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Andy Prest: A fond farewell to a very social North Vancouver sandwich shop

After nine years sharing smiles, sandwiches and suds, Meat At O'Neills is slated to close in September

For a lot of people, finding a “local,” a place where they can go and be welcomed, comfortable, and accepted, is a lifetime dream.

You know the song: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came.”

For many residents of a three-block strip of the Lower Lonsdale neighbourhood of North Vancouver, that dream is a reality thanks to a little sliver of a sandwich shop called Meat At O’Neills. It’s a place where you can go and get a pint and a pretty darn good sandwich – their Mexican Meatloaf easily holds a spot in my lifetime top-sando list – but more than that, you know that you are going to get a friendly reception from Martin and Shari O’Neill, an Irish couple who moved to North Vancouver in 2013 and opened their shop a couple of years later.

And I do mean that you “know” it will be one of them greeting you when you walk into Meat At O’Neills, because they’re the only two employees in the shop. They used to employ a couple of casual workers years ago, but since the days of COVID, it’s been a strictly two-person show.

My younger son and I visited the shop on a recent Wednesday afternoon – a time slot picked because it was meant to be their quietest time of the week – and there was still a steady stream of people coming in to grab a seat at the bar or get a couple of sandwiches to go. The affable owners greeted most patrons by name, including a few dogs that stopped by, all while patiently explaining the intricacies of sandwich making to my culinarily curious kid.

(Don’t underestimate the power of perfect bread, Martin conspiratorially explained to the kid. Great bread is “the big secret.”)

In a comfy space lit by a chandelier, down the bar from a cheeky sign advertising “Free beer tomorrow,” the O’Neills also described the importance of selling much more than sandwiches at their shop. They knew they needed to make it different than the trendy resto-bars that are found on seemingly every second block in high-traffic areas.

Meat At O’Neills is located right across the street from one such space, a Browns Social House, and Martin noted how different the vibes are.

“I’m not sure about that middle word,” he said with a laugh. Meanwhile at Meat At O’Neill’s, the “social” aspect comes naturally. Some of the regulars felt such a pull to the shop that they kept stopping by even when the O’Neills shut things down to take a well-deserved two-week vacation over the Christmas break.  

“Some of them actually came and sat out on the deck here and had a can of beer while we were shut down,” he said, adding that getting to know members of the community has been the most rewarding part of their work. “The most special thing about it is when you walk out into the middle of the road and you look over you see the big city, like it’s touching distance, yet this feels like just a suburban neighbourhood kind of thing where everybody knows each other. That’s kind of special.”

Those regulars are going through a bit of a mourning period right now – the landlord has told the O’Neills they need to be out of the space by the end of September. Martin said he’s been expecting this for a while, with the shop located firmly within a block that seems ripe for redevelopment.

The landlord, in fact, has already told them a few times before that they needed to clear out, but somehow the message always changed – Martin suspects some of the shop’s regulars have made passionate pleas straight to the landlord.

But this time seems like it’s for good, Martin said, and the O’Neills are at peace with the fact that they’ll permanently close in a few months. They have no concrete plans for the future, although Martin says he’s ruled out finding another space for a new shop, and he’s not keen on opening a food truck. Maybe a brewery needs a good sandwich maker on staff?

If these are the last few months of sandwich goodness for the O’Neills, they will get the most satisfaction from the continued support from the regulars, said Shari, adding that whatever joy the shop has given the community has come back in equal measures to the owners.

“The whole nine years have been incredible – we’ve seen births, marriages, funerals,” she said, adding that they’ve lived “the Canadian dream.”

“We came as immigrants, we’ve raised a child here, got her through the school system. We started a business from scratch, which has been really successful, and we’re citizens of Canada now. We’re Canadians. We’ve lived the dream. We’ve done what other people can only dream of. So we’re just so thankful that we’ve had nine years here to be able to fulfil that dream. We’re really, really lucky, fortunate and grateful.”

Andy Prest is the editor of the North Shore News. His humour/lifestyle column runs biweekly.