As Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood has changed and gentrified over the past 50 years, The Naam vegetarian restaurant has stayed relatively the same, in the same building since it opened in 1968. General manager Glen Delucas says,
People love the food. People are crazy for dragon bowls and fries and miso. The people that like The Naam, love The Naam. And they keep coming back.
Back in the 1960s, West Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano was known as Rainbow Road, a gathering point for hippies and other counter-culture groups, including Americans avoiding the Vietnam draft. Vegetarianism was popular in this culture, influenced by Eastern philosophies.
The immediate predecessor to The Naam was Golden Lotus Natural Foods, which opened in the same neighborhood in 1967. One of the Golden Lotus' cooks branched off and started The Naam in 1968, which became a focal point for the counter-culture. Originally, The Naam was both a restaurant and a grocery store, which sold bulk organic food in big jars, along with a large herb section. The Golden Lotus closed in the early 1970s, while the Naam survived.
In the early 1970s, Ron Ferguson took over and ran it through the decade. The foundation of the modern Naam came around 1980, because of a dispute with one of the supplying vegetable farms. "The people at the farm were picketing The Naam, and throwing tomatoes apparently. That's when Peter [Keith] stepped in and offered to buy it from Ron, because no one was coming in and business was failing. There's a law that states that as soon as a business changes hands, picket lines have to drop. He came in and changed the format, changed up the menu, closed down the store, expanded the restaurant," explains Glen.
Under Peter Keith, the market, always a headache to manage, closed in the early 1980s, and the establishment became purely a restaurant. The patio was added in the mid '90s. The management expanded the menu with vegan and gluten-free options. "Glen Delucas, the current manager, wasn't even born when The Naam was founded. After working at Cactus Club after high school, he started work at The Naam as a cook in the early 1990s. "There wasn't a lot of options as there are now. We keep expanding the menu each year. Each year, people want more options—gluten free, for example, or vegan. Gluten-free was pretty non-existant as a concern. Veganism was a specialty kind of vegetarian thing," he recalls.
After seven years, Glen was promoted to weekend manager, and became the manager in 2008. "For the last six or seven years, the owners have backed out of the hands on, and left me to run the place," he says.
Having worked at The Naam for most of the adult life, he says its persistence is because people come back for the same familiar things. "I don't like to change things too often. That's why people keep coming back here, because they keep getting the same things they like," he explains.
Glen would be the first to acknowledge that The Naam does not offer high cuisine or any particular theme.
I don't claim to be any kind of chef genius. I just tell people, 'Don't get too excited, it's just food.' Rice, beans, vegetables. We try to keep things as minimal ingredients as possible. That's the way I like to eat. The least amount of ingredients as possible, but with maximum flavour too. I believe in seasoning but I also believe that food on its own has a flavour of its own.
Its fare, prepared by "the Punjabi ladies", as Glen calls them, is more like vegetarian versions of diner-style comfort food, with large portions based on rice, beans and vegetables. Familiar offerings like veggie burgers, salads and stir-fries share menu space with Mexican dishes like enchiladas and burritos. Meat lovers can try the substitutes like soy-based tempeh, veggie-nut patties or Sam's strips (Sam's burger patties cut into strips and grilled). The breakfast menu has both egg-based and dairy-free dishes, as well as scrambled tofu, whole-wheat and vegan pancakes, and granola and porridge. The back of the menu covers dessert pies, cakes and shakes, beverages, and wine, beer and cider.
The Naam is very particular about the ingredients. "Anything that we use from the outside, I make sure I check the ingredients to make sure there are no preservatives. For example, rice vinegar. You might not think about it, but there are different types of rice vinegar. There's pure rice vinegar and then there are rice vinegars that have MSG added, or colours or all sorts of other preservatives. Or curry paste. A lot of it has shrimp in it," says Glen.
The sample dish, one of the most popular along with the miso gravy and fries, was The Naam Dragon Bowl, piled high with fresh organic alfalfa sprouts, beets, steamed carrots with a pleasing crunch, cauliflower, broccoli, and tofu chunks, served over brown rice with a peanut sauce with a light taste that combined sweet, sour and earthy. It's exactly the kind of satisfying dinner one would want after a hard day's work.
After decades, The Naam retains a relaxed, homey ambiance of wooden tables and floors, far from any corporate restaurant. The walls exhibit paintings and other art work, on a six-week rotation, and each night from 7pm to 10pm there's live music on the table-sized stage, usually solo players from blues, folk and jazz backgrounds, with guitars and sometimes vocals. They're instructed to keep the volume at a level suitable for conversation.
"It's a pretty relaxed, easy-going atmosphere," says Glen. "Sometimes too relaxed in the past. The service aspect always has to be looked at, because compared to some of these other, chain-style restaurants, there's a real kind of corporate feel overseeing everything. A cookie-cutter feel to the service. I like the fact that there are many different personalities allowed here to interact with the public."
He has worked hard to improve the service and make the staff more friendly and efficient. "The staff serve as best as they can, and I do have requirements of politeness, having a high gear, being able to be fast," he says.
He also mentioned his loyal customer base who appreciate the interior style, the patio, the wood-burning stove and the food.
It's a mixed bag. You've got everything. Young people going to university. Older people that have been coming here since the beginning. Moms and dads, families. We've had lots of celebrity clientele here as well, and continue to do so. There's no real theme here. Everyone's welcome. You look down at the restaurant at any given time, you can find somebody from each age bracket and all walks of life. Professionals, blue collars—a wide range of people. It's very accessible.
Its doors are open 24/7, except for Christmas Day—a rarity in a city that usually goes to bed by 1am.
"It's a different vibe at night altogether. The lights go down, the candles come out. Then, at three, four in the morning, you have to make sure you have people on at night that can handle that twenty-four hour cycle and stay up all night and also deal with some of the people that come in," explains Glen. This includes drunks, smokers or other people who bother the patrons, and sometimes celebrities. Once Dave Eby and about thirty NDP party members dropped by for a late meal at 3am, at the end of a cross-province tour.
As The Naam approaches the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, it is still a popular establishment in Vancouver, with lineups outside the door every evening at dinner time. It has won many local restaurant awards over the years, including a 16-year streak of winning the Georgia Straight magazine's Golden Plate award for Best Vegetarian Restaurant, and a nine-year streak as Westender magazine's Best Vegetarian. It has branched out into selling its own bottled sauces across Canada in Safeways and Sobeys.The co-owners Peter Keith and Bob Woodsworth have retired and handed the management over to Glen, and the future looks bright under a new generation.
"I love my job," he says. I myself would love to tie into the ownership someday, and keep The Naam going the way it is."
Can we expect any new locations in the future?
"I think another location would be good in the future. I think it would do well," says Glen. "I just worry about that because we've had such a longstanding thing here as the one and only Naam. I've really thought about where a second Naam would go. Should it be in Vancouver, should it be in a different city? Maybe Victoria. Or not. Just keep it going the way it is."
Meet The Photographer: Ricardo 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.