Though Vancouver doesn’t have a proper boardwalk, West 4th Avenue in Kitsilano comes close. Close to Kits Beach, it features a variety of retailers, cafés and restaurants. It really comes alive during the summer, with a constant stream of people drawn to the beach and the big festivals. That’s when Simpatico, a Greco-Roman restaurant located there since 1969, comes into its own. Marino Anagnostopoulos, the owner and manager, points to the large accordion doors that look out onto Fourth Avenue. He says,
In the summer, these doors open up. People come to the bar and drink more. There’s a different vibe, because of the beach. Fourth is buzzing during the summer.
The open doors connect the restaurant to the foot traffic outside, creating a sidewalk café-like atmosphere.
Simpatico’s ownership history is long and complicated. Even Marino doesn’t know how many times it has changed hands. Previously located on Burrard Street, Simpatico moved to its present location on West Fourth in 1969. During the 1970s, the establishment was half of its present size, with the kitchen located where the bar is now. The lot next door was a vacant patch of dirt. "They used to put up a little screen and show movies, and hippies would come here and eat pizza and look at movies," says Marino.
Marino’s father took over the restaurant in 1981, and as a youth Marino worked as a busboy, waiter, bartender and manager. While Marino was studying political science, his father passed away around 2006. To take over the management of his father’s business, he switched to hospitality management at Vancouver Community College. "Otherwise, I don’t know what I would be doing now," he says.
When Marino took over his father’s business, he did not want Simpatico to have the kind of kitsch styling found in so many Mediterranean restaurants, like amphorae or statues of Heracles or Zeus. "I renovated the whole thing. Before, it was more of a Balkan-style restaurant, traditional village," he says.
A stucco kind of idea, with rugs. Very warm. Now, I changed it. I made it more island-style. I went to Greece, I looked at different restaurants, especially on the island of Mykonos. I got ideas, brought them back. Things like the lighting on the stone, the bar.
The new Simpatico kept the brick arches and white stucco walls, but with a more contemporary, cooler colour scheme. Marino called his chosen theme "Greek tycoon", the mid-century luxury style of Aristotle Onassis or Anthony Quinn. Instead of bouzouki string music, the speakers play what Marino calls "funky gypsy jazz" and Greek popular music from the 1950s.
Marino threw a major party for the reopening of his newly restyled restaurant.
There was belly dancers and the usual shows, but then the main event was, this limousine came up and it had two British flags. Everyone was confused. ‘What is this?’ This George Michael guy comes out, and everybody starts going crazy. Everyone thought it was the real George Michael. One girl was even tearing up. I give him the mike and he starts singing ‘Careless Whisper’. Everyone’s going nuts. He gets back into the limo and it takes him around to the back alley where his actual car is. It was an impersonator. That was a cool night.
He also learned the art of hosting, including the stunt of champagne sabering, or cutting off the head of a champagne bottle with a sword blow. He learned the stunt from a friend who runs the BC Wine School, who also uses Simpatico for wine and whisky tastings. Instead of a Napoleon-era cavalry sword, Marino decapitates bottles with a replica of a Roman gladius, or short sword, which hangs in a sheath over the doorway to the kitchen.
Yani, the head chef, has been working here since the 1970s. Originally from Cyprus, he came to Canada with his wife, Yana, as a refugee from Turks. "I think he was originally an accountant, I’m not sure," says Marino. Simpatico’s menu has largely stayed the same since then, though Marino added some innovations such as rack of lamb and lamb chops, whole wheat spaghetti ("because I think it’s delicious") and pizza. In the 80s and early 90s, several magazines named Simpatico’s pizza as the best in Canada. "That’s how this restaurant originally became very popular," says Marino. The "Greenpeace" vegetarian pizza put Simpatico in conflict with the environmental organization over the use of their name. The restaurant claimed it originated the term. After an exchange of lawsuits, the conflict died out without resolution.
Simpatico’s Kitsilano neighbourhood has changed a lot since the days of the previous owners. Many of the residents are now university students, younger and with less money. Simpatico relies on the long-term residents, mostly in their thirties and forties, some of whom have been coming since it moved here from Burrard Street in 1969. "It’s the same customers," says Marino.
They come and they keep coming. Probably 70 per cent are regulars. Local people.
"There are a lot of people who have been coming here since the beginning, since ‘69 even, or from the 70s and 80s. They’re still coming. A lot of them have moved away, and they come and they visit. Tourists sometimes, not that much. But mainly locals," says Marino.
One thing about this place is, a lot of people have experienced a special moment in their life. A lot of people tell me this is the first place where I took my wife on a date, or this is where my dad used to bring me when I was a kid, or here’s where I proposed. There’s all kinds of stories about how someone’s experienced something here. The main one is, this is where I took my wife on our first date.
Some of the celebrity visitors include rockers Bryan Adams, the band Coldplay, former Prime Minister Kim Campbell, former Canuck Kirk McLean and environmentalist and broadcaster David Suzuki, who comes in twice a month for the chicken thighs.
Marino’s recommended meal was the baked pork ribs in sweet basil and tomato sauce, which he says is a unique offering. The plate came with a generous helping of ribs and sauce over roasted potatoes. The steak knife proved redundant as the ribs easily pulled apart in the hand, and the delightful experience of biting and licking the tender meat off the ribs was complemented by the sauce which was both sweet and mellow. The ribs came with sides of rice with carrots and spinach and tzatziki sauce, and a fresh and crunchy Greek salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and feta cheese.
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.