Guided by the 90s: Yaletown


We took a 1990’s guide to Vancouver sightseeing so we could get a sense of how much the city has changed. Follow this disjointed adventure as it unfolds, or learn more about the series HERE.

Where it all started. Section (3), formerly DeNiro's, now Romer's. Photo: Stephanie Vacher
Where it all started: Section (3), formerly DeNiro’s, now Romer’s. Photo: Stephanie Vacher


Forcing my guide around Granville Street when it clearly had no interest in being forced it into a snit. And after getting chastised by readers about missing all the great places that were on Granville in the 90s, now I’m in one too. Good thing it’s happy hour, and with it, a new challenge for the guide: to find the latest, hippest, funkiest, coolest neighbourhood the 90s ever knew in Vancouver. A place where we can lose ourselves in libations and start working as a team again; where we can tour the decade and go to every single place that anyone ever thought was cool there; a place we can visit to make everyone in Vancouver happy with us again. In mere seconds, the guide spits back its answer to my query: Yaletown.

“This is currently the trendy part of town so there are plenty of restaurants, bars, clubs and shops, including more designer-furniture shops than you have probably ever seen gathered together in one area.”

“Yaletown is perfect. Seriously, I would have never thought of coming here for a drink,” I state in a charming tone, trying to hide a hint of sarcasm I just couldn’t hold back. I mean, come on, everyone knows Yaletown has been a bit of a drag for at least the past 6 or 7 years in terms of being the edgy, industrial up and coming destination the guide sells it as. Just between me and you, I wasn’t lying, this is truly the last place I would take anyone for a drink, but if we’re going to do this leg of the tour right, we’ve got to work as a team.

Garbage cans that front dining rooms are still a feature of Yaletown.
Garbage cans that front dining rooms are still a feature of Yaletown. Photo: Amanda Rose.

“Large industrial garbage containers sit on the streets, and there is little in the way way of proper street lighting.” I can barely keep from rolling my eyes as the guide continues to introduce me to the perils of Yaletown. “Despite all the retail stores that have moved into the area it’s still zoned as an industrial district,” it continues with an air of insider knowledge as we stroll down Mainland Street, painting a picture of a nascent industrial wasteland of warehouses featuring the kind of rawness and desolation that inspires opportunity.

My guide isn’t entirely off. Yaletown still looks industrial. The garbage cans are here, the streets are still lined with cobblestone, and the warehouses are all still intact and looking fabulous. I’m not sure what it means about the lighting, but the way it describes the it spot to dine in Yaletown in the 90s, Century Grill, as the place to be seen while seeing sports stars and celebrities — a torch that’s been picked up by Blue Water Cafe in Century’s spot at 1095 Mainland — shows the neighbourhood’s edge in a pretty smooth light.

Yaletown’s story is a story many major urban centres can tell. An industrial neighborhood priced for utility becomes attractive to hungry upstarts looking for cheap digs. And so the story goes. Interesting people, willing to take a chance on something undefined-but-different move in, and suddenly the place is cool. We all know how it ends: The Keg, Earls, Cactus Club and Milestones. Instead of pointing out the abundance of dining franchises, personal waxing bars, and salons that have replaced the pool parlours and other smaller, unique establishments that are no longer around, I refocus my guide’s attention on alcohol.

Photo: Amanda Rose.
Photo: Amanda Rose.

“A real find here is De Niro’s.” Starting with a dining suggestion seems like an obvious passive aggressive tactic that threatens the happiest hour of the day — the golden hour for drinking. But I’m intrigued when I realize it’s referring to the fabled De Niro’s Supper Club that was sued by Robert De Niro in 1999 over section three of British Columbia’s Privacy Act. Instead of suffering from the publicity, De Niro’s changed its name to Section (3) and thrived for 13 more years as the crown destination of the Yaletown experience. Visiting the Romer’s Burger Bar that replaced it in 2012 is a must. The guide and I tuck into a booth with two Sangria Blasters, the day’s drink special. This is it, we’re at the flashpoint of Yaletown in the 90s.

“This restaurant used to be called Section (3), right?” I quip with my waitress while she hurriedly drops the burger I ordered in front of me.

“Yep,” she says curtly, and leaves, killing any chance of continuing the conversation.

“Well there goes that plan,” I say, looking at my guide while it sits there in silence with a full drink in front of its smug face. Much to my surprise, despite being in the literary industry, the guide isn’t a drinker. After finishing the Sangria Blaster sitting in front of it, we both leave Romer’s one less sober than the other. We’re not going to give up on happy hour, Yaletown, or the 90s just yet.

The guide bounces back quickly — it’s earlier sullen mood on Granville Street seems like a distant memory — and suggests Capones. “A long and narrow restaurant that goes on forever until you see the stage at the back where jazz bands play Wednesday through Saturday.” Jazz!? I love jazz! If anything is lacking in Vancouver, it’s a steady, solid jazz club. Could one possibly be alive and well in Yaletown? Of course not.

Capone's featured Jazz on its back wall stage that's now inhabited by The New Oxford.
Capone’s featured Jazz on its back wall stage that’s now inhabited by The New Oxford.

Today, Capones is called The New Oxford, one of the The Donnelly Group’s multitude of venues dispersed throughout the city. Although each has a unique name that deftly conjures up a particular genre of time, place and style, there are tell-tale signs — pinball machines, a particular type of leather topped bar stool, dark wood beverage tables, neon signage, and a hint of damask wallpaper  — that once you learn them, will reveal each as near facsimiles of each other. My guide and I are the only one taking seats at the bar when our server asks what I’m having. I order a Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc, and then point to my guide and order it a Stella, the beer for amateurs.

“No really,” I say, confirming my request that he pour a drink for my imaginary friend, “it’s having a rough day. It’s been showing me around all the places it thinks are cool, but they’re all closed. That or they’re not worth going into.” A few sips in, I hope for some perspective beyond the white pages of the guide and ask my server how he thinks Yaletown has changed since the 90s

“I was born in 1993, so I don’t really know,” he says, if not a little sheepishly.

I feel old, irrelevant even. Now I know how my guide feels. I drink my beer. I drink my guide’s beer. My plan to kill the guide at the end of this adventure, instead of returning it to a meaningless, never ending shelf life now includes me. Just as I’m finishing a vision of the guide and I walking into the ocean under suicide pact, I see the remnants of the Capones’ stage at the back of the room. It’s filled with a row of pinball machines. There is no jazz in yaletown. We pay our bill and leave.

We’re done with Yaletown.

Wow. That didn’t go very well. At least there’s still a couple hours of happy hour left, and the best place to spend it? Gastown! See you next week. Learn about this series.