In every town there are those places everyone knows but no one has ever actually been. In Vancouver, The Brave Bull’s House of Steaks is one such place. Hunkered down on the corner of Hastings and Clark, just a few steps up from the dockyards and at one end of the city’s major trucker route, the Brave Bull’s tattered banner and signs advertising steak dinners under ten bucks are worn grey from decades of exhaust and dirty rain. Not the most inviting locale to random passers-by – used condoms, old needles, and cigarette butts are ubiquitous in this part of town. And yet this strange restaurant continues to exist, the faux roman columns getting shabbier by the year and the food as cheap as ever.
What better place for us to start this blog. An East Van institution if ever there was one.
The Brave Bull opened in 1985, and is reminiscent of the basement rec-room in so many of our grandparents’ homes. Fake plants, gift-shop knick-knacks, huge wheel-shaped lights, and a back-lit picture of mountain slopes serve as the backdrop to cheap steak dinners and Chinese beer. This is where Linda and Frank Lum have spent the last 23 years, as hostess and cook. And it’s where they still are, over the protestations of their adult kids who won’t take over from mom and dad and wish their folks would just pack it in and retire.
But despite these family overtures and the restaurant’s decline, Linda and Frank aren’t done yet. They started working here together from the beginning, when the restaurant was owned by some larger company that just paid the rent and collected the profits. Then at some point the Lums’ purchased ownership, thinking this an investment for their own kids who might follow in their footsteps and keep the place running for some decades more.
We walk in with some trepidation, betting on whether we’ll be the only customers or if a lone old guy will be sitting at a corner table chowing down. He’s there, beard and all, but there’s more, too – a few tables scattered here and there. We take our place at the window and peruse the various restaurant reviews that have been photocopied and left at every table.
Reviews? Yes, the Brave Bull still gets them, every year. And they’re not bad reviews – promising a simple, no-frills steak dinner with bad décor and a consistently-friendly hostess in Linda. We read, we share comments, but we’re really not entirely convinced. So it’s to the menus we turn.
Pan-fried oysters? No. Salad with fresh shrimp? No. The Chinese-food combo of chicken chow mein, sweet and sour pork, and spring roll? No. We’re here for steak. And beyond that, sticking to the basics just seems like a good idea. Two steak dinners – 9 oz sirloins with baked potato, fried mushrooms, a few veggies on the side, and a bowl of beef-vegetable soup to start. Do we want to swig down cheap red wine with this? No – one of the pleasures of Vancouver, owing to its large Chinese-Canadian community, is the ready availability of good Asian beers just about everywhere. We’ll stick with a couple of Tsing Tao and be very happy.
The soup comes in minutes – right out of the Campbell’s can. But y’know, sometimes that’s not bad – it gives us both pause to reminisce about the canned soups of our childhoods. Break for a picture of the plastic pink flamingo in the floor-plant beside our table and we’re onto the mains. Steak, mushroom, baked potato with optional sour cream and articificial bacon bits, a couple slices of slightly-overdone carrot and two broccoli springs. Yup, it’s dinner. Baked potato is always baked potato, so no surprises here. And the mushroom-topped steaks are just what the reviews promise – simple, no-frills steaks. They are not fatty. They are cooked more or less as ordered. They are not the best-quality beef but neither are they the worst. If you ever ate at Mr. Mike’s as a kid (which Meg’s family did often, and I only dreamed about each time the ads came on TV) then you’ve had this meal before. It’s a basic, affordable steak dinner (we had the $8.95 sirloin special). And nothing wrong with that.
The Brave Bull is by no means a stylin’ place. The Brave Bull is by no means a stand-out in the world of steak dinners. The Brave Bull isn’t busy these days. But it is, without question, East Vancouver. We chat for a few minutes with Linda, who stops by regularly to make sure we’re enjoying the meal.
Time was this place was packed. They’d open for breakfast, work solid through the day and night, Linda and Frank and a couple of waitresses to get food on tables. Truckers and dockworkers, mostly, but others as well stopping , who’d stop along this busy traffic corridor leading from the ‘burbs through the eastside and into downtown. But all that’s changed in the last dozen years.
Gas-stations, including one just steps away, started selling coffee, so the truckers don’t stop so much anymore. Vancouver’s stronger and stronger anti-smoking regulations took away a central feature of what little divey places like this provided – places for working guys to sit and smoke and have coffee before the shift and beer after. Now a restaurant has to be just a restaurant. No longer can it operate as gathering-place to gab for a few hours. And without that, places like the Brave Bull and so many others find themselves in trouble – because what they do just ain’t done anymore. This is what gentrification looks like for the little café-owners – gas-station coffee-to-go and no place left to smoke a few hours away.
The waitresses left before Frank and Linda couldn’t afford them – as tips dry up, there’s better places to work. So now it’s just this couple, well-into their sixties and not yet prepared to give up what they’ve built, even if the new Vancouver isn’t interested anymore. They’ve cut back on hours – opening now from 10-2, for the dockworkers’ lunch shift, and again at 5:00 each evening for dinner – taking themselves a little break in the day. And it’s a rough go, lots of work and not much money coming in.
But it’s also home for these folks, that much is clear. And as we gather up to go, we like this place a whole lot more than we did coming in. From the post-it board where folks leave business cards to drum up work, to the old-school bar with all of eight or nine varieties of booze, to the fact we cleaned our plates in a place this whole city laughs about as it drives by en route to work. This really is the neighbourhood we love, and the one we see disappearing around us. This is something we didn’t really know we missed until we stepped back out into the evening traffic noise.
The Brave Bull’s House of Steaks, Linda Lum at your service and Frank at the grill – exactly why we wanted to start this blog in the first place.