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The Elbow Room Café bustles with customers for its Sunday morning brunch.

Days numbered for Yaletown’s long-standing Elbow Room Cafe

One of the oldest restaurants in one of the most rapidly developing parts of Vancouver, The Elbow Room Cafe, may…

By Emi Sasagawa , in Feature story , on November 18, 2013 Tags: , , , ,

People eating at a restaurant
The Elbow Room Cafe bustles with customers for its Sunday morning brunch.

One of the oldest restaurants in one of the most rapidly developing parts of Vancouver, The Elbow Room Cafe, may have to close its doors to make way for a condo tower in Yaletown, after serving the community for 30 years.

“I’ve been told the building will be demolished in two to three years,” said Nelson Lamarche, a cook and server at The Elbow Room Cafe in Yaletown. “And with that the café will likely end.”

The café and other businesses are on leases that allow the developer, Townline, to give tenants six months’ notice to vacate the premises should it decide tear down the property.

Such clauses are a common agreement for older buildings in the downtown core, according to Robert Tham, the real-estate agent for the property on the corner of Seymour and Davie. That was also the same arrangement that prevailed at the Ridge Theatre complex on Vancouver’s west side, which was recently torn down to the dismay of many.

Townline, owned by Rick Ilich, bought the land in 2004. Chris Colbeck, vice-president of sales and marketing, said the company was still in early discussions with the city and, for now, nothing is happening on the site.

Its tenants, though, think their days are numbered, particularly since they are in a low-rise building in an area dominated by high-rises.

“When I came in, looking around the neighbourhood, it seemed quite obvious that everything else had been torn down and rebuilt,” said Xiomara Lopez, owner of What’s Shaken Milkshake and a tenant of this one-storey building. “This is the only piece of land that hasn’t been redeveloped, so I was definitely expecting that.”

Out with the old, in with the new

Over recent years, a string of older restaurants in Yaletown have shut down due to rising costs and the pressure from the influx of newer restaurants.

One-storey in the midst of high-rises
One of Yaletown’s last one-storey buildings is surrounded by a concrete jungle.

In 2010, establishments like Capones and The William Tell, some of the city’s oldest, succumbed to the HST and higher liquor prices, and closed.

Two years later, Section (3) abandoned Yaletown’s restaurant scene, after nearly 20 years in the neighbourhood.

“A lot of coffee shops open and close within months,” said Percy Nacario, who has been dining in Yaletown for over 14 years. “It is not unusual to see older restaurants close their doors. The market here is pretty tough.”

It might get tougher for those restaurants located in what soon may be a demolition site. They currently enjoy relative low rents for an area where property values have risen dramatically in recent years.

With the looming threat of demolition, many tenants are considering their options for staying in the area.

For Jun Okamura, owner of Juno Vancouver Sushi Bistro, the building was his only option when opening the restaurant five years ago.

“Rent in Yaletown is high. Now I am paying $30 per square foot. In another building, I would probably pay double that. I would love to stay around here, but it’s not really a matter of what I want,” he said.

Until today, these relatively modest businesses have survived because of their location on the edge of the neighbourhood and low rent. These conditions, however, are anomalies in Yaletown’s restaurant scene, a scene commonly known for brutal competition and high turnover.

Future of Yaletown’s restaurant scene

For some, the loss of places whose specialties are hash browns and cheap sushi rolls won’t be that painful. Many of the people who come to eat in Yaletown are choosing to dine at premium establishments instead of more traditional establishments.

“Places like Section (3) never really appealed to me,” said Ariane Colenbrander, a food blogger for Vancouverscape. “I’m drawn to Yaletown’s classy places such as Blue Water Café and Provence.”

Although Colenbrander doesn’t live in Yaletown, her tastes are typical of the higher-end crowd that has moved there in the last two decades, changing the neighbourhood and what the food industry started offering.

Three people walking alongside restaurants
Customers look for a place to have lunch on Yaletown’s Mainland Street.

The Yaletown Business Improvement Association sees the transformation as a positive trend. In fact, it wants to attract even more upscale businesses.

“We are hoping to see more independent restaurants coming to the area, and we also want to encourage the premium branded restaurants,” said Gary Foreman, project manager for the association.

However, not everyone is ready to embrace the new version of Yaletown with open arms.

For people like Lamarche, who have worked in places like The Elbow Room Cafe for nine years, new isn’t necessarily better.

“Soon enough, there will be no more character in this area, at least no original character,” said Lamarche. He sees the changes in the area — both the elimination of historic, cheaper restaurants and the new, bland architecture — as a loss.

“Yes, Yaletown buildings are all very pretty and sterile. And no, there aren’t any cracks on the wall, but that’s why I live in Vancouver, for the variety.”

Yaletown restaurants by date of opening

View Yaletown Restaurants in a larger map

  • Green: Less than five years
  • Purple: Five to nine years
  • Blue: 10 to 14 years
  • Red: 15 to 19 years
  • Yellow: 20 years and over