Guided by the 90s: Gastown

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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.

Gastown Postcard

Gastown

I’m sorry. Time travel is proving more difficult than I thought, and over the course of the day, my guide and I have become long long-winded, melodramatic, insufferable bores. As I step onto Water Street and into Gastown, it’s obvious I am having some kind of existential breakdown. What’s changed here since the 90s? Is it better? Worse? What does it matter?! I’m dying. You’re dying. We’re all dying! Hell, my guide is already dead! And any attempt to catalogue a world that’s moving at a blinding pace, with or without us, seems ultimately futile.

Suddenly, my mini-meltdown is interrupted by the Gastown steam clock, ushering in 6pm. I hate this goddamn clock! But tonight, something in its baritone chime sounds different, comforting, romantic even. With my guide in hand, I impulsively walk up to it and wrap my arms around its glass spire as it rings in the last chortle of the hour. Flashbulbs from the small audience gathered at the corner of Water and Cambie go off at a paparazzi-like pace. I feel free of the need to hold onto the past, so I let go. I mean, I’m probably just drunk from drinking all my guide’s drinks in Yaletown, but if there’s anything I am sure of, it’s that this steam clock will be here forever. And in a small way, so will my guide and I — our images captured with the clock by random strangers, instantly stored in the cryptic permanence of cloud archives that belong to all that witnessed this random act of here and now — forever.

The steam clock, just after striking 6pm.
The steam clock, just after striking 6pm.

“This is the world’s first steam-powered clock and, despite its antique appearance, was built in 1977,” my guide says in an attempt to sober the moment with a caution about Gastown’s authenticity, and the validity of our portrait. Its reportage has a business-like tone that symbolically wipes the tears from my eyes, hands me a moist wipe, and gives me a stiff smack on the back that says — let’s get back to work, finish what we started and when we’re done, destroy me so I never have to go through this again. And so our story begins.

Many places operating here in the 90s mirrored Gastown’s origin story. In the 1970s, it was was decaying, and in an attempt to revitalize the area, city planners laid quaint cobblestone streets lit with Victorian lamps, making the area look historic and charming. It lead many a tourist and local alike to believe its antiquity was 100% authentic. The Old Spaghetti Factory, one of the establishments still operating that my guide suggests for dinner, was one of the first restaurants here. Its old-timey knick knacks, endless loaves of free bread, cheap wine, and large tables to gather friends at make it a great spot to experience the remnants of Gastown’s original underpinnings as a museum-like heritage park.

The Managers FAVOURITE at Old Spaghetti Factory:

1995: “About $13” 

2015: $12.40

 

Nothing in the guide’s dining descriptions captures my imagination like Brother’s Restaurant, though. Apparently, aspiring actors would often find their way into a robe there as servers. Diners were entertained with theatre and song while they ate. With Gregorian chants emanating from its front door and wait staff dressed in monks’ habits, the ‘Brothers’ serve items like the Monastery Burger ($8).” As much as I’d love to revel in Gastown’s campy caricatures of the past, where Brother’s and Old Spaghetti Factory existed with the converted railway dining car of the The Chew Chew Club on Alexander, magic nights and jazz at Blake’s on Carrall, and live music at Mick’s Restaurant & Rhythm Bar at 332 Water, they were anomalies. By the 90s, Gastown had begun its evolution into something more contemporary, something entirely its own.

Guidedby90-Gastown-Brothers
The former monastery that was Brother’s Restaurant now houses The Secret Location. Photo: Amanda Rose.

Today, Gastown has fully evolved. The Secret Location, a mash-up of lifestyle boutique and restaurant, has replaced Brother’s at 1 Water Street, Blacktail entertains with small plates instead of the live music that was found at Mick’s, while Six Acres, The Diamond, Pourhouse, and the Revel Room, have all helped to continue the work Steamworks started in ushering the craft beer and cocktail era that’s currently flourishing here.

Drinking in 90s Gastown:

Craft beer brewpubs: 1

Craft cocktail lounges: 0

My guide keeps up with its business-like reports, helping to keep us focused on our mission as we step into Gaolers Mews, “the location of the city’s first jail, customs house and home to Gastown’s first constable.” Now it’s the apex of dining 2.0 in Gastown. Places like L’Abattoire’s French influenced West Coast fare, Pekinpah’s southern BBQ, Cork & Fin’s fresh seafood, and just out the lane and into Blood Alley, sits Salt Tasting Room. None of these places are chains. Each is unique unto itself. A refreshing sight after time spent along Robson Street, and in Yaletown. But not as quenching as more alcohol to stave off another episode of anxiety about my own mortality that this journey seems to be exacerbating.

“Guide,” I say, “let’s party like it’s 1999.”

Club 212 presents the latest in progressive dance music,” it returns within seconds.

“Perfect!” As we march onto Carrall Street together, expecting to find a raging dance party just after 6pm. It’s not much of a surprise when we instead find the Irish Heather at 212 Carrall, which was here in the 90s too, but where L’Abattoire now resides. Surprisingly, neither my guide or I are affected by the sudden change in plans, and we quickly adapt to pubbing over clubbing — why it it remains silent about the Blarney Stone, one of Gastown’s longest running pubs is at once mysterious, yet totally obvious.

My guide, enjoying a guinness in an unbranded glass.
My guide, enjoying Guinness in an unbranded glass.

“The Irish Heather not only pours the best Guinness in town – but supposedly sells the second-most pints of the dark stuff in Canada,” my guide says. I check to see if the fact holds true with our bartender as we take a seat at the bar. Indeed, the Irish Heather still runs a close second behind a pub in Whistler when it comes to pouring Guinness. I order 2, stand my guide up on the bar, wrap its pages around one of them, and have a chat with the our server. We talk at length about Club 212, the low income residents that Gastown’s revitalization in the 1970’s displaced further east, and the unavoidable displeasures of change — even with something as trivial as drinking. The addition of a bumpy, embossed harp on the Guinness glass, which had remained unchanged for decades, is a real sore spot for our bartender.

“It just doesn’t feel feckin right. If Guinness forced us to use the their new glass with the harp in it, we’d stop servin’ Guinness. That’s ‘ow strongly we believe in honorin’ the past,” my Irish bartender says with confidence while finishing the 2nd pour. If there wasn’t a bar separating us, the guide and I would hug him too. Instead, the three of us sit in silence, united by our unbranded, rogue Guinness glasses.

Saved by the clock tower! Find out how the 90s viewed the DTES, and get ready to take your seat at a dinner table in Chinatown next Thursday. Learn about this series.