When young food bloggers pan their iPhones across Vancouver’s diverse dining landscape, they probably cannot imagine a time before Japanese-Italian supper clubs, bubble-tea cocktails and Super Mario-inspired tasting menus run amok.
But some of us have been around long enough to remember when spicy Congolaise moules frites paired with a fig-infused, blue-cheese martini was a big hairy deal.
Chambar, which will be celebrating its 15th anniversary with a block-party spit roast on Sunday afternoon, was the most influential restaurant of my generation. It was also the first restaurant I wrote about in this column, so this is a nostalgic milestone for me as well.
In 2004, when Nico and Karri Schuermans opened their buzzy, exposed-brick grotto off the beaten track (one door down from its current location on Beatty Street) and were slammed from the get-go, they didn’t just ignite a previously desolate neighbourhood, kick-start the city’s groundbreaking cocktail culture and begin grooming a notable cohort of industry professionals who have spread their influence across the province. They actually invented a whole new category – casual fine dining – in a city dominated by upscale restaurants and down-market chains. Remember, this was before Rob Feenie moved to Cactus Club, Earls was still decorated with papier-mâché parrots and Vancouver really deserved to be called No Fun City.
“We never went out after we moved to Vancouver,” says Ms. Schuermans, who met her husband, a Rwandan-raised Belgian, while they were both living in Australia. “It was mostly because we couldn’t afford it. And then when we did, it was like sitting in grandma’s living room – so boring.”
With a credit card approved for $5,000, a 96-page business plan and a whole lot of moxie, the couple began building a restaurant where they themselves would like to dine.
The food was an indefinable Moroccan-Belgian fusion grounded in the classic techniques of Mr. Schuermans’s Michelin-starred background, but pumped up with a riot of flavour. Big bowls of mussels shared the table with lamb shank tagines braised in honey and rosewater crème brûlée. Sounds ordinary today, but I’ll never forget my first heady whiff of that sweet dessert. Back then, rosewater was a scent more commonly associated with hippie health shops.
The dishes, for many years, were all $20 or less. The target was to offer the same prices as Earls or Cactus Club – which they still do.
The service was elevated, yet unpretentious. The tables were not set with tablecloths, but the servers laid linen napkins in your lap. The music was loud. The vibe was loose. The much-wagged-about oil painting behind the bar was of a topless buxom blonde that Ms. Schuermans splashed on canvas the night before opening.
The drinks – 25 types of Belgian beer and cocktails cooked up in the kitchen with lavender syrup, Campari powder and paper-thin dried-pineapple garnishes – were revelatory.
The neighbourhood was edgy. Fun fact: The name Crosstown was invented by local author Timothy Taylor in his seminal novel, Stanley Park. When real estate developers were about to begin marketing the 2,000 condominiums that went up soon after Chambar opened, the area had been tentatively branded “Beatty Village.” Ms. Schuermans stepped in and said, “No, Crosstown sounds better.” Years later, she sent Mr. Taylor a generous gift card to give credit where credit was due.
The name – a spin on chambard, the French expression to describe the raucousness that explodes when a teacher leaves the classroom and the kids go a little wild – perfectly encapsulated the pent-up energy that had been building in the local food scene.
Those were exciting times. Vancouver was ahead of the curve on so many trends and I was writing up a storm about heirloom tomatoes, sake pairings, sustainable seafood and grass-fed beef – none of which was on anybody’s radar in Toronto. But when friends from back east came to visit, I couldn’t convince them that Vancouver was a happening place – until I took them to Chambar. It had a big-city cool factor that made us realize all that had been missing.
Ten years later, Chambar scaled up and moved to a much larger location next door. The early team (a who’s who of Vancouver’s most influential bartenders, sommeliers and restaurant owners) scattered. And some say the restaurant lost its relevance to the corporate, prehockey-game crowd.
But behind the scenes, Chambar never stopped breaking new ground. Nearly a decade before the #MeToo movement shook the industry to its core, Chambar introduced a companywide code of ethics.
Tia Kambas, now director of operations, started as a dishwasher at 17. She probably never would have returned as chef de cuisine after her maternity leave had the owners not offered her an almost-unheard-of job-sharing arrangement.
“This is the success story,” Mr. Schuermans says. “All these people who have grown up in the Chambar family and took on the reins, allowing us to have a life.”
It’s not just them. All of Vancouver and anyone even tangentially connected to its dining scene grew up with Chambar, too.
Chambar: 568 Beatty St., Vancouver; 604-879-7119, chambar.com
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