« Where to Tonight? | Main | Walls Within Walls »

Lunch in a Time Slip!

Posted by Dave Bull at 12:28 PM, September 4, 1996

As you can perhaps guess from various comments here and there in these little 'scribbles', food was one of the main pleasures of our two-week trip. The anticipation before each meal, the decision about where to eat, and then of course the actual enjoyment of the food itself ... it's hard to say which gave us the most satisfaction. Before arriving in Vancouver, I had assumed that because I had lived there for many years and Sadako was seeing the place for the first time, our dining experiences would be quite different - for her, everything would be new, but for me, it would be visits to familiar places. As it turned out though, restaurants and food shops had changed so much during the decade in which I had been living in Japan, that I too found myself walking around in open-eyed wonder; almost everything was completely new to me. So those anticipations, decisions, and enjoyments were very much shared by both of us. But one particular lunch we had one day was different ... although a completely new experience for her, it was very familiar for me ...

One morning we made a trip to a semi-industrial area of the city, as I had to visit a shipping company to arrange the forwarding to Japan of some boxes of books that I had left in storage years ago. This business was finished just before noon, and we walked through the rather barren streets of this district on the way back to a main road where we could catch a bus 'home'. Here, among the rows of old brick warehouses, I saw a sight which for me, was like a vision from the past.

It was a small building sitting on a corner lot. The white painted wood-framed structure was so old that it no longer stood quite vertical, but leaned forward a little, as if pulled over by the weight of two large round red 'Coca-Cola' buttons which hung high up on the front wall. These old-fashioned icons bracketed the faded sign which announced to the passerby that this was "Elsie's Cafe". The moment I saw this place, I knew that we had to have lunch there, but I was a little worried about Sadako; it obviously wasn't going to be the cleanest restaurant we could find for lunch, and she's quite a bit more fastidious than I ...

Seeing that word 'Cafe', please don't imagine 'cafe' in the European sense, but rather as simply a short form of the word 'cafeteria'. This was no elegant place to sit and sip espresso, but a working men's cafe, the sort of place the English refer to as a 'Transport Caff', and the Americans as a 'diner'. Stationed here among the warehouses, it no doubt served up breakfast and lunch each day to the men working in the area.

It had been many years since I had eaten in such a place, but at different times in my life, I had taken most of my meals in cafes just like this. I knew exactly what we would see inside - in the centre of the room a horseshoe-shaped counter with red-topped stools arrayed around it, along one wall a half dozen booths, and up on one wall a menu board made of some kind of grooved black material in which white letters were arranged to spell out the 'Daily Specials'. There would be a 'Silex' type coffee machine somewhere, and plenty of those glass sugar dispensers with the little flip tops that pour out a spoonful at a time. Battered menus would stand in metal holders at intervals along the counter, and if we were very very lucky, at the back of each of the booths would be a juke box controller, with page after page of song titles to browse through ...

Sadako agreed to give it a try, her misgivings about the general appearance of the place mitigated a bit no doubt by my visible enthusiasm, and we went inside. It was almost exactly as I had imagined; unfortunately no juke box, but everything else was perfectly in place, and all complete with a coating of grime. As all during our two-week trip we had been eating good breakfasts and solid dinners, leaving lunch as just a small 'nibble' to tide us over, we weren't looking for a full meal. So we passed over the Daily Special, and chose instead from the list of burgers and sandwiches on the menu: Denver ... BLT ... Clubhouse ... Sadako ordered a toasted bacon and lettuce, and I a grilled cheese, and while we waited for them to be prepared I tried to count how many years it had been since I last ate such a thing ... about twelve or more.

There was certainly no 'caffe latte' on the menu here, and when we asked for coffee we were served with thick china mugs of a warm brown liquid that a devotee of the Tokyo coffee shop scene might not recognize. Considering that at 70 cents it was almost exactly one tenth the price of a standard Tokyo coffee, that's perhaps not a surprise. It tasted fine though, as did the sandwiches. Sadako was intrigued by mine; the idea of a sandwich made with the butter on the outside was new to her.

In a way I was a bit sad that this place wasn't nearer to our hotel; I would have liked to come back and try a few more things that I remembered. Maybe a cheese-burger, served open-face with a fried egg on top, chips and gravy on the side. Not the kind of thing I'd like to eat regularly ... but surely once a decade wouldn't hurt ... I must admit though, that there was one important thing missing from Elsie's Cafe - and that was Elsie! It was a slightly bizarre experience. The building 'preserved' so well, the menu still the same as it must have been for decades, the whole ambience of the place frozen in time; and then presiding over these things, an elderly gentleman from Hong Kong - a man from a completely different world. I thought it better not to ask what had happened to Elsie ...

When we got up to leave, he laboriously wrote down the prices for our sandwiches and coffees on a scrap of paper and then asked us for four dollars and eighty cents. We paid it with a smile. After all, 390 yen (just about what a piece of toast would have cost us back home) was a pretty good price for a half-hour ride in a time machine!

(September 1996)


Add Your Input

Remember Me? (with a cookie ...)

(you may use HTML tags for style)

Back to the Main Page