Commercial Drive has always been one of my favourite Vancouver neighbourhoods, if not because of its distinct demographic diversity and its vibrant spirit culturally. I mean, it always feels more like Montreal than Vancouver. Being one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Vancouver with several significant waves of immigration will do that, I suppose. But I just like being there.
My love for the Drive started early. I have memories of being a kid and early teen, wandering up and down Commercial with my parents. We used to come here on Sunday afternoons just to meander around without aim. My dad loved dragging us into the Italian grocery stores and delis just to look at the different Italian ingredients. My mom, sister and I would then drag him into Beckwoman's and other "hippy stores" (as we called them). I'd often end up with a silver ring to add to my bohemian jewellery collection. Hey, it was 1994. That was back when Magpie Magazines was a key fixture, back when bocce-playing Italian men outnumbered the hipsters. Oh, who am I kidding.
I remember though, eating a pasta lunch with my family at this Italian restaurant in the early 90's - whatever it was called - in the space that became the WaaZuBee Cafe. I always wondered what restaurant that was, but it was my sister who figured it out last September when we were sitting down at WaaZuBee, and she pointed out an old Italian landscape painted onto the wall that was partially painted over. The painting was a relic from that Italian restaurant. It's not every day you can use the word palimpsest in its right context, but...
I probably only visited the WaaZuBee Cafe a handful of times in my life. First time was in 2000 or so, with a group of friends during the Parade of Lost Souls. I distinctly remember somebody dressed as a tree - head full of (real) branches and all - having a drink at the bar. I think I returned in 2007 to catch up with a long lost friend, but I hadn't returned again until this past September. When I arrived, I was surprised at how miserable the space had become. I remember it being a sort of hip alternative cocktail bar and late night eats joint. This time, it was tired, just begging for a Restaurant Makeover. Worse yet, it was a Friday night and it was dead. It's therefore no surprise that the WaaZuBee Cafe closed its doors soon after.
But another thing about the WaaZuBee Cafe was that their sister restaurant, Subeez, used to be my go-to brunch place and late night food haunt when I lived in Yaletown. And just the other week, I went to Cafe Deux Soleils for the first time. (I know!) And perhaps not coincidentally, but Cafe Deux Soleils reminded me a lot of Subeez. I don't quite know what I thought it would be - perhaps a perpetual reggae joint? Something more akin to the Naam? I'm not sure. But the bad art, the cavernous space, the ad hoc tables, and the electronic music blaring at 8am? It was like being back at Subeez, but on the Drive. So I guess it's timely.
Well these days when I visit the Drive, it's not because I'm there to aimlessly meander, it's because I'm visiting people, seeking an Americano & muffin, dinner ingredients, or brunch.
Favourite brunch is Bandidas Taqueria, up by 12th. You're lucky enough if you get a table on weekends without having to wait for 20 minutes. But the wait is, I think, worth it. The food's all vegetarian, sustainable, and damn tasty.
That there above was my brunch... the Ronny Russell baked burrito, with roasted yams and onions, fresh guacamole, black beans, green salsa, purple cabbage and pumpkin seeds. That's the first time I had one of their baked burritos, and according to the server, that's the most popular item on their menu. I can understand why.
Usually, however, I'll order something off their actual brunch menu, like the Alan's Breakfast. It's like huevos rancheros in a salad:
In the Americano & muffin department, Prado has sort of won out, if not simply because of their cranberry, sweet ginger, and oatmeal muffins. I used to be sceptical of the place at first, deeming it too pretentious with its contrived minimalism. "Ohhh, let's all hangout in a BLANK CANVAS and look cool."
The reality is, the space works. It works a hell of a lot better than its previous occupant - a questionable Greek restaurant where the windows were steamed up and covered in plants.
The muffins are great at Prado. The Americanos are fine by me, but better yet, it's the people. The people are real, the staff are sweet, and the place works together to function as a community hub. It's just a friendly place to be, as far as coffee shops go. I used to be sceptical, but now I'm a fan. I mean, hey! People actually smile at one another there!
And I guess that's why I like Commercial Drive, why I like being there. It functions as a community hub - as a friendly place - a real, natural community that thrives and continues to thrive there in the face of soaring real estate and low wages and condo tower development. In a city where communities are often planned and fabricated to be marketed to a particular lifestyle, Commercial Drive is real, warts and all, and I like it for that.