Vancouver’s old Gastown rises again
When Rainier Provisions (http://rainierprovisions.com) deli and restaurant opens in Vancouver’s historic Gastown area on February 12, a once-crumbling old hotel building will spring back to life. It’s the latest in a rash of recent launches in the wider Downtown Eastside, a district with a Skid Row reputation that was once labeled Canada’s poorest postal code.
Balancing the needs of the less-affluent with the hip residents increasingly colonizing the area is part of doing business here, according to Rainier owner Sean Heather. “You can’t just complain about the neighbours. You have to serve them as well – they were usually here first,” he says. For the Rainier, this meant relocating a woman who wanted to continue sleeping in the entranceway to a newly restored – and safer – alcove alongside.
But that wasn’t the only renovation required. Built in 1907, the old hotel site has housed a barbershop, billiard room and – in the 1970s – a nightclub. And while newly-exposed interior brick walls reflect its age, an original blue and white mosaic floor has also been restored – at a cost of CDN$20,000, according to Heather.
Just as disparate as its history, the Rainier’s menu aims to satisfy the area’s economically diverse clientele. Alongside gourmet coffees, artisan cheese and charcuterie, lip-smacking craft beer, vegetarian meals and a carvery station, lower-priced options will always be available. And, once a month, the Rainier will serve dinner to the residents living in social housing upstairs.
It’s an approach the Limerick-born Vancouverite – who also owns several other Gastown eateries – developed after launching the nearby Irish Heather (http://www.irishheather.com) pub in 1996 – “long before it was cool to open down here,” he says with a chuckle.
Since then, neighbourhood revitalization has gathered pace, especially after a former department store site was transformed into swanky housing. Hotspots springing up to serve the new locals include coffee shop Nelson the Seagull (http://www.nelsontheseagull.com), restaurants Wildebeest (http://wildebeest.ca) and Pidgin (http://www.pidginvancouver.com), and Save On Meats (http://saveonmeats.ca) – an old butcher shop with a legendary neon sign that now houses a popular diner.
But while accusations of gentrification are routinely leveled at the area, Heather sees things differently. “We’re not turning the neighbourhood into something it wasn’t: Hastings Street [the nearby thoroughfare] used to be Vancouver’s main drag. So long as we don’t displace people who’ve been living here for 30 or 40 years, we’re returning the area to what it used to be.”