The aura of old school diners
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
“It’s even [harder] for us to estimate what’s going to happen in a month or two. Things change so fast; we can only hope for the best and not close shop like many others in the city.”– Rachel Chen, owner of Ovaltine Café
Relics from the past are difficult to find; old-school diners from the 1950s are few and far between. There are not many left but there are a few—you just have to search real hard to find them. Two classic Vancouver diners are profiled in this article: Helen’s Grill and Ovaltine Café.
Helen’s Grill is located at 4102 Main Street in Vancouver near the corner of Main and King Edward Avenue. It first opened in 1961, serving delicious classic tasty entrees to its regular customers. The restaurant has its trademark long counter with stools, and directly across from it are several booths—with jukeboxes at each table. Unfortunately, with the latest provincial health restrictions banning indoor dining till April 19, Helen’s Grill is serving only takeout and delivery.
The owner is Nick Petrakis, who bought the restaurant from his uncle George in 2011 who has owned it since 1979. Petrakis says the pandemic has caused significant changes. “The pandemic has had a huge impact on the business especially the most recent shut down of DINE-IN,” Petrakis said in an email interview with the Other Press. “We are a diner (hence DINE-IN) and most people love to come and enjoy the decor as well as play the jukeboxes.” He says having to shift to takeout and delivery has been a mountain to climb: “[It has been] very challenging as mentioned earlier, our customer base consists of a large percentage of customers dining in. Most people will not order breakfast to take home.”
Petrakis hopes restrictions will be lifted so he can once again serve customers inside his restaurant. He believes his restaurant, which has maintained its classic look—appeals to many of his loyal customers. “It’s the old diner feel,” he states. “From classic old school foods, to the décor, and the mini jukeboxes at the booths. It’s a classic mom-and-pop shop where everyone is treated as they are part of the family.”
Petrakis, when asked what he would order if he was a customer at his restaurant, said he would order a breakfast, lunch, or dinner entree. But he stated that if he is in a breakfast mood, he would order the Smoked Meat and Hash: “No explanation—the name says it all. Smoked meat comes from Montreal with grated hash with onions and peppers topped with poached eggs and hollandaise.” He then included an honourable mention: “The Liver and Onions—according to numerous old school customers.”
Ovaltine Café at 251 East Hastings Street opened in 1942. The restaurant is well known for its classic bright neon signs located above its front entrance and on its front windows. The inside architecture with its booths, countertop, and adjoining stools where customers eat and interact with the front staff have been used in numerous television and feature films such as I, Robot, Supernatural, and The X-Files. Notably, it is not only Vancouverites who enjoy this timeless restaurant. In September 2018, The Telegraph’s travel section listed the Ovaltine Café as one of the 50 greatest cafes on Earth.
The restaurant is owned by a mother-daughter duo, Grace and Rachel Chen, who have operated the iconic eatery since 2014. Grace and Rachel have a long association with the Downtown Eastside. Before owning the Ovaltine Café, Grace operated the café inside Save On Meats from 1999 till 2010. At the time, it was an open kitchen located in the back of a butcher shop where young Rachel helped her mother. The building was later sold to restaurateur, Mark Brand.
The pandemic has been challenging for the Ovaltine. They have also shifted to takeout and delivery. Rachel says the pandemic has affected her business, and it has also been difficult not having any social interactions with customers. “Especially with the new dine-in restrictions, it’s making surviving even harder,” Rachel said in a Facebook message to the Other Press. “Everything has gone up, which forced us to also adjust our price, but also keeping our price affordable and continue to service the same quality of food. At this point, we are just taking our business one day [and] one week at a time. It’s even [harder] for us to estimate what’s going to happen in a month or two. Things change so fast; we can only hope for the best and not close shop like many others in the city.”
When asked what she would order if she were a patron at her own restaurant, Rachel said it was difficult to choose what she would order. “No doubt anything breakfast! I can’t just pick one,” she laughed. But if she had to choose a dish, it would be her fish and chips. “I know it’s not breakfast and super random, but I love our fish and chips and I pretty much only eat [that] from our shop,” she said. “Also, because we are good family friends with the only seafood owner for many, many years, so we did learn a trick or two from them before they closed shop.”
Diners appeal to so many people, young and old. There is a nostalgic aspect to why diners resonate with people. Maybe it takes them back to their childhood, reminiscing about happier moments with family and friends. Whether it is eating at Helen’s Grill or Ovaltine Café, the diner experience becomes etched in our brains, leaving us with powerful memories to cherish. Perhaps American chef, Mario Batali, describes the diner experience appropriately: “The objective is to achieve a comfort level between the cook/artist/performer and the customer/viewer/diner. And if we can achieve that, and the customers are happy, and the cooks are happy, then we have a great experience.”