Jun 2015 16

Vancouver Restaurants With the Longest Tradition #1: Tomahawk

Posted by
1 Welcome to the Tomahawk RestaurantWelcome to the Tomahawk Restaurant

It's tucked away about half a block from Marine Drive in North Vancouver. The Tomahawk Restaurant is a vintage diner that has operated in the same neighbourhood since 1926, the place where the young Bryan Adams used to work as a dishwasher. Chuck Chamberlin, the owner and manager — and the son of the historic restaurant's founder — says his motto for the establishment is,

The community built the restaurant, and the restaurant built the community.

The entrance is flanked by two totem poles made by Chief Mathias Joe. They were carved to commemorate the 1939 official opening of the Lions Gate bridge, presided over by King George VI and the Queen Mother Elizabeth.

When he carved these two, and the king came and opened the Lions Gate bridge, they were on either side of Capilano Road at that time, with the double-headed serpent on centre of the building forming an archway. The king drove underneath it. When the ceremony was all done, Marie Capilano [his wife] said, 'They go to Chick.' He protested, but she said, 'No. That's where they go.' That's how we ended up with them.

2 The restaurant is has operated in the same neighbourhood since 1926The restaurant has operated in the same neighbourhood since 1926

The restaurant's interior is an odd combination of classic diner and anthropology museum. There are tables, cozy booths and a line of stools facing a counter, with desserts in a glass case. The rafters display antique farm and logging equipment. The stained-glass window separating the lobby from the seating area was made 40 years ago by a famous artist now living in Kamloops. One wall has signed photos of local celebrities such as Terry David Mulligan and Narduwar the Human Serviette. There are also photos on that wall signed by the casts of The X-Files, The Sentinel and Supernatural. The menu is familiar North American comfort fare: burgers, sandwiches and fries; bacon and eggs breakfasts; and dinners such as Salisbury steak, meatloaf, and fish and chips. They're all made with high-quality ingredients such as free-run eggs and certified organic beef. Breakfast is served all day. The drinks menu is sodas, tea and specially made coffee — the establishment has never served liquor.

3 The menu is familiar North American comfort fareThe menu is familiar North American comfort fare

The sample entrée was the Chief Mathias Joe Burger. It's made with a ground organic beef patty; Yukon-style bacon made by a local smokehouse and sold exclusively to the Tomahawk; and sliced, fresh sautéed mushrooms. The mushroom taste came through as well as the beef, producing a pleasing wine-like flavour. The bacon didn't add much to the combination. The white-bread bun was more substantial in terms of fibre than most hamburger buns. It came with light and crispy french-fries.

The unique décor is full of First Nations art and artifacts. The Tomahawk has deep roots in the First Nations community of North Vancouver. The burgers are all named after deceased local chiefs. One long shelf holds dozens of small carved figures, each 80 to a hundred years old. Chuck says they were used by Native elders when telling stories to children in the long houses over winter.

4 The interior is a combination of classic diner and anthropology museumThe interior is a combination of classic diner and anthropology museum

Chuck's father, "Chick" Chamberlain, started the restaurant in 1926, before the Lions Gate bridge was constructed. The establishment was built like a log cabin, with logs directly on the ground — which led to problems with dry rot. Though without any background in the restaurant business or training as a cook, Chick was a forward thinker. In a time when paved roads and automobiles were relatively rare in the region, he built a drive-up restaurant where motorists could park, place their orders and be served in their cars.

Modern staples such as hamburgers and hot dogs were not well established at the time. Chick built a barbecue in two fireplaces and served beef, pork and chicken — rotisserie-cooked overnight, along with bread, which customers assembled into their own sandwiches.

5 The Authentic DecorationThe Authentic Decoration

During the Depression, people in the neighbourhood would bring vegetables from their home gardens — such as lettuce or tomatoes — to share with others. Chuck says,

It was a tight community then. There were no boundaries, whether you were yellow, green, black or blue.

After World War Two, the restaurant modernized with a sawdust-burning grill. The menu expanded to include standard diner dishes such as pre-assembled sandwiches and burgers.

It got to the point where Dad would make it and plate it. It was a learning process.

In 1960, the Tomahawk moved across the road to its present location, which used to be a church. The congregation outgrew the building and offered it to Chick.

Over the decades, the Tomahawk has built loyal customers, some of them international.

I've got a group that comes from Holland every two years. This is the first place they come to and the last place,

says Chick. "They came here one year, fell in love with the place, and they've been coming ever since."

6 Tomahawk CoffeeTomahawk Coffee

In the early 1990s, unknown thieves broke into the restaurant and stole many items.

The outpouring of emails and phone calls and letters, seriously from around the world, that expressed anger and hurt, that it had happened to the restaurant, it was awe-inspiring in a lot of ways,

says Chuck.

On the same day, four of the local native elders visited the restaurant, asked the customers to leave, and performed a cleansing ceremony.

Everything that's carved in here has a spirit. They come from trees, which are a live object, but every carving has a spirit. The spirits that were in here realized that there had been some disruption. They did the ceremony with the sage and the cedar boughs and the eagle feathers to calm the spirits. To let these spirits know that everything's okay.

10 The unique dcor is full of First Nations art and artifacts 1The unique décor is full of First Nations art and artifacts

Chuck was invited to participate in the ceremony.

The hair was standing on the back of my neck while this was going on. This is a moving ceremony, particularly in a hallowed building.

One of the elders assured Chuck that the items would come back to the restaurant. Chuck recalls him saying,

Chuck, these things are going to come back. Rest assured. Whoever has them is going to have bad luck, misfortune. They're not going to be happy, because the spirits are so strong that wherever they are, they don't want to be there, they want to be back here. So you must make me a promise. Do not put anything new there. Leave the spots vacant. They will be back.

7 Everything thats carved in here has a spirit"Everything here has a spirit''

In 2012, while the restaurant was being used for a film shoot, an unknown person dropped off all but three of the stolen items in the lobby, without explanation. The items were dusty but undamaged.

It brought tears to my eyes,"

says Chuck.

"It was very emotional to me to be picking these things up and just reverently putting them back where they belonged, and all the spaces were left empty. That took me a couple of hours.

Chuck is the second generation of his family to run the Tomahawk. He started working at the restaurant as a child, and has managed it for more than 50 years.

It took me a while to realize, the business owns you, you don't own the business. And once you've accepted the business owns you, it's a lot easier. It does take on a life of its own, and consumes you. It's not for everybody. My brothers and sisters did try it [running the restaurant] at one time, but it's not the kind of vocation that really leads to family involvement. And also it's long hours. If you don't like it, you shouldn't be in it because it's quite noticeable with your staff and your customers.

8 The Tomahawk has deep roots in the First Nations community of North VancouverThe diner has deep roots in the First Nations community of North Vancouver

His son and daughter also worked in the restaurant when they were younger. But they're now pursuing their own careers — leaving the Tomahawk's future in question.

I maintain the day that I no longer see any fun in it, I'll just lock the door and walk away," Chuck says. When asked if there is anyone interested in buying it,

he says,

Not yet. We'll see. It's an open issue right now.We've had many offers to franchise. We've turned every one of them down. Not that we're saying we're better than everyone else."

He remains optimistic.

"It's in limbo. I would like to think that that it is going to carry on and I feel that it will.

Chuck has no explanation for the Tomahawk's long life through the many changes in the community and the restaurant business.

It's completely unique. It's completely different. And in this day and age it shouldn't work. It does. We're not licensed. We've never served alcohol.

He can only attribute it to his loyal customers.

When these people walk in the door, you know them as customers, not dollar signs. You end up knowing them as customers, so you end up knowing them in a lot of ways.

Click to add a blog post for Tomahawk Restaurant on Zomato

Meet The Photographer: Kevin Eng

Kevin EngKevin Eng

Kevin's passion for photography has encouraged others to see the splendor and beauty of nature right at their doorstep, as he captures the sights of the day, and colors and mystery of world while it sleeps. Many of the subjects of his work are based locally in his hometown in Vancouver, B.C., where he first discovered his fascination with night photography. Kevin is currently working as a music teacher, music director for his church, and landscape photographer.


9 Responses to “Vancouver Restaurants With the Longest Tradition #1: Tomahawk”

  1. Jason

    This is an amazing story, thank you for sharing it. I love breakfast at Tomahawk, it can feed a whole family!!!

  2. Terrance

    I really don’t understand the hype about this place and how did it get so famous?

    The food is served cold and it’s nothing special. Over-priced average diner food.

    Don’t get me wrong, this is a great family story you’ve posted, I’ve enjoyed reading it and if I haven’t visited the place before, I would based on your recommendation. But I did visit it and it wasn’t as good as you’d think.

  3. Neil

    I grew up on the North Shore (since 1964) and this place is as much a part of North Shore culture as the Grouse grind. The restaurant had been family owned since 1900s. 3rd generation run with the next gen working there as well. Food is okay, big burgers, a bit crowded inside but that’s because it’s a tradition.

    Enjoy it. It’s just as much about the environment as it is about the food.

  4. Neil

    There are a few vintage diners still in operation in Vancouver. The Tomahawk is indeed a Landmark, if not a North Van Institution. Some of us here may remember ‘Frankie’s Inn’ (Lonsdale & Esplanade) across from now- being gentrified former Burrard Shipyards property. In the late 1960’s & early 70’s a ‘greasy spoon’ where a customer could ALSO quaff back a plate of Donburri or Sukiyaki- now THAT was something !

  5. Janet

    This is the one place I LOVE, huge memories – and fabulous Burgers & Fries! Keep this place in Business..or we’ll see YET another lacking Franchise take over.

  6. Mark

    I took my daughter and her best friend there recently. The service was double supreme and the food was even better than the first time my Grampa took me there 38 years ago when I was 8; yes eight. Same guy managing as well. He gave the kids little native party head dresses as well. They still have the B.C. paper placemat! Poking fun of everywhere except B.C. I love this place.. Major Native Art to look at as well. Massive collection.

  7. Moira

    WOW! Blast from the past. We used to go there in the late 60’s on our way home from skiing. I remember it soooo well. Thanks for posting.

  8. Mike

    Too bad the owner has the personality of drying paint.

  9. Foodists

    You betcha. It’s OK. Good story, kitschy room, big servings of mediocre breakfast.

Leave a Reply

* required