The Roundel Cafe is a small storefront in the middle of the block in East Vancouver’s Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood, an area that retains an old-neighbourhood feel. Inside, the décor is old-style diner with stools facing the counter and booths along the wall. Leonard Cohen sings on the speakers. There are no video screens anywhere. Dena Sananin is the Roundel's co-owner and co-manager:
Our cafe thrives on personality. It’s individual. It’s a cross-section of the neighbourhood of where we live, inside and out. We’ve never really tried to be any particular style,
Sananin and her partner Mick took over the management in 2006, but the the Roundel had existed in one form or another for decades.
Previously, the building was a kitchen even before that. The story is that apparently this building is quite old and was a kitchen for Jack Diamond.
Jack Diamond was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who came to Canada as a young man in the 1920s, and became a businessman and philanthropist. He bought the Pacific Meat Company in 1940 and expanded it into the largest meat packing house in the province. He raised money for the completion of the roof of Empire Stadium for the British Empire Games in 1954. He was involved in the Variety Club, the BC Heart Foundation, and other charitable organisations. His love of horse racing made him the owner and operator of the race track at Exhibition Park. Diamond’s efforts were recognised by the Order of Canada in 1979, and the Order of British Columbia in 1991.
This kitchen became the Roundel Cafe in 1964, owned by Bea Wong and her husband. Wong managed it for 15-20 years alone after her husband died.
In 2006, Dena and her partner Mick purchased it from Bea Wong. Neither of them had much experience in the restaurant business, but Dena realised that her job as a camera assistant was not compatible with raising children. She had worked in some cafes and restaurants before, and was familiar with the area and the establishment. This could be her new career.
My family has a lot of roots in this neighbourhood. As a child and pretty much my whole life, I have walked past this cafe, and have always had a connection with the space. I’d fantasised about having this space and running a cafe out of it. I took a chance and asked the owner if she was willing to sell. She was.
Dena freely admits she entered into this project not knowing what she was getting herself into. The extensive renovation proved to be a challenge.
We added some things to the kitchen. We put a new floor in. We took the drop ceiling out. We covered the wood paneling walls. We changed the lighting, which ended up being a disaster. Don’t ever install track lighting directly to a ceiling.
Under the new management, the Roundel Cafe’s menu offers what might be called "new diner": familiar North American dishes, but made with higher quality ingredients and with an eye to healthy choices.
Though it is no longer open in the evenings, the Roundel has a full range of breakfast and lunch dishes. Breakfast includes gluten-free organic corn pancakes and quinoa bowls and free-range egg dishes. For lunch, there are organic beef, free-range chicken, pork or tofu burgers. Instead of anything deep fried, there are side orders of salad, roast potatoes or brown rice.
The menu includes plenty of vegetarian and gluten-free options, as well as what Dena calls "vegan-ish" dishes, as they don’t have separate kitchen facilities for true vegan cooking. The cafe also has a liquor license and offers beer, cocktails and spiked milkshakes.
Maintaining a policy of quality, local food has proven to be a challenge, but it means that the Roundel has deep ties to its neighbourhood. "We use a lot of West View bakery, a local bakery. We get all our sausage and ham from a friend across the street at a Polish sausage shop." This gives her strong control over the quality of her supplies, though her establishment was never explicitly all-organic. "That wasn’t anything that we advertised, just more of an inner experiment to see if you could do that."
Later, circumstances forced her to amend her policies on organic foods.
I wasn’t buying enough product to continue to be able to shop from the warehouse I was buying form. I would go and personal shop and buy small amounts. They changed how they operated and I couldn’t shop there anymore. In any case, we decided we could do organic consistently where we can. Coffee, tea, ground beef, all the grains, that kind of thing. It’s more the bulk, the structure of the meals, and not the extras.
The Roundel Cafe has served the neighbourhood clientele for several years with no particular high concept. For example, they serve drinks in mason jars.
We’ve been using mason jars as glasses for years. We started doing that because my glasses kept breaking, and I could buy mason jars down the road at the corner store. It was all about convenience. I found it kind of funny when I remembered hearing someone say, ‘Mason jars are really trendy these days.’
The sample meal was the Blue Goose 70 Mile House organic beef burger. The beef patty has a juicy, meaty flavour, and the lettuce, red onion and tomato are fresh and tasty. Unlike the hamburgers at many upgraded diners, the Roundel’s features a substantial whole wheat bun with sesame seeds, which greatly adds to the texture for a satisfying bite. No flimsy white-bread buns here. No French fries, either; the Roundel doesn’t have a deep fryer. Instead there’s a helping of roasted potatoes and yams, light and tasty, alongside a small green salad.
Dena recommends adding their home-made ketchup or hot sauce. The hot sauce in particular should satisfy those who like heat in their meals.
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.