Just what does it take to be named the absolute top must-try restaurant in all of Canada?
If you are the family behind a humble South Vancouver diner that's been around since the baby boom, it certainly takes a lot of heart. And you'll find this beloved breakfast and lunch spot in a most unusual location, to boot.
In January, veteran no-frills diner Northern Café & Grill, run by the Mah family, took the number one spot in Yelp's annual ranking of the Top 100 Places to Eat in Canada.
Dating back to 1949, Northern is one of the city's oldest restaurants still in operation, and judging by its enduring popularity, it's easy to see how it has sustained its reputation as a staple for "greasy spoon" eats (and a bit of Chinese fare, too).
Diner located off the beaten path in South Vancouver
Northern Café is located on what may seem to many a no man's land - that area south of the railroad tracks and on the banks of the Fraser River at the southern edge of the city near the Knight Street bridge. This is a major industrial area, and the very definition of "off the beaten path" as far as urban eateries go; that's because the modest diner is perched on a second level in an old building tucked inside a lumber yard.
Once you pick your way gingerly through the dirt and puddles, the scent of fresh-cut lumber gives way to the distinct aroma of breakfast foods on the grill. After hanging a right and pushing open a plain door, the grunts and beeps of lumberyard vehicles fade as Beatles and Sintatra tunes fill the space. Your eyes don't deceive you; the floors are sagging and crooked.
The walls are covered in handwritten notes from guests from around the world; from Iowa to South Korea, patrons gush about the great food and congenial service.
Jimmy and Connie Mah took over operation of the diner in 2008, and their two sons are part of the team, too. Raymond, a Red Seal-trained chef, is at the stove, while brother Richard works the floor.
Café serves all-day breakfast, classic diner lunch plates, and Chinese staples
As the restaurant fills up early one recent Friday morning, the Mahs greet many of the guests with a warm familiarity; it's clear that for many this is a repeat visit. Still, as first-timers, my nine-year-old son and I are made to feel right at home. We settle in and order up some classic diner grub: French toast with scrambled eggs and bacon for the kiddo, and a veggie omelette with hash browns and toast for me.
"We'll have to come back at lunch to try the other stuff," suggests my son, and I agree. In addition to the all-day breakfast, Northern is serving up burgers and sandwiches and Chinese staples, like wonton soup, chow mein, and combo plates featuring sweet and sour or dry garlic pork.
Our breakfast order comes out fast and hot, and with a smile - exactly what you want as you fuel up on a Friday morning. The food is simple, hearty, and unfussy.
Northern Cafe is a special place that seems truly irreplaceable. It's not so much that you leave thinking you've just had the best breakfast you've ever eaten, but that you leave thinking that was easily one of the best dining out experiences you've likely had in a while. They aren't kidding when they say "our house is your house," on their website - it just feels like a cozy home. The crooked floors, the old diner design, and the classic tunes all add up to a vibe that can't be manufactured - not with this kind of pure authenticity. Suddenly all those positive Yelp reviews that pushed Northern to the top of the nationwide heap make sense.
As we close out our bill at the counter, Jimmy Mah calls out to my son from the kitchen. "No school today?" he asks. No, we confess, we are playing a little hooky. The elder Mr. Mah grins. "We'll see you again soon?"
Northern Cafe & Grill is located at 1640 E. Kent Ave in Vancouver and is open Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Please note the restaurant will be closed for family holidays from Feb. 26 to March 15, 2023.
Watch: Breakfast at the number one-ranked Canadian restaurant
@forkingawesomevia How did this quirky spot end up number one? We found out. 🎙️ @LindsayWR #forkingawesome #vancouverbc #hiddengems #diner ♬ you are beautiful - <3
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