Jul 2018 30

Vancouver Restaurants With the Longest Tradition: Sophie’s Cosmic Café

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Though Jim Dikeakos speaks with a hint of a Greek accent, he is Vancouver-born, and a Kitsilano native.

I remember playing hockey on Arbutus Street in front of St. Augustine’s. We’d move the rocks because they were the goal posts for street hockey.

Thirty years ago, Jim, his brother and his sister-in-law bought a greasy spoon diner located on the corner of West Fourth Avenue and Arbutus Street in Kitsilano, and turned it into a neighbourhood institution. Sophie’s Cosmic Café has been a fixture for the past thirty years. A common sight on Fourth is the lineups outside the venue.

Jim comes from a family with an extensive background in the restaurant business. His brother pioneered Greek food in Vancouver in the 1970s with Kosmas, and then Japanese in the 1980s with Koji.

In 1988, Jim, his brother and his sister-in-law found a small greasy spoon with a lot of history in Kitsilano. "It was the Arbutus Café. That could go back, way into the Thirties. One day, an old lady came in as a customer about thirty years ago. She said, ‘This used to be my aunt’s grocery store. She put a soda fountain in, and the soda fountain was very popular, so she added hotdogs. She was so busy with selling food and sodas, she turned it into a café instead of a grocery store.’"

"It used be, in the 1960s, a little diner with a horseshoe-counter on this side, run by three Greek brothers, who ended up owning pizza places. The family owned Simpatico [another Kitsilano restaurant]. Their father was the owner in the 1960s. Their father, Marino’s father, owned this place. After that, it was owned by the Beratanos family, where one brother owned Helen’s Grill [a diner on Main Street]."

Some time in the 1970s, the corner diner merged with the storefront next door. When Jim and his partners found it, it hadn’t substantially changed since then.

His sister-in-law, Sophie, provided part of the name. The rest of the name came from a head shop next door.

There was a hippie store here in the 60s, that sold mobiles, and all sorts of paraphernalia for smoking, just like today’s style. Selling mod belts, all sorts of peace signs, whatever, called the Cosmic Shop or the Cosmic Store. And that’s how we came up with the name, Sophie’s Cosmic Café, thirty years ago.

"Back then it was a frozen patty and a frozen this and that. We threw all that out." Jim and his partners updated the menu, emphasising freshness. Nearly everything is still home-made, except for the bread and waffles. "We kept it as a diner, because we realised it had a future as a diner. We bought it for the location."

They also developed the eclectic style of decoration, with the walls covered with old advertisements, collectible lunch boxes, and vintage toys. "The whole theme was to make it fun and our budget was really small. All of these [decorations] were in the attic and fun stuff and we just put them up. Half of the stuff is just presents from customers that bring us something. Customers bring in memorabilia. Other people want them. I say, ‘No, I can’t give it to you because its a present.’ It’s actually little things Sophie would find in garage sales. Little tacky stuff."

Sophie’s was also a pioneer in having a no-smoking policy. "We actually stopped all that smoking stuff before the city had a bylaw. We were probably the first no smoking restaurant, easily five or six years before they brought in that bylaw."

Sophie and Jim’s brother retired recently, leaving Jim to manage the café.

I have the passion of running a restaurant. It’s what I’ve always done, what we’ve always done as a family. Just pride in my work, pride in my staff. Everybody’s happy here, from customers to staff. That’s the success. You’ve got to work really hard and that’s it.

"I had the restaurant with my brother and my sister in law for thirty years. They retired just now, a few months ago. Her children and my children hopefully will learn to take this over." All four of Jim’s daughters work at the café, including the one also named Sophie. "She’s the next Sophie. So there’s always a Sophie still." Will she take over? "I hope so, and she hopes so. We’re here to slowly do the transition for her."

Jim’s love of his neighbourhood is tinged with nostalgia for a bygone time. Standing outside Sophie’s on Fourth, he talks about not only the businesses that have closed and been replaced, but the changes in the residents. "It’s so hard because the city has gotten so big and expensive that all these younger people can’t afford to live in Vancouver. It’s hard to find staff because it’s become so expensive to live here. They make $2,000 but they pay over $2,000 just to live in a one bedroom suite."

Pointing across the street, he says, "These were all little heritage homes that got knocked down. And they built these ten-unit, fifteen-unit apartments and now I see them going down and being replaced by these four-storey buildings. The little guy’s getting pushed out. There used to be a lot of little stores. Now they’re all big corporate stores. It’s changed a lot. It’s still a beautiful neighbourhood."

The hamburger with sautéed mushrooms served at Sophie’s came with a generous patty and fresh onions, lettuce, tomato and pickle. The bun was insubstantial. The medium-rare burger as a whole provided a juicy, meaty flavour accentuated by the mushrooms. The side garden salad with oil and vinegar was fresh and well made. A welcome addition to the usual choices of salad, soup or French fries was the option of black beans as side dish.

Meet The Photographer: Ricardo Vacas

Ricardo VacasRicardo Vacas

Ricardo Vacas, owner of the firm Kerp Photography, always showed intense interest in many forms of creative arts. His professional photography career started in his home country, Spain, where he was the official photographer of several music bands, models and clothing brands. He decided to move to Wellington, New Zealand in 2012, knowing his real interest was fashion photography more than any other field. Currently living in Vancouver, Canada, he now combines his fashion, editorial and commercial photography projects with regular trips to Europe and USA.


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