Mount Pleasant, Vancouver’s first established suburb, has changed greatly since the diner Helen’s Grill opened on the corner of Main and Kingsway in 1961. What was once a branch of Vancouver’s local Aristocratic restaurant chain became a classic mid-century diner, owned by John and Helen Balomenos. Around it, the neighbourhood declined as manufacturing moved southward towards the Fraser River. In the last decade, it has rebounded, with a population increase and the service from Skytrian and the Canada Line. The area is even known by a different name now: SOMA, short for "South Main."
In mid-2010, Nick Petrakis bought the restaurant from his uncle George, who had owned it since 1979. Nick studied fine dining at the Vancouver Community College culinary program, and worked part-time at a variety of small restaurants, in both fine dining and catering, and at UBC food services.
Nick recalls that his uncle had it for 32 years.
None of the family wanted to take it over as they had different careers. I sat with him, and discussed purchasing it from him and moving it on in the family. He’d had many offers before but he didn’t want to sell it. Even with me, it was hard to let go. He had great staff, the old school staff who stay in one place forever.
However, even the most loyal workers can have problems.
One of his main cooks got sick and couldn’t do it himself. He was here for 17 years, working five or six days a week.
This and other factors made George sell the establishment to Nick.
Nick is now owner, manager and head chef. He works long hours, most days opening the restaurant at 7:30 AM and working in the kitchen.
It’s a mom-and-pop place. A lot of people look through the pass-through into the kitchen and say, ‘Hey, is Nick in here?’ The other cook can make the same food, but if it doesn’t come from Nick, it doesn’t taste the same. You have that relationship built with the customers, but eventually I want to be more on the manager part and have it running smooth. I would like some time off. I’ve been working quite a bit the last four and a half years.
Once Helen’s Grill closes in mid-afternoon, Nick heads off to manage Gargoyles, the bar on West Broadway he founded in 2013, where he usually works until late at night. "The wife’s not too happy," he comments. Recently, Nick has managed to only work half days on Thursday and Friday, in addition to Mondays off.
Helen’s Grill is a landmark for people who live in the neighborhood or went to Tupper Secondary School a few blocks away. The diners range from young kids to middle-aged parents to seniors, who enjoy the liver and onions and the veal cutlets. The most loyal customers have been coming there their entire lives.
I’m sure some of the people who came from the Tupper school when they were teenagers, and are now fifty-five or sixty, can probably find a piece of gum under the table.
Under his uncle George’s management, Helen’s Grill had little competition and could afford to operate 24 hours per day. With the renewal of the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, Nick has to find new ways to keep his restaurant competitive. He had the establishment repainted and reupholstered, and focused on the breakfast and lunch trade, with a refined menu.
At Helen’s Grill, the décor is vintage diner, with rotating seats facing a lunch counter and a series of booths with bench seats. One wall bears a painting of a matador fighting a bull on black velvet. Even the chrome push-button music selectors mounted on the wall of each booth are functional, and control a jukebox full of vintage 45 RPM records. Nick says,
That’s a big seller. They’re not just for show. If you pop in a quarter, you can hear music from way back.
The most obvious concession to modernity is a pair of flatscreen TVs mounted over the counter, usually displaying the news. Nick’s uncle used to keep an old television set with rabbit ears in the corner.
The menu is equally old-school, with standard diner fare like burgers and sandwiches, steak and eggs for breakfast, served all day. Nick says,
I like home-cooked stuff, like this, a lot of comfort food. I like putting things on plates where you don’t have to use your hands too much, and where it’s just straight from the cooking surface to the plate, and not touching here, touching there, trying to get the right angle.
Nick did change the menu somewhat to reflect the times.
People are looking for more health foods. Ours is more of a ‘greasy spoon’, but it’s good quality and everything’s done fresh. We’re one of the few places that still grate our hash browns, so you’re getting real hash browns with grated potato. Which you won’t see too often, otherwise it’s probably dehydrated and in boxes from other companies.
Helen’s Grill is still a part of the neighbourhood economy.
We’re lucky that we have Windsor Meats next door. We use some meats from them. I think they’ve been around 65-plus years.
Nick knows that Helen’s Grill faces two challenges in the future. The first is the changing economics of Mount Pleasant and the city in general. Nick is well aware Vancouver is an expensive city, and that the restaurant business is extremely competitive. "Back in the day, when my uncle first had it, say late 70s and early 80s, there was no competition back then. It was a different crowd. You had people going to the Legion down the street, coming here for a late night meal. We used to be 24 hours when we first had this place. People would come here at two in the morning, one in the morning.
"Now, we have a lot of competition," he says. "I’ve kept my prices pretty decent for the last few years. Now, there’s no two ways about it, you have to raise it a bit. Everything’s gotten way more expensive: food, meat. It’s never ending. The other day I looked on Google and there were almost 300 restaurants for sale in Vancouver."
The second problem is the shifting demographics of the neighbourhood. The seniors who used to be customers have moved away or passed on.
It’s hipster-town now. This gentleman who came here yesterday, he used to come here with his dad all the time. [...] He was a bit sick. He stopped coming here the last few months. [The son came in and said] ‘He just passed away Christmas Eve. I came here to tell you guys.’ He got a bit teary, saying how, ‘Dad always loved coming here for the cheeseburger.’
To attract a new customer base, Nick plans to pare the four-page menu down to only two pages by removing unpopular items, and he’s experimenting with different recipes for omelettes and eggs benedict. "They always say, ‘It’s better to have five items on your menu, and master them, than have thirty items, where you’re not going to master them all.’ A smaller menu, straight, fresh ingredients, and hopefully try to bring some local craft beer in here too, because we do have a liquor license as well. The local craft beer market is huge." The neighbourhood was known as Brewery Creek in the early 20th Century, and is now home to several microbreweries.
In the future he hopes to reopen in the evenings and attract late night diners.
You’ve got the seniors beforehand. Most of them eat their dinner at eight o’clock, and then they’re usually gone. But if you can work something between eight and one, or eight and 12, you get that other group of hipsters and people that way.
Nick is mindful of the role of Helen’s Grill in the history of Mount Pleasant and in the history of his own family. His own father and grandfather built the saloon doors that connect the dining area to the kitchen. "When my uncle got this place, it was at the same age as when I got it," he remembers.
The sample meal was the turkey club on whole wheat with fries. The sandwich featured a generous layer of shredded fresh turkey, not deli meat, along with lettuce, tomatoes and bacon, contained in three layers of lightly toasted whole wheat bread. Sadly, the excessive mayonnaise partially muted the turkey taste and completely overwhelmed the flavour of the bacon, which still provided a pleasing, crunchy-chewy texture. The fries were hot, light and crisp, with a slight taste of vinegar even when plain.
Meet The Photographer: Kevin 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.