The Only R.I.P.

Posted by Daniel on Jun 19, 2009

This is really an item that should be written by Chuck as I am sure he knows the details better than I, but here goes: The Only Seafoods, since 1912 a landmark on Vancouver's East Hastings Street, is no more. When I lived in Vancouver during the 1960s, I and most everyone I knew frequented the Only every chance we got. Even then it was a minimal evening out, a place you would only take a date who valued authenticity over appearance; the address was not quite as disreputable as now but you could still see junkies shooting up along the way and you might end up sharing a bar or a booth with someone who didn't smell so good. It was very much a part of its skid-row neighborhood, but it somehow managed to hold its head above the polluted waters that were even then swamping surrounding enterprisess.

Service was strictly no-frills; you placed your order with a server who wasn't quite the fish nazi but didn't tolerate fools gladly. The kitchen was right out in open view and so were the half-butchered remains of the day's catch, whose fishy odours mixed with all the other scents of the frying and steaming and boiling and sweating in a way that wasn't exactly calculated to prime the appetite, but stopped short of setting off any alarm bells. The cooking was straight up. The only frills were salt, pepper and vinegar. Maybe ketchup. I'm not sure there were lemons. When you ordered halibut, you got a giant hunk of boiled or griddled fishflesh and a stack of white bread. But the halibut was fresh from the nearby Campbell Avenue fish dock and it was competently done. The clam chowder was made with a simple white stock, but it was jammed with fat butter clams. It was the plainest, cheapest and biggest seafood in the city.

It stayed that way for decades.

Lately though, you could see the decay was winning out and the Only was going under. On June 10, 2009 it went under for a third time when Vancouver Council revoked the cafe's business licence. The action followed a March 25 police raid during which cops found the place littered with cocaine, heroin, drug paraphernalia and wads of cash. Const. Brandon Davies testified the premises was "one of the dirtiest places I have ever crawled through." Owners Wendy Mei Wah Wong and Ching Ming Wu claimed they knew nothing of the drugs and were only holding the cash for an acquaintance, but city councillors George Chow, Ellen Woodsworth and Heather Deal were unimpressed. Declaring the sadly fallen gustatory icon was "operating to the detriment of the neighborhood," they pulled its permit once and for all. It turns out the name "Only" is owned by the landlord, so there is a hope the famous signboard with its neon seahorse may live on to keep company with the sign of that other vanished foodery up the street, Save On Meats.

Howard White