- Name: BREWHALL
- Location: 97 East 2nd Ave., Vancouver
- Phone: 604-709-8623
- Website: brewhall.com
- Cuisine: Fast-casual pub
- Additional Info: Open daily, 11 a.m. to midnight (1 a.m Fri. and Sat.). No reservations.
- Rating System: Cheap Eats
So this is what it feels like to be a millennial. I am standing at the BREWHALL service counter, trying to decide what to order. The choices are intentionally vast because the younger generation apparently values the freedom to curate their own experience. No wonder the kids get a bad rap for being indecisive.
The drink categories are relatively simple: house beer, guest beer, wine, cocktails on tap or jelly poppers. Jelly poppers? That’s an easy one to scratch. If, however, I were in the mood for an apple strudel feature cocktail, I would have to go upstairs to the DRINKLAB and get in another line. Let’s go for the Hacker-Pschorr marzen. It’s Oktoberfest and this is a brewhall after all.
Now I have to build my own bowl. First choice: Mexican, Mediterranean, banh mi or green goddess. Then I have to pick my protein (chicken, tofu, salmon or tuna) and my base (jasmine rice, black rice, quinoa or greens). I am later told there are 88 possible combinations when you factor in additional options such as condiments and spice levels. Eighty-eight! And I haven’t even decided where to sit among the 400 seats available. Or what games I’m going to play in the arcade.
Flexibility might be the driving concept at this unusual fast-casual dining hybrid. But owner Daniel Frankel didn’t really have much choice when he took over this enormous red barn in Olympic Village (the reassembled Opsal Steel building, formerly home to Steel Toad Brewing). With a chronic labour shortage in the food-service industry (there are 14,000 vacant jobs in the province, according to the BC Restaurant & Foodservices Association) and five other understaffed restaurants to run, Mr. Frankel would have found it exceedingly difficult, probably impossible, to hire enough people to run a 400-seat, full-service restaurant.
Mr. Frankel had to do things differently. So he made it all counter service – the largest of its kind, operating out of a single kitchen, in Vancouver.
While I don’t normally write about the type of establishment where you drink jelly poppers over a game of Pacman, BREWHALL is one to watch. The Canadian restaurant industry is changing and quick service is its fastest-growing segment. There are more food halls, trucks, chef-driven counter concepts, restaurants within butcher shops, cafés in the middle of couture clothing stores and delivery services.
Amid all this upheaval, BREWHALL is conducting a grand experiment on a massive scale. It could have all gone terribly wrong and been utterly chaotic. But the fact the service operates so smoothly is what makes it worth paying attention.
Back at the counter, the lines move quickly. On a busy Saturday night, there are three bartenders taking orders. They are friendly, patient with questions and seem to know the menu quite well. I pay upfront, get a tall number sign for my food order and move down the counter to pick up the drinks when my name is called.
I grab some cutlery at a separate service station and sit down at a picnic bench in the main hall, but then change my mind. There are two patios, an upper level, seating at the bar and high tops along the window. I can sit wherever I choose and moving around is encouraged. I pick up my sign and move to the other side of the room, then upstairs. There are several hall monitors (the BREWHALL name for food runners) equipped with headsets watching my every move. Whenever I take a new seat, they radio the information back to the kitchen, where a note is made on my chit so the hall monitor who runs my food will be able to find me when it’s ready.
It’s kind of creepy knowing that all eyes are on me, but it works. My food is delivered straight to my third seat 10 minutes later. Soon after I finish, another hall monitor removes the dirty tray and cleans the table.
If I want another drink, I would have to line up again at the bar. But that will apparently change this weekend when roaming bartenders with wireless tablets will begin taking orders at tables. They won’t serve your drink, but they will take payment and give you a verification code, which you present at the bar to receive your drink.
A few weeks from now, BREWHALL will be rolling out mobile ordering. You won’t even have to line up. You’ll just scan a code into your phone, enter your order, pay online and present your verification code at the bar.
And the food? It’s actually not bad. The green goddess bowl is chock full of pristinely fresh veggies. The dressing is tangy, the chicken is well seasoned, the rice is warm. The pizza needs work. It’s cooked in a pan and the thick dough is greasy. But the burger, with its soft potato bun and smashed Angus beef patty, is juicy and nicely caramelized. It’s a very good burger.
Truth be told, I’m not here for the food. And I don’t think most of the patrons singing along to the VJ or hunting whitetail deer with plastic rifles in the arcade are either. BREWHALL is primarily a brewery bar, albeit one with a game-changing service model. A brave new restaurant world is unfolding. And to think that I used to complain about the lack of coat checks.