Vancouver’s oldest family-owned restaurant celebrating 95 years
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
“It is very difficult to put into words what the restaurant means to me. Obviously, it being a third generation, and family-owned [business] is something to be very proud of.”– Chuck Chamberlain, owner of Tomahawk restaurant
The word “retro” conjures up glossy images from the past—and is especially reminiscent of restaurants. One cannot find anything more retro than the Tomahawk Restaurant: one of Vancouver’s oldest family-operated establishments.
The restaurant has become a North Vancouver institution. Yes, a young Bryan Adams once worked at the Tomahawk as a dishwasher before achieving worldwide fame as a recording artist. Outside the main entrance, the location is accentuated by the beauty of its wonderfully carved totem poles. Upon entering, you will understand why the restaurant is also known for its extensive collection of North Shore and West Coast First Nations artifacts. The Tomahawk has been profiled in multiple newspaper articles and news and television segments. In September 2011, Guy Fieri made a trip to the restaurant to film an episode for his popular Food Network television series Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives (Tomahawk appears in season 13, episode 2 and originally aired in 2011).
The Tomahawk first opened in 1926 by founder Chick Chamberlain who had been in the restaurant business in the North Shore. According to their official website, Chick admitted he did not know how to cook when the restaurant first opened. But he practiced and learned and eventually improved his culinary skills. Chick grew his own mushrooms, made homemade pickles, created his own unique syrup for milkshakes, and even raised his own chickens. The website also notes, “And get these prices! A barbecued beef sandwich, 10 cents, and a barbecued chicken sandwich, 10 cents. What a deal!”
In 1986, Chick’s son, Chuck, took over the restaurant. It is currently open during the pandemic with limited seating to maintain social distancing. The main page of the Tomahawk website states its safety and health protocols implemented to welcome back customers safely. On the restaurant turning 95 years old, Chuck Chamberlain says he is proud of the milestone anniversary—telling the Other Press in a phone interview: “It is very difficult to put into words what the restaurant means to me. Obviously, it being a third generation and family-owned [business] is something to be very proud of.”
The Tomahawk is proud of its quality, freshness, and preparation of its food and state such on their website: “The preparation of each item is amazing. Roasting whole turkeys in the oven for sandwiches, slicing fresh whole mushrooms, cutting loaves of bread into cubes to make croutons for salads, mincing certified organic [ground] beef, for his Tomahawk hamburgers, straining large vats to make cheese sauce, or perhaps creating a new dish, freshness, quality, and authenticity remains a constant.”
Despite the pandemic, the Tomahawk Restaurant continues to serve its traditional favourites to its customers. Their famous burgers are named after some of the First Nations chiefs Chick befriended over the years as a tribute to honour their memory: Skookum Chief, Chief Capilano, Chief Dominic Charlie, Chief Simon Baker, Chief Mathias Joe, and Chief August Jack. As well, the Tomahawk takes pride in its dessert offerings such as their pies, which is a secret family recipe as their website states. Customers can order a pie and choose between seasonal fresh fruit or traditional flavours. If you are not craving pie, you can order some ice cream (vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate).
The North Shore News reported on September 7, 2011, Guy Fieri appeared at the Tomahawk six days earlier to film scenes for his Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives show. About 25 people were allowed to enter the restaurant during filming, and a few were selected to be interviewed. Few of those chosen were North Vancouver residents Terry and Joyce Mulligan. The Mulligans said they enjoyed the experience of being part of the show. But Terry recalls Fieri’s food choices being quite odd as Fieri had selected the Organic Roast Beef Dinner, Tomahawk Style Beef Dip, Steak and Mushroom Pie, and Yorkshire Pudding (included with the Organic Roast Beef Dinner). Terry told the North Shore News, “This was surprising to us. That place was famous for two things: its hamburgers—huge hamburgers—and the Yukon breakfast. I think he thought it was a twist to have a place like that serving Yorkshire pudding, cause that’s… foreign to them.”
Ariadne Ava Butalid, a North Vancouver resident, made a trip to the Tomahawk in early March 2020 before the start of the pandemic. She had heard a lot about the place from her friends and coworkers. And when Butalid finally went, she did not regret it—telling the Other Press in an interview about her experience: “I ordered the Chief Mathias Joe Burger, the tender juicy ground beef patty with Yukon-style bacon and sliced fresh sautéed mushrooms made it out of this world. The restaurant is filled with First Nations artifacts that are dated a long time ago. That itself made my dining experience enjoyable. I had heard rumours of a must-eat place to go to in North Vancouver. And I would recommend the Tomahawk in a heartbeat. And of course, I did not go home without trying their delicious traditional homemade blueberry pie with the ice cream, of course.”
Finally, Chamberlain is very appreciative of his loyal customers, and it is something he does not take for granted. He believes in treating his customers with respect stating: “When they walk through the door, it’s important to treat them as people first, not as a dollar sign.” As for retirement, Chamberlain declines to state when he will give up the restaurant. “Let’s just make it to 100 years, and then we will see what will happen.” He is also grateful for all the support he has received from customers who continue to patron his restaurant during the pandemic: “Especially during COVID-19, our customers have been really important to us. And I just want to thank them for supporting us. It means so much.”