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Stephen Quinn

Fresh meat on the block Add to ...

I have been looking forward to the opening of the new butcher shop in our neighbourhood for months. The windows of the Commercial Drive storefront have been papered over for a while, with a brief description of what was to come wedged behind the glass.

So this week, when I heard the store had opened, I was anxious to visit.

Once fairly sketchy in these parts – or at least solidly working class – the area is now home to businesses that cater to the upwardly mobile residents and their million-dollar houses.

The Drive has always been a great food street, and the long-established businesses have kept up with the neighbourhood’s much-discussed changing demographic.

There is the legendary ravioli store where “Auntie Tina” will always exchange a piece of children's art work for an almond-flavoured cookie.

There’s the Grotto Del Formaggio, and the deli counter at the Santa Barbara, which both do a brisk business.

The new fish store on the street has been a welcome addition. It’s a tad precious and not cheap, but roughly on par with Granville Island, which is my barometer for what’s expensive.

The new butcher was exactly what I needed to complete the menu.

Like the new fish monger next door, the butcher shop is spacious, clean and organized.

I was greeted warmly by a young man sporting a hipster take on what a butcher ought to look like: a black chef’s jacket, a black apron, and a newsboy cap.

He was sweeping the floor in a proud, proprietary way, which may or may not have been ironic.

Behind the display cases, another young man, lovingly frenching racks of lamb.

Inside the display cases, a rather sparse assortment of cuts of meat: tiny perfect lamb loin chops, pre-cut beef stew, an assortment of small roasts, tenderloin and various steaks.

Then, there were the prices.

Pasture to Plate chicken, starting at about $32. Strip loin steaks, cut to a perfect barbeque thickness, $25 a pound. Ground beef, $6.50 a pound.

“Is that a lot?” I thought to myself, trying to remember what a grocery story might charge. While I was making those calculations a man walked in, leaned over my shoulder, looked at the display case (and presumably the prices) and said, in a very loud voice, “You people are out of your [expletive deleted] minds!” then stomped out.

“We get quite a bit of that,” Andy Christie told me later.

Andy was the young man behind the counter carving the racks of lamb.

“But for every five of those, we get 20 people who tell us how much they appreciate that we’re here,” he says.

Yes, but do they buy anything?

Mr. Christie explains that the store is an outlet for a single farm in the Chilcotin Valley: The Pasture to Plate/Rafter 25 Ranch, a family-run business that organically raises beef, pork, lamb and chicken.

“We know what’s been happening with the chickens,” he says, “from the moment they’re conceived until they walk out the door with you.”

“Are you overreaching?” I ask. “Are people in this neighbourhood, many of whom live on modest incomes, willing or able to spend $32 on a chicken?”

“Part of the task is to explain to people why it’s worth the money,” he says. “Animals that are intensively farmed, animals that are fed other animals, that’s not food. That’s something else.” He also mentions – with pride, I think – that the chickens go for as much as $45 each.

How does he feel when people swear at the staff after seeing the prices?

“I don’t take it personally. I feel sad that we’ve constructed an economic system where people can’t afford to eat good food,” he says.

In the end, due in part to guilt, I settle on 2½ pounds of top sirloin – the cheapest thing I can find. Total cost, about $28. I used it in a stew, and yes, it was delicious.

Like the fish store (and the newish toy store, and under-construction wine store), the new butcher represents a substantial investment in the neighbourhood. It’s another high-end business displaying confidence in the future of The Drive.

For some, it’s yet another sign of the creeping gentrification that they say is “ruining” The Drive.

To those people I say don’t worry – there’s a new cheque-cashing place opening up just about every month.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver. stephen.quinn@cbc.ca

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