The Vancouver neighbourhood now known as Olympic Village has been through many changes since the international games came to Vancouver. The light industrial area now butts up against the newly built apartment blocks on the north side of Second Avenue.
One fixture of the old neighbourhood is the Argo Café. A tiny storefront diner on Ontario street with only a handful of booths, the Argo has a history that goes back to 1954. Its Greek owner named it after the durable ship from the Greek legend of Jason and the Argonauts.
Lynda is trying to keep the interior the same. "Sometimes when you make huge changes, it scares people", she says
For co-owner and co-manager Lynda Larouche, the Argo Café is something of a homecoming. Her parents once owned the retro-styled Templeton burger restaurant on Granville downtown, and she grew up helping there.
That’s where I learned a lot about people and life because you met all walks of life. You’re fourteen and you’ve always lived a sheltered life, and all of a sudden you’re working downtown where there are war veterans and drug dealers and prostitutes,
After studying under a Cordon Bleu chef, she worked as a chef and an executive chef for the Sequoia group, which operates some of the most luxurious restaurants in Vancouver, including the Teahouse, Seasons in the Park, Cardero’s in Coal Harbor, and the Sandbar. In her career, she prepared meals for Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, and a princess of Thailand. Currently she’s a consultant chef for Donald Trump. "You get a lot of glamour and recognition."
Denis Larouche, her husband and a fellow trained French chef, conceived the idea that would eventually become the Argo.
One day he comes home and says, ‘I’m sick and tired of making money for other people. I think I should open up my own restaurant.’
Denis and Lynda’s brother bought the restaurant from the previous owners, the Eng family, who wanted to sell because they were getting old. She says, "originally it was my brother and my husband who ran it, and I worked elsewhere. Then my brother recently passed away from cancer, and I bought it from him before he passed away."
After working at high class establishments, Lynda and her husband view their small diner as a new challenge, both as chefs and as managers. "After you’ve achieved a lot, you just want to work on your own after that, and see how your accomplishments go."
Since they took over the Argo, they’ve built a loyal following among their regular customers and a unique style of cooking. "People come back to eat at your restaurant and tell you that was the best duck they ever ate in their life. It kind of makes you feel proud of yourself, and ‘I did my job right today.’"
Going by the Argo’s 1950s' decor, one would expect the standard diner fare of burgers and fries, club house sandwiches, and pancake breakfasts. They are available, but they share the chalkboard menu on the wall with entrées usually served in continental bistros, such as top sirloin steak and chicken con queso on rice. Add to that daily specials like panko crusted rockfish, sweet chili chicken stir fry over rice, or the duck confit that was profiled on an episode of You Gotta Eat Here. "Everything is gourmet. Gourmet diner food," says Lynda. "It’s real food. We take fresh ingredients and we make everything ourselves."
We hand-pick our vegetables. We shop for them every day. We hit certain purveyors in Vancouver. Our meat comes from a large supplier and we also buy from Beefway where we can handpick. It’s a butcher that has been in the city for at least 30 or 40 years." They also supplement the vegetables with their own. "We grow our own beans and squash and peas in our garden at home, and we serve it in our restaurant.
The Argo’s menu can be thought of as bistro-style food at diner prices. "You have to do a lot of creative cooking too. Between my husband and I, we figure out a budget for what we’re buying this week, so that we know what to charge people. We used to do it weekly, now it’s every three or four days, because the price of things change so rapidly lately."
Denis does much of the planning. "He is French, so he is influenced by French cooking. But we take regular ingredients, and he makes it all his own."
This is how Argo can provide gourmet-level food at much lower prices. "Because we’re self-owned, we don’t need to have the gigantic profit margin. As long as we get to close for a week in the summer, and two weeks at Christmas, we’re okay. Everybody gets paid, and away we go." They employ a small staff of six, and emphasize training.
The neighbourhood around the Argo has changed greatly since they began running the restaurant 12 years ago, especially with the construction of Olympic Village nearby, full of newly built chain restaurants and coffee shops, including a Starbucks, a Subway, a Blenz and an Urban Fare. "It’s a lot more trendy now. The beer alone has changed. There are so many micro-breweries in the neighborhood now."
However, Lynda says,
I don’t mind the competition. It doesn’t really affect us. We’re not in the same categories. We’re not even in the same ballpark. I’m sure some of our guests try all the new restaurants in the village, but we always see them here again. Because you can’t beat the price.
The Argo has a loyal customer base. Many regular clients come from the surrounding industrial area or from Science World down the street for their lunch breaks. They happily chime in on the interview with their own opinions.
"Mr. Vampire," Lynda addresses one of them at a nearby table. "How do you explain the food at Argo?"
"I told you, I work on I, Zombie," he says genially.
"Oh, sorry, Mr. Zombie," Lynda apologizes.
He says, "It’s a Mom and Pop place. I like going to the little restaurants, not the chains."
Another customer offers, "It’s a dying breed. All the little restaurants, since I started driving around the city in 1998, are disappearing."
"It’s like the Cheers of lunchtime," says a third. "If it had beer, I’d never leave."
Though the Argo has become something of a tourist attraction in the last few years, thanks to positive articles and reviews, Lynda remains warmly familiar with her regular lunch customers.
It’s really interesting how you can connect with people, when you have this wavelength with them, all about food, even though you don’t know them at all. I feel like I do, just because they eat where I work. That’s it. I’m sure it’s the same thing here when customers come back week after week to eat the same food.
A few celebrity musicians also drop by, visiting from the music studios nearby. Lynda says they prefer to keep a low profile at her small, out of the way establishment.
After years of the Argo Café being primarily a breakfast and lunch establishment, it has recently started staying open for two evenings each week, and Lynda plans to expand service in the future. "Our neighbor is opening up a brewery. We’ve decided to open two nights a week until the brewery is ready, because they don’t have a food license and we don’t have a liquor license. We’re going to marry the two together," she explains. "Probably next year, we’ll have our patio out front with them. We’ll have our food, they’ll have their beer."
The Argo has changed in substance under the Larouches, but it hasn’t changed much in form. It still features the original sign outside, and vintage tiled floors and linoleum tabletops in the booths on the inside. When the original Greek owner visited a few years ago, he said he still recognized the furniture.
It’s a niche. It’s kind of cute, kind of awkward sometimes. One washroom, one way to come in, one way to go out. It’s just old. Nostalgia. I have to keep it like that because sometimes when you make huge changes, it scares people,
The sample dish was a burger with everything, served with an order of hand-cut thin French fries. Though the bun was ordinary white bread, the beef flavor of the hand-formed patty came through and mingled nicely with the tastes of the cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, and white and red onion. The side of light and crispy thin fries complemented the dish well, creating a satisfying lunchtime experience, which is exactly what Argo Café represents.
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.