Monday, May 20, 2019

The Only Sea Foods

THE ONLY SEA FOODS | 24" X 30" | Oil on canvas | 2019

24" X 30"
Oil on canvas  

The Only Sea Foods sign is a Vancouver icon, one of the most beloved neon signs in Canada.
The neon sea horse leaping above whitecapped waves is a superb example of the playful, imaginative signs that used to line the city's streets in neon's golden age in the 1940s and '50s.
The sign has been a fixture at 20 East Hastings St. since 1951, one of the last remnants of Hastings' commercial glory days.
No more. Last week a for sale sign went up on the building, and the neon sea horse was taken down with a crane and hauled off on a flatbed to a warehouse.
The Only closed in June 2009, amid allegations of drug trafficking by the proprietors. The sign has sat unlit for almost a year.
Many old neon signs on Hastings that were left on buildings like this slowly deteriorated, to the point where most of them went to the scrapyard. The lucky ones went to the Vancouver Museum's neon collection, the new home of the Blue Eagle restaurant neon.
But The Only sea horse isn't destined for the scrapyard, or a museum. It is being stored by the Portland Hotel Society, which wants to restore it and reopen The Only, perhaps in a new location.
The Only name is owned by Tyke and Peter Thodos, whose father Nick started the restaurant with their uncle, Gus. They took it back when the last operators had their business licence revoked, and have leased it to the Portland for 15 years.
"It's a historic name in this city," said Constantine (Tyke) Thodos, 83. "Let's keep it going, if we can."
Thodos ran The Only from 1950 until "after Expo," and commissioned the sign, which was built by Neon Products, now Pattison Signs.
It's a combination of painted sheet metal and neon tubes. In the daytime, the sea horse is green with blue eyes, "Only" is in white on an amber background and "Sea Foods" is in amber atop blue waves. At night, it's an orange neon sea horse with red neon eyes, and green neon "Only" and "Sea Foods."
In case you don't get the message that it only served seafood, "Fish," "Oysters" and "Clams" are advertised across the bottom. Ironically, one thing that wasn't on the menu was sea horse.
"I've never seen one, to be honest with you," Thodos chuckles. "They just put it up there. My brother says the unique thing about it is the sea horse tail is the wrong way."
The Only was a classic old-style cafe, with 17 stools arranged around curved counters and two booths. It had pressed tin ceilings, an open kitchen where you could watch the cook, and was so cramped they stored the fish on ice in the front window.
"On one side you packed the fish, on the other side you prepared the fish," Thodos said. "I made a deal with the Fisherman's Co-op, so they brought me fresh fish every day. We never had any fish that was older than 24 hours."
This was the secret of The Only's legendary clam chowder.
"To make a good clam chowder you had to have fresh clams," Thodos said.
"Of course in those days we could get it. Today clams are out of sight, $5 a pound or some stupid thing. In the '80s it was 20, 30 cents a pound. It was cheap. There is no way I could produce the clam chowder we did then and charge the prices we did."
Another specialty, cooking fish in lemon butter, came from the Thodos family's Greek heritage. Oddly, though, Thodos thinks the key to The Only's long-term success was its bread and coffee.
"I had a bakery on Robson Street, Golf's; they made the bread the way we wanted it done," he recounts.
"I used to give [customers] lots of bread and lots of butter; that was the key to the whole thing. I had the best coffee you could buy, and good bread. People like good bread; let's not kid ourselves."
After Thodos started leasing the name in the late 1980s, the restaurant fell on hard times, much like the surrounding neighbourhood. But the Portland Hotel's Dan Small thinks it's important to get The Only up and running again, as an enduring (and endearing) symbol of the Downtown Eastside.
"Ideally we'd like to see it as a social enterprise that employs local people," Small said. "You could rebuild some of the community esteem by having tourists come from cruise ships and Gastown to see this historic fish-and-chip place."
Small said the Portland has made an offer to buy the two-storey building where The Only has been located since about 1917. Realtor Norman Fung said the asking price is $2.188 million.
The sale is complicated by the fact that the building's owner, Nissim (Max) Ezerzer, died in August 2008, and the building is being sold by his estate.
The two-storey brick building was built around 1912 and once had another historic business, Don't Argue tobacconists.
Operated by Con Jones, Don't Argue had an amazing logo, a guy in a bowler hat shoving another guy in the face.
Neon expert John Atkin would love to see The Only come back to life in the same location. Something would seem amiss if the neon sea horse went up a block or two away.
"You drive down the street, you see a sea horse and you know where you are," he said.
"They don't serve sea horses at the restaurant, but it's a great icon on the street.
"It has a great familiarity for most Vancouverites. It's like the Woodward's W or the Ovaltine [neon], it symbolizes Hastings Street in the city."

(Excerpt from The Vancouver Sun, 4/8/10)

No comments: