If you’ve spent any time around Main and Hastings on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, you’ve probably seen the Ovaltine Cafe.
The restaurant opened in 1942 and, in some ways, hasn’t changed much, from its neon sign to the classic diner interior.
In fact, the aesthetic is so striking that the cafe has been featured in a variety of film and TV productions, including the X-Files, Supernatural and I, Robot.
It’s now also being lauded as one of the 50 greatest cafes on Earth. The accolade came earlier this month in an article from The Telegraph‘s travel section.
“From the Edwardian building to the projecting pink neon signage to the unreconstructed décor — not to mention that anti-cool name — you’ve got to love this 1942 diner-cum-coffee shop,” the U.K.-based publication writes.
“Climb on to one of the red vinyl stools drilled into the floor by the long Formica bar or bag a high-walled wooden booth to enjoy a plate of omelette, pork chops or fried chicken with your filter coffee or Ovaltine shake — prepared on a vintage machine.”
While the Ovaltine has been in business since the 1940s, it’s been owned by a mother-daughter duo, Grace and Rachel Chen, since 2014.
Rachel told Global News they’ve been getting lots of calls and more than a few visits since the article went up.
“We actually just had a group of older girls, they were in their 60s, and they didn’t know we were still open,” she said.
“They were saying, ‘We used to come here when we were a little kid, and everything is still the same from the counters to the booths.'”
The grandson of the man who built the booths and counters came in recently as well, drawn by the coverage.
The Ovaltine isn’t the Chens’ first business in the area. Decades earlier, as a new immigrant with limited English, Grace opened the original Save On Meats Cafe, then an open kitchen in the back of a butcher shop, where young Rachel helped with flipping burgers.
The cafe was known for its legendary $4.50 burger, which one day drew in a surprise visitor.
“One day, Anthony Bourdain came by with just a guy and a local tourist lady. He didn’t say who he was and he just sat down. They had the burger because we were known for our one-pound burger with fries,” Rachel said.
“He was very, very low-key about it. They just took some pictures, and it seemed like they were just chatting along, filming a little. At the time, my mom didn’t even know who he was,” she added.
“I didn’t even clue in until, a few years later, it was on one of the episodes, and he was walking in Save On, and it was like oh my goodness, this is him!”
When Save On was sold to current owner Mark Brand, the Chens got out of the diner business for a little while but Rachel said opportunity knocked when the Ovaltine’s former owner, a family friend, retired.
“People in the neighbourhood were saying, ‘We miss you, Grace, we want to see you,” Rachel said.
“The opportunity presented my mom, and my mom, without thinking, said ‘Yeah, we’re back in the neigbhourhood.'”
That connection with the neighbourhood continues to drive the business, Rachel said, from the pricing — which they strive to keep affordable for locals — to hiring local staff to help in the kitchen to the menu, which she said has grown based on suggestions.
As for what visitors should try if they drop in, Rachel said it’s hard to name a top dish, though she does have her own weakness.
“The pork cutlet. For me, I think that’s one of my favourite guilty pleasures. You get a nice solid pork cutlet, some mashed potatoes and gravy; for me, very comfy.”