Survivors: A Seafood Place and Old Neon
By Robert Boyd
Vol 8, No.45, 2005 (excerpt)
Only Café is Vancouver’s longest surviving restaurant
in the same location. It has changed very little over the
years. It has never been a fancy place. There is no maitre
d’, and definitely no valet parking. It is rather
plain looking both inside and out. It has an ornamental
tin ceiling which is still the original, as well as a full-length
wall mirror. There are seventeen chrome button swivel chair-stools
on a horseshoe-and-a-half counter and two booths at the
back, making for a maximum capacity of twenty-five. Its
specialty is seafood, which is where the name was derived
from. When this establishment was first opened, it was the
only restaurant in all of Vancouver that served seafood,
hence its name. It retains an old-fashioned sense in the
fact that payment terms are still cash only. No credit cards
or Interac. For all patrons, the rules are very simple:
no undesirables allowed, and service is refused to anyone
who is too drunk to sit up and eat. But to gain a better
perspective of how the Only has stood the test of time,
let’s turn back the clock.
1912. Vancouver is a bustling city. Hastings Street is at
the heart of the downtown core. It is the place to “see
and be seen”. The city’s most popular theatres,
restaurants, dance halls, and hotels are all located in
the first three blocks of East Hastings Street. In that
year, Antonio Demetry establishes a restaurant in the brand-new
Craftsman’s Building at 20 East Hastings and names
it the Vancouver Oyster Saloon. At the same time, Nick Thodos
is working as a cook in the English Kitchen, five doors
down at 30 East Hastings. The two Greek men eventually become
the most popular cooks in all of Vancouver. In 1916, Nick’s
brother Gustave joins him at the English Kitchen, and later
that year, they purchase controlling interest in the Vancouver
Oyster Saloon. They immediately renamed the establishment
the Only Café.
Nick and Gustave Thodos took control of the Only, the place
became a smashing success. People from all over the Greater
Vancouver came to sample their great seafood dishes. Nick
was an excellent chef, and his unique methods of preparing
seafood kept customers coming back for more. As an example,
when he steamed clams, he mixed in oregano. That helped
bring out the flavour better. He claimed that all of his
cooking techniques he learned in his native Greece.
Only continued to prosper throughout the thirties and forties.
Eventually, Tyke Thodos, Nick Thodos’ second son,
takes over. By the early fifties, the area begins to decline.
The downtown core had long since shifted towards the Granville
Street area, and now suburbia was taking over. With new
neighbourhoods being built in the outlying areas along with
new shopping centres, fewer and fewer people ventured into
the downtown core, and even more so into the original downtown.
One by one, the grand live theatres along Hastings Street
closed, the hotels became seedier, and more pawn shops were
moving into the area. But the Only continued to prosper.
Tyke Thodos’ regular clientele remained loyal, and
every day at lunchtime, there would always be a waiting
list for a stool or a booth. Even my dad was once a regular
customer there. He made his first visit there in 1946, and
the last time he ate there was sometime in the early sixties.
1986, the area was dealt another major blow. As a result
of Expo 86 and the corresponding construction of the Skytrain
line, Hastings Street lost its status as a major transportation
corridor. The area went into a tailspin after that. By 1992,
drug dealers and homeless people had virtually taken over
the area. It was at that point that Tyke Thodos, now reaching
retirement age, had had enough. Business had declined dramatically
over the past six years, so he decided to close it down.
when it seemed that the Only was doomed, in stepped Wendy
Wong. She had only worked as a waitress there for one year,
but her sister Lois had been the head waitress for twenty-five
years. She purchases the Only from Tyke Thodos, and becomes
the sole owner. She retains the original menu, and doesn’t
make any changes to the decor of the café. About the only
changes she made was the addition of fish and chips to the
menu, changes the closing time from midnight to 8:00 P.M.,
and now opened on Sunday. Other than that, the ambiance
had hardly changed a bit from 1912.
the neighbourhood wasn’t quite so accommodating. Just
when you thought things couldn’t get worse down there,
it did. With the influx of refugees from Honduras in the
late 1990’s, many of them found that they could make
easy money selling crack. That practically doubled the number
of drug dealers in the area.
Downtown Eastside had virtually sunk to its lowest level
when I made my first visit to the Only in November of 2002.
In my teenage years, I frequently hung around the Granville
Street Mall after I learned to drive. The time I spent there
helped me to become street-savvy. But still, nothing could
prepare me for what I was about to venture into. The minute
I turned onto Hastings Street from Carrall Street, it was
an absolute zoo. I mean, it was party central. Even I felt
quite edgy. Just about every type of undesirable imaginable
was congregating in that area. It reminded me of an article
I read a while back in the Travel section of the Vancouver
Sun about the resurgence of Hollywood. In the article, it
mentioned that by the mid-seventies, Hollywood Boulevard
had become a skid-row area, and nobody with a brain would
want to venture there after dark. Well, the same could be
said for East Hastings Street.
the Only, it was practically deserted. In the hour I was
in there, no other customers came inside, but on three different
occasions, people came inside and asked to use the washroom,
but they have no washrooms. Since the place was opened in
1912, it escaped a 1914 City bylaw requiring all business
establishments to have washrooms. Anyway, it was just as
well that they don’t have any.
that visit, it made me wonder just how much longer the Only
could survive, It could move to another location, but it
just wouldn’t be the same. If the Only were to close,
its other claim to fame would also disappear. I’m
talking about its famous neon sign.
was once the “neon capital of Canada”. By the
time it reached its peak in the fifties, Vancouver had the
largest collection of neon signs of any city in Canada.
There were an estimated 19,000 neon signs at that time,
and three different neon sign companies were going full-tilt.
It seemed as though they had a competition going to see
who could be most creative. If you were to look at pictures
of downtown Vancouver and Chinatown in the early sixties,
the streets were ablaze with numerous neon lights, and after
dark, it was a spectacular sight.
the late sixties, Vancouver City Council began a campaign
to have neon removed from city streets. They referred to
neon as “visual clutter” and “sleazy”,
and claimed that it was the chief cause of an increase in
crime and prostitution in the downtown core. As a result
of their impending bylaws, most of the neon signs were removed.
As a result, the downtown core and Chinatown became drab
and lifeless at night, and crime actually increased. In
addition, business owners were finding that plastic signs
with fluorescent tubes were easier to maintain and used
far less electricity, even though it was far less attractive.
remember reading about this in an article published in the
Vancouver Sun in April of 2000, which coincided with an
exhibit at the Vancouver Museum that showcased some early
neon signs that were rescued from the scrap heap. On a personal
note, that made no sense to me whatsoever. Case in point:
one of my favourite signs from the early days of neon was
for the Apostolic Faith Church, which until 2001, stood
at the corner of Kingsway and Rupert Street. Erected in
1945, for fifty-six years it proclaimed “JESUS - THE
LIGHT OF THE WORLD”, and stood like a beacon along
Kingsway. Fortunately, the sign has been preserved, and
is now on permanent display at the Vancouver Museum.
for the Only, in 1950, a neon sign was erected over the
entrance. Designed by “Timer” Goodwin, senior
designer with Neon Products Ltd., it depicts a large, orange,
neon seahorse (no, they do not serve seahorse there). Beside
the seahorse are the words THE ONLY SEA FOODS - FISH, OYSTERS,
CLAMS. The words “Only” and “sea foods”
are adorned in green neon. The bottom of the sign is adorned
with alternating red and yellow flashing light bulbs. It
is currently registered with the Vancouver Museum as number
two on the list of classic surviving neon signs.
the few remaining classic neon signs, the largest concentration
is along Hastings Street. In addition to the Only, two of
my other favourites are right nearby. The Ovaltine Café,
located up the street at 251 East Hastings (number one on
the registry), is a classic old-time café. The decor inside
has not changed one bit since the forties. Another of my
favourites is the Save-On Meat store, located at 43 West
Hastings. The sign depicts two giant neon pigs.
neon classic that was one of my favourites was the sign
for the Smilin Buddha Cabaret, located at 109 East Hastings.
The sign depicted (what else) a smiling Buddha. In the late
seventies and early eighties, the Smilin Buddha was Vancouver’s
bastion of the punk-rock music scene. It was quite popular
with the University crowd, especially after exam week. They
found it a great place to let off steam. I remember making
my first foray there shortly after my nineteenth birthday,
and soon became a semi-regular, grooving to the likes of
DOA (Dead On Arrival), the Pointed Sticks, the Modernettes,
the Subhumans, just to name a few.
there is some good news to report. In April of 2002, Vancouver
Police began a widespread crackdown of the Downtown Eastside.
They launched an all-out campaign to rid the streets of
drug dealers and addicts. To the owners of legitimate businesses
in the area, it was like a godsend. Most were fed up with
having their clientele scared away.
month after the campaign began, I made my second visit to
the Only. The first thing I noticed when I ventured onto
Hastings Street was how quiet the street was - the cops
outnumbered the bums. I was pleasantly surprised. Once inside,
I was pleased to see that the place was actually busy. People
were starting to come back there, which was a good sign.
To top the evening off, the combo plate of breaded salmon,
cod, and halibut was absolutely delicious!
last time I visited the Only was last fall. I wanted to
try their legendary oyster stew. This was Nick Thodos’
original recipe, and is one of their all-time favourite
dishes. I had two choices: the cream stew or the pepper
stew. The cream stew resembles New England clam chowder,
and the pepper stew is tomato-based, resembling Manhattan-style
clam chowder. They are very generous on the oysters, as
well as addition of potatoes, celery, and carrots. The pepper
gives it an extra bite. They are also very generous on the
bread, the equivalent of half a loaf in slices, with lots
of butter (hint: don’t order the large bowl unless
you have a big appetite). I chose the pepper stew, and it
was fantastic! You definitely get your money’s worth.
of my last visit, I noticed that the police crackdown was
still in effect. I hope they keep it up, because that area
contains the largest collection of heritage buildings outside
of Gastown. It has the potential to be a trendy tourist
area. Many of the buildings were built before 1900, but
hardly any of them are restored. Most are in various stages
of disrepair, and if something isn’t done soon, many
of them could be lost. As an example, in April of last year,
the Hunter Block, located at 315 West Hastings, which was
built in 1898 as an outfitters store for prospectors heading
to the Klondike gold rush, was destroyed by fire.
to all my fellow subscribers who live in Greater Vancouver
and the Lower Mainland, if you enjoy great seafood at a
reasonable price with a hint of nostalgia, then check out
the Only. Don’t let the location scare you away. It
is best to travel in groups, and of course, be vigilant.
Lunch time is the best time. I hope that the Only will be
a fixture on Hastings Street for many years to come.
For an excellent overview of the history of the Only, along
with some great artwork, check out the book “Neon
Eulogy”, by Keith McKellar. It can be ordered through