Vancouver History Blog

The Forbidden Vancouver Blog
Save-On Meats in the Downtown Eastside. Photo by Mark Faviell via Flickr, Creative Commons licensed.

Vancouver Diners: The Forbidden Five

With rain soaked neon glistening outside and the promise of hearty comfort food inside, Vancouver’s historic diners have been serving up nostalgia for decades. So in the spirit of starting any adventure with a full belly, we figured what better way to begin our new blog series the Forbidden Five than with a tour of our city’s favourite diners.

The Templeton: A Retro Vancouver Diner

The Top Top Cafe, 1987 - City of Vancouver Archives:  COV-S505-1-: CVA 772-702
The Top Top Cafe, 1987

This little vintage building at 1087 Granville St dates back to 1908. It’s older than the Vogue, the Commodore Ballroom, and even the Orpheum — some of the most celebrated heritage buildings on Granville Street. (These buildings are explored in more depth on the Art Deco and Chocolate Tasting Tour.)

In 1934, this old room became Adele’s Cafe. Then new management re-opened it as the Top Top Cafe, in 1957. The jukeboxes at each table, as well as the soda fountain at the counter, date back to the Top Top era. It re-opened as the Templeton in 1996.

The Templeton Vancouver
The Templeton today. Photo courtesy TripAdvisor

There are few things in life I’m prepared to line up for. But a booth at the Templeton is one of them. (Don’t worry, they move the lines pretty quickly.) A booth seats four, and if there are more than four of you, you’re gonna have to squeeze in. It’s all part of the charm.

Each booth is adorned with vintage postcards and other memorabilia. Rather than table numbers, you’ll hear your servers referring to each booth’s unique identity: “Wonder Woman,” or “Elvis.”

Nothing makes it feel more like home than being able to walk right through the kitchen! And that’s what you’ll have to do to get to the only bathroom. (This is perhaps my favourite quirk of this weird, old building.)

With features such as the Trucker’s Breakfast, the Farmer’s Breakfast, and the Big Ass Breakfast, this is hearty diner food. There are healthy options too, including vegan and vegetarian options. The service is sharp, and snappy, and sometimes a little sassy.

The Ovaltine: A Classic Vancouver Diner

The Ovaltine, 1978 - City of Vancouver Archives:  COV-S535-F4-: CVA 786-49.32
The Ovaltine, 1978

The Ovaltine at 251 East Hastings is “easily Vancouver’s most prized antique cafe,” according to Keith McKeller, the author of Neon Eulogy. In 2018, the Telegraph named it one of the “50 Greatest Cafes on Earth.”

This true relic of the past has been in continuous operation since 1942 and is a vintage diner through and through. From its red vinyl stools, long Formica bar, and towering wooden booths, to its two story neon sign.

So it’s not too surprising that the Ovaltine is a much loved film and television set. Keep an eye peeled for it the next time you watch Supernatural, I, Robot, or Man In The High Castle.

Good, cheap eats for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The Ovaltine Cafe Vancouver
The Ovaltine Café today. Courtesy The Georgia Straight.

The owners, a mother and daughter duo, took over in 2014. Grace, the mother in this duo, previously ran the lunch counter at Save On Meats.

Mary’s On Davie: In the Village

The Really Gay History Tour, with Mary's On Davie in the background - Photo Credit: Kiri Marr Photography
The Really Gay History Tour, with Mary’s On Davie in the background

Right in the heart of the Davie Street Village at 1202 Davie Street, this is a diner with a rich history. Formerly “Hamburger Mary’s” (but not to be confused with the Hamburger Mary’s franchise from San Fransisco) this diner, in its many incarnations, has been an important part of Vancouver’s queer village for decades.

In the early 1970’s, Hamburger Mary’s was located on Denman Street, near Robson, after a brief stay near Denman and Davie. It was an important meeting spot for the queer community, at a time when the gay village was just emerging. A few short years later, and new owners brought it to its current location, where Juicy Lucy’s used to be.

The latest incarnation, Mary’s On Davie, is a nod to its past with some modern updates. It’s all about comfort food. My personal favourite is the tater-tot-chos (like nachos, but with… you probably get it). And they’ve added a deliciously queer spin to the traditional BLT sandwich, making it an LGBT thanks to the shrewd application of guacamole.

The joint’s pink and turquoise colour scheme does more than add a vibrant vintage flair to the room. It’s also a nod to the adjacent Jim Deva Plaza, (named for one of Vancouver’s queer heroes) alongside which you can enjoy patio seating. Right at the historic rainbow crosswalks, this is where to sit for some of the best people watching in the city.

The Diner: British Fare

The Diner - Facebook
The Diner – Facebook

Hidden away at 4556 West 10th Ave in West Point Grey, this humble little establishment has been serving traditional British fare since 1958. Corned beef hash, fish and chips, mushy peas – this is the stuff of anglophile dreams. The diner is best known for its all-day English breakfast.

With photos of the royal family, place mats with London Underground maps, and even a replica of Tower bridge, the Diner is just swimming in kitschy UK memorabilia.

Hasty’s Diner: An Old-School Vancouver Diner

Save-On Meats in the Downtown Eastside. Photo by Mark Faviell via Flickr, Creative Commons licensed.
Save-On Meats on Hastings Street

If flying neon pigs could talk, this one would have a riveting tale. This particular pig has been flying high over 43 West Hastings Street for decades. It’s one of the few neon signs to survive the neon purge of the 1970s, and it’s seen some changes in the neighbourhood.

Hastings Street was once a bustling business district. Save On Meats opened in 1957, in a building which had stood there since 1891. It was a full service butcher shop which soon became the home of a much-loved lunch counter. Hot coffee and legendary cheeseburgers were served in a meat shop that soon became a community hub.

But Hastings Street began to change dramatically. By the 1980s, the neighbourhood was going through a sharp economic decline. Save On Meats was one of the few businesses to survive. It remained an important part of the community until the owner retired and closed the business in 2009.

But the flying pig of East Hastings rose from the ashes just two years later. Local entrepreneur Mark Brand would transform Save On Meats into one of the coolest diners around. It’s a diner that embraces both its history and its present surroundings, supporting its neighbourhood through a token program that provides sandwiches for local residents struggling with poverty and addiction.

The Save on Meats diner recently transformed into Hasty’s Diner, serving a variety of sandwiches and coffee.