A review of classic local restaurants from bygone eras
By Brandon Yip, Contributor
Traces of old school restaurant relics from the Lower Mainland’s past are difficult to find. Locally, near the Douglas College New Westminster campus, students can fuel up their brains before classes at the Waffle House Restaurant at 636 Sixth Street, which has been serving customers since 1954. Other than the odd gem here and there, not many classic vintage restaurants are left.
Over the past few years, some of the oldest restaurants in Vancouver shut their doors. Tops Restaurant at 2790 Kingsway closed down in August 2016 after 44 years. Back in December, the iconic Nick’s Spaghetti House, located at 631 Commercial Drive, served their final meatball after 62 years. Nick’s was one of the last remaining links to Commercial Drive’s developing Italian community back in the 1950s. Owner Nick Felicella opened his establishment as a tiny coffee shop back in 1955. He later expanded and converted it into a pasta restaurant that East Vancouverites would soon come to love and come back to for decades.
Remarkably, Wally’s Burgers is one of the last remaining classic burger joints from a long-gone era. It first opened back in 1962 by Wally Stritzel, an Austrian immigrant who took over the business when it was another burger place called Harvey’s. The original location at 2703 Kingsway would become a landmark institution for teenagers, hot rods, cruisers, burger cravers, and milkshake lovers for decades. Drivers heading east or west along Kingsway could not miss the restaurant’s unique three-storey high red and green neon sign. But in the 1970s, Stritzel sold the business, though the name Wally’s remained. In a March 2008 interview with The Vancouver Sun, Hermann Stritzel, Wally’s brother, explained the reasoning why Wally sold the business.
“He sold out as soon as McDonald’s started building up,” Hermann said. “They built a McDonald’s at Kingsway and Victoria, he had a hunch [it would hurt business]. So he sold it.”
Health issues such as diabetes would later affect Wally Stritzel, and he died back in 1996 at the age of 62.
Wally’s Burgers would continue to serve hundreds of customers until the signature Kingsway location closed down in March 2008, after 46 years, to make way for condominiums. Connor Kim was the owner of Wally’s Burgers at the time, and he decided not to renew his lease but instead sell the business. The decision was based on a combination of high rent and potential real estate value for the property, as Kim told CBC Vancouver in a March 2008 interview.
“Many people have asked me, ‘Oh, why are you closing down?’ But, I’m sorry, I don’t have any power, just my apologies [to all my customers]. I have to leave. I have a contract and they don’t want any more extended contracts.”
However, Wally’s Burgers would not be gone for very long. The following year it would be resurrected by Gordon Bemister. He had been working in radio in Vancouver and his position was being eliminated around the same time the Wally’s Burgers Kingsway location was closing.
“I was a pretty regular customer and I understood how iconic it was, particularly to people from East Vancouver,” Bemister said in an email interview with the Other Press. “A number of fortunate events occurred, and to make a long story short, we were able to obtain the recipes, the suppliers, and because of my radio employment ending, I had the initial capital to reopen in the summer of 2009 at Cates Park in North Vancouver (open May to September yearly).”
In February 2010, the new Wally’s Burgers would open to a new generation of burger aficionados in the Killarney Shopping Centre at 2661 East 49th Avenue. Bemister said his number one-selling burger, and the one they are most famous for, is the Deluxe Chuck Wagon, featuring two patties, onions, lettuce, tomato, and special sauce on the signature wagon bun.
Bemister said his restaurant appeals to both young and old people and having that connection to the past is important for his business.
“I think Wally’s Burgers represents a piece of history in Vancouver,” Bemister said. “Twenty years ago, we used to go to Wally’s as a family. It was an affordable burger place with an old school retro feel and classic retro taste. Keeping it going was important to us because we are a tight-knit family and we want to be able to give other families the same feeling it gave us. We focus on bringing new flavours as well as the classics, we cook everything to order using freshly-prepared ingredients.”
Locally, Douglas College students were able to satisfy their burger cravings for almost five years at the Wally’s Burgers River Market location, before it closed back in December 2016.
Another restaurant that has been around even longer than Wally’s Burgers is the Ovaltine Café, located at 251 East Hastings Street. It was established in 1942 and owned and operated by Bill and Violet Wong. Today, Grace Chen and her daughter, Rachel, are the current owners and, after taking over the restaurant, celebrated their grand re-opening back in April 2015. They both have a strong connection to the Downtown Eastside community where the restaurant is located.
“We came to the opportunity when the previous owner was retiring … he was a good family friend,” Rachel Chen said in an interview with the Other Press. “Also, we have grown attached to the DTES neighbourhood. When we first came to Canada, we owned the coffee shop, which was part of Save-on-Meats for over 10 years, and that was our main source of income as a new immigrant.”
Chen said the appeal of the Ovaltine Café is its simplicity and architecture that gives the restaurant its unique character.
“I think the biggest appeal is the vibe and the old feel you get when you come into a place like ours.”
The café features wooden structures, old-style booths, movie posters, and a prominent bright pink-and-green neon sign, which shines brightly above the outside of the restaurant.
“Everything can be dated back to 1942 when we first opened,” Chen said. “And when we try to do any renovations, we try to stick to what we have and just make it newer, but not replace the history behind it. Like when we first took over, a young man came in to ask if he [could] take some photos. After we chatted for a bit, I found out his great grandfather is the one who handmade the booth and tables [that] we still use today. And he just wanted to keep that part of his great grandfather alive and in his memory. So, I think people like to come to old places like the Ovaltine to relive and rediscover those older times where everything was much slower, simpler, and homelier.”
Chen said the most popular food items at Ovaltine Café that customers usually order range from their blueberry pancakes to pork cutlets to homemade pies.
“And if I have to pick a popular item I’d have to say our all-day breakfast, fish and chips and our burgers,” Chen said.
Many classic burger joints and diners from the 1950s and 1960s are now long gone. But for the few that remain today, they are special for those who still remember and experienced those great places from Vancouver’s past. Gord Bemister hopes to keep Wally’s Burgers opened as long as possible and as long as customers keep returning to Wally’s, the smell of juicy burgers, onions, and hot dogs will continue to emanate from their East 49th Avenue location.
“For the die-hard Wally’s customers, we hope that first bite whisks them back to the good old days back on Kingsway and brings them a bite of the past,” Bemister said. “For the new customers, we hope it gives them a taste that they haven’t experienced before. There is nothing we love more than to see both our regular customers and new customers return to get their Wally’s fix.”
Similarly, Rachel Chen and her mother Grace hope the Ovaltine Café will continue to provide customers with a taste and an atmosphere that takes them back to the past where times were much simpler.
“We just want them to have a good time, a hot meal, enjoy the simple things in life and reminisce about the old times, or share stories with their kids or grandkids when they were that age and were here with their mom and dad, grabbing a slice of pie or a pile of high-stacked pancakes,” Chen said. “So their children’s children can also come back with their little ones and share the same feeling, sitting at the same old booth and telling stories of the good old days.”