On a dark night, from a dingy sidewalk in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the pink neon lights in the Ovaltine Cafe front window look like they've been ripped from the shadowy set of a classic film noir shoot.
Inside the diner, overhead lights cast a dim, warm glow over well-worn wooden booths and scratched linoleum tables. Red neon from the back wall reflects off tarnished mirrors. It's eerily quiet. One almost expects to find a hard-boiled detective dressed in a fedora and a trench coat hunched over the counter, smoking a cigarette.
Time has stood still at the Ovaltine Cafe, one of Vancouver's oldest restaurants, established in 1942. But now change is afoot. The ownership changed hands last fall and, for the first time in 25 years, the doors have opened for dinner.
Grace Chen, the former owner of the Save on Meats diner, and her daughter Rachel, who also owns Perks Café on Pender Street, have tried to be respectful to the neighbourhood and the Ovaltine's long-time regular customers. They hired two young restaurateurs, Theo Lloyd-Kohls (Dunlevy Snackbar) and Corben Winfield (Six Acres), to manage the new dinner service. But other than the overhead light fixtures – upside-down woks painted gold – the art deco room still feels trapped in time.
Unlike most old-time diners retrofitted in kitsch for the hipster crowd, the Ovaltine is the real deal. In one booth, a couple of young arty types in topknot buns and Converse sneakers sip Old Fashioned cocktails and craft beer on tap. At the counter, a scrawny dude in grimy denim throws a handful of change across the counter as a deposit on his seat and half-finished drink. "I'm just going out for a smoke," he shouts to the manager.
Not that he needs to worry about anyone taking his seat. It's Saturday night and the restaurant is practically empty.
"I bet if this was Portland, the place would be packed," I say to the manager. Mr. Lloyd-Kohls rolls his eyes. He has no intention of gentrifying the Ovaltine.
"The idea is to have a restaurant for everybody – one that's still accessible to low-income folks, but with quality appeal for the new people moving in. This neighbourhood is changing and there aren't a lot of places left that still feel like the old Vancouver. How many spots can you go to where you find a real mix of people?"
Although it's an unusually slow evening, the daytime hours still provide the restaurant's bread and butter. The night managers have been trying to lure the cool kids with happy-hour specials, craft cocktails and DJ nights. It shouldn't be such a tough sell. Gastown is only three blocks away. But I suppose that's still a long way to travel when you have to pass through an open-air drug market and sidewalk jumble sale.
The kitchen still serves solid diner food – Denver omelettes, BLTs, pork chops, fried chicken. The house burger is thick and juicy, piled high with fried mushrooms and onion strings. The bun is lightly toasted and buttered on the inside just like the old days. Meatloaf is topped with baked ketchup and chock full of onions.
A few dishes have been gently elevated. Take the house salad with avocado and balsamic, for instance. The dinner plates come with a simple ratatouille in place of the standard diner-style frozen carrots and peas. But the mac 'n' cheese is still a bit dry without any bacon or truffle oil to goose up the gourmet quotient.
"We could hire a new chef to do amazing food, but that would just jack up the prices and make it inaccessible to our regular customers," Mr. Lloyd-Kohls explained. Having volunteered in the Carnegie Centre café for many years, he knows the realities of the neighbourhood and is respectful of its residents.
The only element that could really stand to be improved without alienating anyone is the music. Selected from the Spotify digital music service, the tunes bounce from poppy Michael Jackson to melancholy Léo Ferré. The mix isn't the problem. It's the free Spotify trial, which includes commercials and erratic volumes.
But then, coconut banana pie with chewy homemade crust arrives and the racket fades into the background. I suggest you order your pie with a thick Ovaltine milkshake boozed up with a double shot of bourbon, the perfect malty pairing. Sip it through a double straw straight from the metal canister. There truly aren't many places that make it this good any more.