I lost a dear friend recently. It was not the death of a living, breathing friend, but the sudden closure of the Slocan, with barely any notice, cut deep. The endearing East Vancouver eatery at the corner of Slocan and Hastings had been serving up decent food at reasonable prices for two years short of half a century. It wasn’t just my loss. This was a blow to much of the Hastings-Sunrise community, as far east from the posh West Side of Vancouver as you can go before crossing into beautiful Burnaby.
The Slocan’s popular culinary neighbour for the past 27 years, Bào Châu, is also down for the count. On its last day – a week after the Slocan shut its doors – customers lined up outside, clamoring for one last bowl of delicious, steaming pho. Both community mainstays are to be replaced by a “development” with the magic formula of including rental units.
The Slocan was the kind of ordinary, down-home diner that is a rarity in Vancouver these days, as big money sweeps over our increasingly-characterless city. It was not a place to attract the attention of the Globe and Mail’s illustrious restaurant critic, Alexandra Gill. But its fare – your basic breakfasts, burgers, BLTs and so on, plus Greek souvlakis for many years that reflected its long Greek-Canadian ownership – was always satisfying. There was also a modest bar, where one could pull up a stool and watch the Canucks lose again, and a patio that packed them in during the summer. Regulars included Indigenous families and others not exactly brimming with cash, attracted by its comfort zone and lightness on the wallet.
I was a regular, too, almost from the moment I returned to the city of my birth in 1998, after 10 years missing in action, globetrotting from Paris to Toronto to Beijing. “Oh yes”, I murmured to myself, as I snuggled into one of the Slocan’s comfortable booths. “I’m really back.” In those days, I usually ordered the lamb souvlaki, despite the temptation of “cabbage roll Thursdays”. Later on, The Slocan became more of a lunch stop for my friend Ken Novakowski and me. We always ordered the Reuben with fries. Yum. It was something we looked forward to, catching up over bottomless cups of coffee and the dietary sin of French Fries instead of salad, with no well-meaning partners calling us to caloric account.
It was a gathering place. I happened upon high-profile labour leader Jack Munro there one night, with his son. They were having a bite to eat before heading to a Canucks game. “I come here all the time,” said Big Jack.
I was also at the Slocan the night after the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and lo and behold, there was an older guy with the sleek white Olympic torch he had carried the day before on the last leg of its cross-Canada journey to BC Place. People were crowding around, posing for pictures. His run had been very early the previous morning through Stanley Park. He passed the flame to a tanned, beefy dude from California. You may have heard of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He told me that the “I’m back!” hunk of muscle seemed more interested in how he looked to the cameras than paying any attention to the anonymous gent who touched torches with him.
It was a lovely homespun scene. Where did the torch-bearer go to show off his prized Olympic torch? To the Slocan, as distant from the glitzy world of the former governor of California as can be imagined. But this was his community, and the denizens, pleased and surprised that the Olympics had come, even in a small way, to their local diner, loved it.
The Slocan’s sudden closure caught many off guard, prompting an outpouring of sadness and fond memories on Facebook. “That’s so sad. I’ll miss the place,” wrote Perry Babiak. “The Slocan has been, for our family, an anchor and icon in the neighbourhood, an inviting , friendly place for 20 years.”
Said Grant Hardy: “The Slocan was one of the first places I started hanging out when I moved to this area, and it helped me meet so many people! I’m super sad it’s closing and really hope there’s a chapter 2.0 (as the owner has hinted). We need places like this in East Van.” Pat Ricia noted simply: “Aww that’s sad. Me n my husband been going there since the 80s.”
The Saturday after the Slocan closed up, I went by to snap a few photos, before its dreaded destiny with “the wrecking ball”. Outside were two more regulars, staring forlornly at the darkened diner. They hadn’t heard the news and were stunned to find the doors shut, after so many years. We stood around reminiscing, telling stories, sharing menu favourites and how much the Slocan had meant to us. “I really would have liked a chance for a farewell visit,” said one, noting the line-up at the Bào Châu next door.
I had begun to get nervous about the Slocan several years ago, when I hopped a 29th Street bus, and my bus driver was the diner’s previous owner, Perry Bourpoulas. He said he liked the regular hours, benefits and pension of a union job. “I miss it, but I can come home at night and put my feet up, without getting all these phone calls.” I had missed Perry at the Slocan. From his perch at the till, he was ever-friendly, greeting customers, often by name, as they came up to pay the bill. I mentioned the fellow with the Olympic torch. “Oh yeah, that guy,” Perry responded. “He was head of the local Legion.” He knew everyone.
But he sold out after the landlord doubled the rent (sigh). The new owners expanded the bar, put an end to those special culinary days, like “Cabbage Roll Thursdays” (cabbage rolls courtesy of Perry’s mom!) and “Spaghetti Saturdays”. Prices went up a bit, the menu lost some of its flavour, but the essence of the Slocan remained relatively intact.
As the bus rolled along, Perry said he’d been hearing rumours the Slocan had been sold again, and might be torn down for development. Sure enough, not long afterwards, one of those ominous city signs announcing redevelopment plans appeared outside. And now it has come to pass. The defunct diner is already surrounded by fencing.
A similar development went up a block away a few years ago, replacing a tired, past its prime Burger King. What’s on the main floor of the fairly decent building, which does include social housing? A small, walk-in Tim Hortons and a hole-in-the-wall Dairy Queen, neither with any connection to the community or a place to gather.
I fear something equally nondescript on the “retail” floor of the new development that replaces the Slocan. Yes, there will also be some badly-needed rental units. That’s the way things are going these days, and goodness knows we need them. But at what cost? How do you put a dollar figure on the loss of a community and neighborhood institution that catered to those on the lower rungs of the income ladder. Where will those Indigenous families I often saw at the Slocan go now? Did anyone at city hall give a moment’s thought to this, as they rubber-stamped the demise of the Slocan and Bào Châu.
On Facebook, Pm Revere wrote simply: “NOOOOOO!” A place like the Slocan? Priceless.