardly changed a bit from 1912.
However, the neighbourhood wasn’t quite so accommodating. Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse down there, it did. With the influx of refugees from Honduras in the late 1990’s, many of them found that they could make easy money selling crack. That practically doubled the number of drug dealers in the area.
The Downtown Eastside had virtually sunk to its lowest level when I made my first visit to the Only in November of 2002. In my teenage years, I frequently hung around the Granville Street Mall after I learned to drive. The time I spent there helped me to become street-savvy. But still, nothing could prepare me for what I was about to venture into. The minute I turned onto Hastings Street from Carrall Street, it was an absolute zoo. I mean, it was party central. Even I felt quite edgy. Just about every type of undesirable imaginable was congregating in that area. It reminded me of an article I read a while back in the Travel section of the Vancouver Sun about the resurgence of Hollywood. In the article, it mentioned that by the mid-seventies, Hollywood Boulevard had become a skid-row area, and nobody with a brain would want to venture there after dark. Well, the same could be said for East Hastings Street.
Inside the Only, it was practically deserted. In the hour I was in there, no other customers came inside, but on three different occasions, people came inside and asked to use the washroom, but they have no washrooms. Since the place was opened in 1912, it escaped a 1914 City bylaw requiring all business establishments to have washrooms. Anyway, it was just as well that they don’t have any.
After that visit, it made me wonder just how much longer the Only could survive, It could move to another location, but it just wouldn’t be the same. If the Only were to close, its other claim to fame would also disappear. I’m talking about its famous neon sign.
Vancouver was once the “neon capital of Canada”. By the time it reached its peak in the fifties, Vancouver had the largest collection of neon signs of any city in Canada. There were an estimated 19,000 neon signs at that time, and three different neon sign companies were going full-tilt. It seemed as though they had a competition going to see who could be most creative. If you were to look at pictures of downtown Vancouver and Chinatown in the early sixties, the streets were ablaze with numerous neon lights, and after dark, it was a spectacular sight.
By the late sixties, Vancouver City Council began a campaign to have neon removed from city streets. They referred to neon as “visual clutter” and “sleazy”, and claimed that it was the chief cause of an increase in crime and prostitution in the downtown core. As a result of their impending bylaws, most of the neon signs were removed. As a result, the downtown core and Chinatown became drab and lifeless at night, and crime actually increased. In addition, business owners were finding that plastic signs with fluorescent tubes were easier to maintain and used far less electricity, even though it was far less attractive.
I remember reading about this in an article published in the Vancouver Sun in April of 2000, which coincided with an exhibit at the Vancouver Museum that showcased some early neon signs that were rescued from the scrap heap. On a personal note, that made no sense to me whatsoever. Case in point: one of my favourite signs from the early days of neon was for the Apostolic Faith Church, which until 2001, stood at the corner of Kingsway and Rupert Street. Erected in 1945, for fifty-six years it proclaimed “JESUS - THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD”, and stood like a beacon along Kingsway. Fortunately, the sign has been preserved, and is now on permanent display at the Vancouver Museum.
As for the Only, in 1950, a neon sign was erected over the entrance. Designed by “Timer” Goodwin, senior designer with Neon Products Ltd., it depicts a large, orange, neon seahorse (no, they do not serve seahorse there). Beside the seahorse are the words THE ONLY SEA FOODS - FISH, OYSTERS, CLAMS. The words “Only” and “sea foods” are adorned in green neon. The bottom of the sign is adorned with alternating red and yellow flashing light bulbs. It is currently registered with the Vancouver Museum as number two on the list of classic surviving neon signs.
Of the few remaining classic neon signs, the largest concentration is along Hastings Street. In addition to the Only, two of my other favourites are right nearby. The Ovaltine Café, located up the street at 251 East Hastings (number one on the registry), is a classic old-time café. The decor inside has not changed one bit since the forties. Another of my favourites is the Save-On Meat store, located at 43 West Hastings. The sign depicts two giant neon pigs.
Another neon classic that was one of my favourites was the sign for the Smilin Buddha Cabaret, located at 109 East Hastings. The sign depicted (what else) a smiling Buddha. In the late seventies and early eighties, the Smilin Buddha was Vancouver’s bastion of the punk-rock music scene. It was quite popular with the University crowd, especially after exam week. They found it a great place to let off steam. I remember making my first foray there shortly after my nineteenth birthday, and soon became a semi-regular, grooving to the likes of DOA (Dead On Arrival), the Pointed Sticks, the Modernettes, the Subhumans, just to name a few. When the club closed in 1993, the sign became part of the Vancouver Museum collection, and is periodically loaned to the rock group 54-40, who use it as a stage prop when they go on tour.
Well, there is some good news to report. In April of 2002, Vancouver Police began a widespread crackdown of the Downtown Eastside. They launched an all-out campaign to rid the streets of drug dealers and addicts. To the owners of legitimate businesses in the area, it was like a godsend. Most were fed up with having their clientele scared away.
One month after the campaign began, I made my second visit to the Only. The first thing I noticed when I ventured onto Hastings Street was how quiet the street was - the cops outnumbered the bums. I was pleasantly surprised. Once inside, I was pleased to see that the place was actually busy. People were starting to come back there, which was a good sign. To top the evening off, the combo plate of breaded salmon, cod, and halibut was absolutely delicious!
The last time I visited the Only was last fall. I wanted to try their legendary oyster stew. This was Nick Thodos’ original recipe, and is one of their all-time favourite dishes. I had two choices: the cream stew or the pepper stew. The cream stew resembles New England clam chowder, and the pepper stew is tomato-based, resembling Manhattan-style clam chowder. They are very generous on the oysters, as well as addition of potatoes, celery, and carrots. The pepper gives it an extra bite. They are also very generous on the bread, the equivalent of half a loaf in slices, with lots of butter (hint: don’t order the large bowl unless you have a big appetite). I chose the pepper stew, and it was fantastic! You definitely get your money’s worth.
As of my last visit, I noticed that the police crackdown was still in effect. I hope they keep it up, because that area contains the largest collection of heritage buildings outside of Gastown. It has the potential to be a trendy tourist area. Many of the buildings were built before 1900, but hardly any of them are restored. Most are in various stages of disrepair, and if something isn’t done soon, many of them could be lost. As an example, in April of last year, the Hunter Block, located at 315 West Hastings, which was built in 1898 as an outfitters store for prospectors heading to the Klondike gold rush, was destroyed by fire.
So, to all my fellow subscribers who live in Greater Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, if you enjoy great seafood at a reasonable price with a hint of nostalgia, then check out the Only. Don’t let the location scare you away. It is best to travel in groups, and of course, be vigilant. Lunch time is the best time. I hope that the Only will be a fixture on Hastings Street for many years to come.
Note: For an excellent overview of the history of the Only, along with some great artwork, check out the book “Neon Eulogy”, by Keith McKellar. It can be ordered through www.chapters.indigo.ca.