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Downtown Eastside: ‘It’s just the Ovaltine’

Patrons revel in legendary diner’s calm simplicity

John Turgeon’s first taste of the Ovaltine Cafe was in 1986. “I was in jail for the first time and they got [us] some food from the Ovaltine,” he said to the amusement of his lunchmate, Bernie Pleskach, at the cafe last week.

The pair had rolled in half an hour earlier Feb. 19 looking like rock stars. Turgeon in a black leather jacket, Pleskach with a lengthy salt and pepper beard and long hair beneath a suede cowboy hat. Both wore shades.

Turgeon just celebrated two years of sobriety and lives across the street from the Ovaltine.

An outreach worker for RainCity Housing and Support Society in the Downtown Eastside, Pleskach eats two or three times a month at the café he first visited in 1984.

“I like the atmosphere here and diner food for me is the same as home-cooked,” he said. “The food is good, it’s functional… and I want to come as much as I can because the neighbourhood seems to be changing a lot.”

Last week, calm infused the 72-year-old Ovaltine, with its wooden booths bordering one side, a diner counter stretching down the other. Sunlight poured in the vintage neon-lit windows while lone men visited the clean but worn diner for a $3.95 breakfast, burgers and soup.

John Atkin, a historian who lives in Strathcona, says he no longer gets to the Ovaltine “as much as he should.” But he has supported the neighbourhood institution for decades.

Atkin first visited the Ovaltine in 1975 when an art school pamphlet told him the area should be avoided.

Instead of trouble, the kid from Victoria found cafés lit by neon, theatres screening Chinese films and an amazing magazine shop. Loggers, horseracing enthusiasts, fading hippies, cops and suits crowded the Ovaltine’s coffee counter. Police entered through the back door and the smoking ban wasn’t enforced because some of the officers smoked.

Perched on a red vinyl stool near the far end of the Arborite counter, Atkin handwrote half of his book Strathcona: Vancouver’s First Neighbourhood in 1994.

A tailor and two other cafes occupied the ground-floor space at 251 East Hastings St. before it became the Ovaltine. It was one of many cafés in a thriving business district decades before Atkin discovered it, a place where families went for a treat in the 1940s and ’50s.

The city felt the first decline of the area after the loss of the interurban streetcar station at Hastings and Carrall in 1958-1959.

“They estimate that that station alone generated 10,000 pedestrians a day,” Atkin said.

When drug addicts swapped heroin for crack in the mid 1980s and petty crimes ramped up, Atkin said opinions of the area unjustly declined.

But amid decades of flux, the Ovaltine’s décor remained frozen in time and was featured in the TV shows Da Vinci’s Inquest and The X-Files and the movie I, Robot.

The only notable alterations that Atkin recalls accompanied a change of ownership in the early 1990s when the quality of the cheeseburgers improved and the elderly Chinese-Canadian servers in their grey jackets that read “Ovaltine” over their breasts disappeared.

With some of the neighbourhood’s employees departed and new eateries sprouting up, the Ovaltine no longer enjoys the same clientele base.

More change looms. The former police station could become a tech hub and six floors of the former jail are being renovated for social housing.

Nick Chyzyk doesn’t anticipate a long life for his favourite haunt.

“I imagine they’ll tear it down any day now, like everything else,” said the 80-year-old with sunken cheeks.

Chyzyk, a former commercial trailer mechanic who lives at the nearby Patricia Hotel, has frequented the diner since 1953 and visits every day. He likes the Ovaltine because it’s quiet.

“I usually come down here, have a beer and nobody bothers me,” he said. “No bums come to borrow cigarettes or money. If they come in they kick them out.”

Atkin worries about the Ovaltine’s chances for survival with scant customers and low-priced fare. Diminished evening hours mean customers no longer see neon reflected down the long counter, but he doesn’t want the cafe “hipsterized” and serving craft beer.

“What I like about it is it sits in the neighbourhood, it’s a reminder of what the neighbourhood was like in its heyday and yet it’s still here and it’s not trying to be anything. It’s just the Ovaltine,” he said.

Atkin hopes the Downtown Eastside will morph into a neighbourhood that includes healthy businesses, old and new, alongside affordable housing, service organizations, artists and cultural venues.

“If this neighbourhood continues to evolve and returns to what it was in 1978, that’s the perfect balance because you had the hotels serving a certain type of clientele — now you’ve got a ton of social housing here — but you had vibrant and viable retail and you had a slight edge to the neighbourhood,” he said.

The owner of the Ovaltine declined an interview.

(This story has been edited since it was first posted.)

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