When Carlos ’n’ Bud’s Honky Tonk closed its doors in October of 2005, to say there was sorrow in the land is probably an exaggeration, but there was definitely sorrow in Vancouver. Few, if any, other restaurants in the city have attracted C ‘n’ B’s cult-like following – a following that knew no age, gender, socio-economic or any other barrier. And certainly none have done it as Carlos ‘n’ Bud’s did – by breaking every rule in the book and then rewriting it.
The awkwardly shaped building that housed Carlos ’n’ Bud’s had squatted at the unfashionable south end of Seymour Street for at least 40 years, during most of which time it was home to the obviously successful but definitely not ritzy Hammond Garage. When Mr. Hammond et al closed up shop, the building was vacant for a time until well-known Vancouver restaurateur Bud Kanke leased it in 1980 and christened it Bud’s Good Eats.
Unlike many of Kanke’s successful ventures, it appeared Bud’s Good Eats weren’t that good after all. Probably only the fact that EXPO 86 took place just a couple of blocks away kept it alive until 1988 when Kanke moved on to bigger and pricier restaurants.
Enter Brad Hereuf and Marco Hubbard, two brash young guys in their mid-20’s who met working at The Keg. They had boundless energy, a clear idea of what they wanted their restaurant to be, an equally clear idea of what they wanted it not to be, and enough savvy to succeed where the previous owner had not. The Bud’s Good Eats sign came down, the Carlos ’n’ Bud’s Honky Tonk sign went up and so the legend began.
It could be supposed that the new proprietors cleaned the place up, changed the décor, advertised in the surrounding area, hired experienced unobtrusive staff and generally followed the rules laid out in “How to Succeed in the Restaurant Business 101.” They did none of those things. Instead, they succeeded because they truly understood first that consistently good food is a given. Without it, every customer is a one meal wonder.
And second, creating an atmosphere in which anyone, any age, dressed up or down, could come in with the certain knowledge that the next hour or two were going to be fun and not drain your wallet. If “Cheers” was the place where everybody knew your name, Carlos ‘n’ Bud’s was the place you could take your 8 year old kid or your 80 year old granny, your uptown business associate or your punker girlfriend and know that everybody was going to have fun. And if you came more than a few times, they’d also know your name.
When legendary rocker Frank Zappa came to Vancouver to do a concert and Denny Boyd, the city’s favorite columnist, met him post-concert for an interview, it happened at Carlos ‘n’ Buds. When pinstriped business executives fled the boardroom, they fled to Carlos ‘n’ Bud’s. And if you looked across the room and thought you saw someone you recognized, you probably did. It just wasn’t like anywhere else.
Probably “fun” is what Carlos ‘n’ Bud’s had the most of that other restaurants didn’t. Since the restaurant had been a garage, Brad and Marco, instead of trying to make it look like something else, kept the concrete floors, kept the floor to ceiling doors to the former mechanic bays, kept the Penzoil signs on the walls and just kept irreverently adding to the décor.
But C ‘n’ B’s was also a Tex-Mex Honky Tonk now. Above the central bar hung an impressive steer head. Other taxidermal masterpieces adorned the walls, including a moose head topped with a 3-foot Corona beer bottle.. Full size cardboard cutouts of Willie Nelson appeared attached to the ceiling – yes, the ceiling. A large and grainy black and white photo of a very well endowed Mexican bull was featured on a back wall, and these were interspersed with license plates, neon beer signs and whatever else caught Brad and Marco’s fancy. One day an 8 foot grizzly bear was added, in high tops and a Grizzlies t-shirt. It fit right in. At Christmas a traditional tree and presents was added – hanging upside down from the ceiling.
The other notable décor feature was signs – everywhere. In the parking lot: “Unauthorized vehicles will be blown up.” On the entry door: “Hours of business are 11:30 am until we feel like closing.” On the swinging door to the kitchen: “Employee Spa and Driving Range.” And probably the most quoted: “If our food, drinks and service aren’t up to your standards, lower your standards.” It was pure, laid back American roadhouse – the very thing Brad and Marco intended it to be. So if the chairs and tables didn’t match, they didn’t have to because this was Carlos ‘n’ Bud’s.
C ‘n’ B’s was the proud owner of the only original Texas smoker in Western Canada, used to smoke the restaurant’s famous ribs (some 550 pounds a week), and the 25,000 wings that went down every Tuesday when they were on special at 25¢ apiece.
Their Bud’s Famous Chili was named the Best Chili of 1993 by the Vancouver Province.
The rest of the menu leaned toward the expected fare: fajitas, tacos, enchiladas, burgers and a great appy selection. The drinks ran from shooters and buckets of beer through frozen margaritas, sangria and killer martinis.
For years the encroaching gentrification of Yaletown had little impact on C ‘n’ B’s except to bring in new customers. As high end restaurants and high rise apartments proliferated blocks away, the faithful and the new to the neighborhood still lined up on weekend nights for the high decibel live music, a chance to grab a table out on the patio on a warm summer afternoon, or to crowd the back area and the big screen tv for playoff and other serious games.
Brad and Marco had a talent for keeping their finger firmly on the pulse of their market. The décor shouldn’t have worked, but it did. The young, friendly but not always experienced staff should have made mistakes, but they didn’t – at least not that the customers saw. Handing out V.I.P cards to regulars inviting them to “Park Your Ass Down at Carlos ‘n’ Bud’s” (and get 15% off your food) might have been risky, but it wasn’t. The cards have become collectors’ items. The place you bring the kids on their birthday should not be the place you drop into for a drink after a concert, but it was. By all conventional wisdom, none of it should have worked, but all of it did.
And like all good things, it had to end. In 2005, faced with new lease negotiations in which the property owner and Brad and Marco were unable to reach a satisfactory agreement, Carlos ‘n’ Bud’s was slated to close at the end of October. Faced with the prospect of hundreds, if not thousands of regulars showing up for a grand finale, the restaurant closed quietly and without fanfare a couple of weeks early.
For weeks thereafter, cars would pull into the parking lot in front of the orangey-pink building still bearing the C ‘n’ B name and various gaudy graphics, try the door, then read the sign indicating the last plate of ribs had been eaten and the last margarita poured. Vancouver has hundreds of restaurants but only once in the city was there the crazy little phenomenon that was Carlos ‘n’ Bud’s Honky Tonk.