Noticed: The Shuttering of The Only Sea FoodsPosted by: Rosemary Poole on June 18, 2009 / 12:48 PM
It was a quiet and sad ending for Vancouver’s oldest family-owned restaurant. Last week, the City’s business license panel revoked The Only Sea Food’s permit, after police testified they’d found drugs on the premises and evidence that the restaurant was used for trafficking. Health inspectors also reported the presence of rodents, unplumbed sinks, and filthy, unsanitary conditions. It was one of the worst inspection reports some on the panel had ever seen. The full story ishere.
It’s a familiar tale: storied Vancouver business slowly ground down by neighbourhood that changed around it. Some city residents remember heading to The Only for their famous clam chowder back when the neighbourhood was lit up by neon signs and the sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians who’d just stepped off B.C. Electric trolleys (the terminus building is now the Centre A Gallery; building image here.)
In Neon Eulogy (Ekstasis Editions Canada, 2001), author Keith McKellar charts the history of The Only back to 1916, when 20 East Hastings St. was home to the Vancouver Oyster Saloon. That year, brothers Nickolas and Gustave Thodos acquired the restaurant and changed the name to The Only Cafe. They expanded the original space, added an ornamental tin ceiling, and installed a large horseshoe-shaped counter, ringed by 18 stools. Nick ran the place until his death in 1935, then a second generation of the Thodos family took over. Business was brisk: oysters were sourced from Thetis Island; fish was bought from the Campbell Avenue Fish Dock. They sold upwards of 60 lbs of steamed clams a day.
Sometime in the early 1950s, the iconic seahorse sign was added. Designed by Neon Products, it’s a double-faced projection, affixed to the brick building with wires and angle iron. Nick’s second son Tyke Thodos ran The Only up to 1992, then sold it to current owner Wendy Wong, who worked there as a waitress at the time. By then, business had seriously declined, public transit patterns had changed, and most other businesses had fled the neighbourhood, which now had the dubious distinction of being “Canada’s poorest postal code.”
The Only’s doors are now locked. Few seem to have noticed, media coverage was scarce, and Wong now faces drug charges. But the seahorse sign still hangs over the sidewalk, a relic of a bold, optimistic era. Like most neon signs of its time, it was leased to the business owners on a maintenance contract. Neon Products, now owned by Pattison Signs, still owns the sign and the lease expires in June 2010. Joan Seidl, the Museum of Vancouver’s director of collections and exhibitions, hopes it stays where it is. “I would always rather see the signs on the streets, adding to the layers of grit and history that keep Vancouver real.”
Image credit: Waymarking.com