Today it is an international powerhouse brand, a restaurant synonymous with big steak dinners and milestone celebrations at more than 100 locations across Canada and the United States.
But half a century ago it was a small diner in the bottom floor of an old industrial building in North Vancouver’s Lower Lonsdale neighbourhood.
George Tidball, described as “a visionary and a cowboy” in a 2014 obituary, opened the Keg ‘n Cleaver restaurant in 1971 at 132 Esplanade West in North Vancouver. That location is no longer there – in fact, North Vancouver is now one of the largest Lower Mainland municipalities without a Keg restaurant – but the casual fine dining vibe that Keg diners know today was created in that little space in North Vancouver.
“It was a very unique concept at the time, because there was hotel dining and then there was White Spot and McDonalds, and nothing in between,” said Tidball’s daughter Kathy Robbins, who worked various jobs in the Keg chain before becoming a kindergarten teacher. Robbins was 19 years old at the time the first Keg opened, and she remembers it as a place that had good food and great energy.
“What I recall mainly is The Keg was a huge party place,” she said with a laugh. “There was as much alcohol as you could possibly drink, and as much food as you could eat, and all the young people working there were university students, so it had the energy level. Like, it just vibrated.”
Cheap drinks and singing servers
In the early days of The Keg, Tidball took a meeting with famed restaurater Hy Aisenstat, founder of the Hy’s Steakhouse chain, and came away with a useful piece of advice.
“Hy said if you’re going to do cheap drinks, make them really cheap,” said Robbins, adding that her dad put that into practice in the early days of The Keg. “The drinks were 60 cents, and the special drinks like martinis or Spanish coffees were a buck.”
The original Keg ‘n Cleaver location had around 120 seats, and staff prided themselves on turning over those tables as quickly as possible, said Robbins. She recalls the restaurant humming along as a well-oiled machine on busy weekend nights.
“The busboys used to have competitions to see how many tables they could clear, and the hostesses would try to seat people as soon as the last setting was put down,” said Robbins. “It was just geared for high volume, high energy entertainment. … You wanted a job at The Keg. You made great money, great tips. There were a lot of people that made their way through university working at The Keg.”
Servers were sometimes known to finish off a guest’s leftover highball, or make someone’s uneaten chunk of steak disappear on the way back to the kitchen, said Robbins about those early North Vancouver days. The restaurant also often filled with song, as staff members serenaded guests celebrating milestones, sometimes even tying people to their chairs and hoisting them into the air, said Robbins.
“There didn’t seem to be as many rules,” she said with a laugh. “I think the people that they hired were really important – they were very energetic people. … It was just a really fun place to be. That's what I remember more than anything. And the food was always really good.”
50th anniversary menu honours the past
Tidball’s run as owner came to end in the 1980s when he sold The Keg to U.K.-based company Whitbread. In the 1990s, the chain changed hands again, with David Aisenstat, Hy’s son, acquiring The Keg and beefing it up into the brand it is today.
To celebrate their anniversary, The Keg is now featuring a limited-time menu inspired by some of the favourite dishes of the past 50 years. The menu includes classics such as The Keg’s Pecan Sirloin, Salmon Neptune, Crab Parmesan Spinach Dip, and Mile High Chocolate Cake, as well as some newly created items like the 14-ounce French Onion Ribeye.
“The Keg has held a unique place in Canadians' lives since it first opened its doors, and we found that for many, celebrations at The Keg were a rite of passage,” said Jimmy duDomaine, The Keg’s vice-president of marketing and food services. “With our 50th anniversary menu, we wanted to celebrate where we’ve been and where we intend on going.”
It’s neat to see the chain that her father started in the early 1970s still going strong today, said Robbins.
“It's amazing, isn't it? Because longevity in the restaurant business is unusual,” she said, adding that she can definitely see her father’s personality mirrored in the makeup of the restaurant chain. “He was a charmer. … I remember once one of the managers at The Keg was talking to him, and he said, ‘You know, George, I really appreciate that you always talk to the little people.’ And my dad said, ‘Rod, there are no little people. They're just people.’ He had a rapport with the dishwashers, with the busboys, with the waiters, with management. He just really loved being around people, and I think that really showed through.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that there were more than 150 Keg locations across Canada and the United States. The correct number is 106.