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Save on Meats not just another faux-retro diner

Save On Meats 43 West Hastings St.

604-569-3568 $35 for dinner for two with soda, tax and tip.

On a recent weeknight, the dinner clientele at the newly resurrected Save On Meats in the Downtown Eastside included three uniformed police officers; an older rough-around-the-edges couple (presumably locals), who were missing most of their front teeth; a younger hipster couple (also likely locals), sporting a feathered fascinator and a straw fedora; plus two nondescript food writers who had crossed town for a looky-loo.

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There will be thousands more eyeballs watching when Vancouver's landmark butcher shop and sandwich counter, which reopened last month following a two-year closing, becomes the subject of a reality television show called Gastown Revival. Currently in production with the Oprah Winfrey Network, the series will follow the restaurant's new owners as they struggle to run a profitable business while trying to fulfill an ambitious social mandate of their own making.

Only time will tell if the self-powered rooftop greenhouse, basement herb garden, incubator kitchen, restaurant linen service and other proposed community employment programs ever get off the ground. (Mark Brand, a co-owner of the nearby Boneta, The Diamond and Sea Monstr Sushi, is the lead restaurateur who leases the four-storey, 22,000-square-foot food hub from a group of investors.) But if the goal is to offer good, relatively healthy, affordable food in a clean, comfortable environment that attracts a wide mix of customers in this rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood, then the restaurant is already flying as high as the famous pink-neon pigs on its refurbished façade.

Save on Meats is not just another one of those faux-retro diners that seem to be proliferating as fast as bedbugs all over Vancouver. This place feels authentically old school, even though the booths are all fitted with electrical wall sockets for recharging laptops and cellphones. (If only airport restaurants were this thoughtfully planned.) The spare, clean restaurant design utilizes some of the raw bones exhumed from the original building. A long countertop that runs along one side of the narrow, bowling-lane-like room is made from polished cedar beams that were reclaimed during the renovation. The opposite wall is red brick, unearthed under layers of drywall, immaculately cleaned and sealed.

The only nods to kitsch are the old-fashioned special signs advertising "Damn Fine Reubens" and "Fresh Brewed Coffee," but they've been tastefully hand-painted by a local artist. The old jukebox, filled with records provided by guest DJs who rotate bimonthly, is less subtle. The music can get very loud. But who doesn't love Abba and the Bee Gees?

The down-home menu offers solid value, with prices that range from a $4 all-day breakfast to a $12 double-cut pork chop. There's a kids' menu (four items at $4 each) and three four-person family meals (ribs, roast chicken and meatloaf) for $65 that include all the fixings – vegetables, salad, mashed potatoes, biscuits and dessert. Jason Liezert, executive chef at Boneta, oversees the Save On Meats kitchen as well.

A $6 bacon-cheeseburger is, hands-down, one of the best deals in town. The juicy, tarragon-flecked patty is house-ground chuck and flank steak, courtesy of the revived butcher shop next door (which we will visit in a future column). It comes with fries that taste frozen, but are allegedly freshly chipped.

The terrific bun, slightly sour and washed with egg, is definitely baked in-house. The restaurant actually has a full-fledged bakery, which mills its own flour from Vancouver Island wheat grain.

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The bakery's huge buttermilk biscuits are sensational. They're buttery, often herbed, dense yet fluffy and about two inches high. The kitchen uses them for breakfast sandwiches, filled with egg, bacon and cheese, which they sell from the sidewalk-facing sandwich counter for only $1.50 apiece. Although the counter wasn't open either time I visited, the restaurant apparently sells upward of 200 sandwiches a day. That's a pretty cool community service for people who can't afford a full sit-down meal.

The kitchen performs best when it sticks to the simple classics. Ribs slathered in sweet barbecue sauce are fall-apart tender. Meltingly fatty corned beef is sliced paper-thin and piled high on toasted rye. Deep-fried chicken is crispy skinned and moist.

Small attempts to upscale the menu fail miserably. The lettuce in the Caesar salad has a tough, unappetizing texture, the croutons are rock-hard and the creamy dressing is insipid. Linguine carbonara is a chewy, cheesy mess of noodles and fatty bacon floating in lard soup.

The desserts are very impressive. The ice cream is churned in-house and fancied up in several drugstore-style sundaes that aren't overly sweet. Black forest cake is densely chocolatey, thickly frosted with smooth ganache and layered with chunky cherries and unsweetened whipped cream.

The only real criticism is that the rest of the food could be a bit more nutritious. Does it all need to be so salty? And where are all the veggies? I know it seems almost oxymoronic to ask this from a diner, but the restaurateurs have set themselves a mandate of serving the community. For some people around here, that $1.50 breakfast sandwich is going to be the only thing they eat all day. Why not make the biscuit whole-wheat and throw in some greens?

But that's just my two cents. From a customer's perspective, the new Save on Meats is already a success. There are dozens of new restaurants, cafés, pubs and sandwich shops that have opened in Gastown in the past few years. This is the first place that doesn't feel as if it migrated from Yaletown or was borrowed from Portland.

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About the Author
Vancouver restaurant critic

Alexandra Gill has been The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver restaurant critic since 2005. She joined the paper as a summer intern in 1997 and was hired full-time as an entertainment columnist the following year. In 2001, she moved to Vancouver as the Western Arts Correspondent, a position she held until 2007. More

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