Every item that adorns the walls of the Brickhouse has a story. Just ask Leo Chow.
“It’s very me,” he says, gazing around the Strathcona bar that he’s owned for more than 25 years. “I’ve been a few places, brought back a few things.”
Some are straightforward: a bust of Verdi, a Tabasco-brand skillet. Others are funny: a bottle of Trump Water that, ironically, seems to be collapsing in on itself. A few are mysterious, like the photo of Daryl Hannah (framed with a $20 bill, for reasons Chow won’t discuss on the record). And there are dozens upon dozens more, some on display, others kept from public view, each piece with a tale of its own. In that way, the place is very much a reflection of the man who runs it.
Chow himself is a born storyteller. He builds things up. He pauses for dramatic emphasis. And every story comes with a reveal or a punchline: the time he negotiated for a narwhal tusk on the Aleutian Islands; the time he delivered a scathing critique of a Margaret Atwood book to someone who turned out to be Margaret Atwood; the time he went to circumnavigate the globe on a sailboat, only to turn back at Cabo San Lucas after he learned that his offer on the Brickhouse had been accepted. “It’s sort of like… footprints on one’s journey,” he muses. “Where you’ve been. And I think, in conjunction, it’s a part of the history of being a Vancouverite.”
Chow’s own history with the Brickhouse building dates back to 1992; after spending several years working at Pelican Bay in the Granville Island Hotel, he and colleague Andrew Wong decided it was time to strike out on their own. “You come to a certain point in your life where you don’t want to shine shoes and kiss ass,” he notes. “You have to do something else. I’d learned a lot—what to do, and what not to do—but it was part of a boutique hotel, so you had to be very much, ‘Thank you, is there anything else I can do for you?’ It sucks the soul out of you. When I went looking for a bar, I wanted a different kind of experience.”
After putting in bids on bars and restaurants “from Alaska all the way to Mexico,” Chow and Wong made a successful offer on the Brickhouse (aborting Chow’s aforementioned sailing trip). Wong left the business in 2000, going on to open the award-winning Wild Rice, and as far as Chow can tell, the Brickhouse is now the only remaining bar in the province still owned by a single person. “You need at least one mil to buy a bar,” he explains. “Do you know how to run a bar? Or would you rather just sit back and live off the interest? There are a lot better things you could do with a million dollars than staying up until 4 a.m. dealing with a bunch of yahoos.”
“I don’t believe in ‘customer service’ per se. In Vancouver, we tend to be very, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ I’m in the service business, but I’m not your servant.”
For his part, Chow’s method of dealing with those “yahoos” is straightforward, and no-bullshit. In fact, the Brickhouse’s inspiration is, as he describes it, 60 per cent British pub, 40 per cent American tavern, and “zero per cent Vancouver”.
“I believe in real service,” he says emphatically. “I don’t believe in ‘customer service’ per se. In Vancouver, we tend to be very, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ I’m in the service business, but I’m not your servant.”
As iconic as the Brickhouse has become over the past 25 years (“25 years, seven months, and 15 days”, Chow chuckles), the 700 block of Main where it resides has a history as storied as the items on its walls. The lot around the corner was once home to Vie’s Steakhouse, an important restaurant to the community that lived around Hogan’s Alley (the city’s only predominantly black neighbourhood, which was later bulldozed to make way for the viaducts). And the building that houses the Brickhouse (730 Main Street) has a lengthy history all its own: already over a century old, it began its life as both 730 and 732 Westminster Avenue (what Main was called before 1911), built as a Grain & Feed Store during a flurry of neighbourhood construction in 1905.
And while it’s slightly off the beaten path today, at the turn of the century, it was near the centre of the action, across from the BC Electric Rail yards, and only a stone’s throw from both City Hall and the Carnegie Public Library. By 1906, it had become Gin Sing Wo, a Chinese restaurant, and remained in the food service business (under several different names) until 1910, when it was taken over by a business with the unfortunate name of Raper Brothers Booksellers. By 1913, as the city’s population exploded, the pace of change within the neighbourhood began to accelerate. The Imperial Theatre went up next door, and several businesses, including the aforementioned Raper brothers, became clothiers. Over the next decade, 732 Main Street changed hands numerous times, becoming variously the City Junk Co, Tai Kwong & Co Produce, and the Italian Commercial Club, which it remained until 1930.
Throughout the ‘30s, it played host to a series of cafes, including The Viceroy, The Railway, and even The Lido. By 1942, however, the 700 block of Main had gone heavily industrial. The once majestic Imperial Theatre was home to an auto wrecker, and 732 Main had become Commercial Grinders—which it remained into the late 1950s.
By the time Chow and Wong took over in the early 1990s, it was once again a restaurant—a blues bar known as Hogan’s Alley (the sign still hangs in the hallway). Much of the hardware was already in place: the bar, the general layout, and, of course, the brickwork.
But now, 25 years, seven months, and some 15 days later, that history is coming to an end. Sometime in the next year, the building has a date with the wrecking ball, set to become another one of the thousands of buildings demolished each year (according to statistics, just under 1,000 homes are destroyed annually, to say nothing of business or commercial projects). Wong and Chow sold the building back in 2004, but now, with the viaducts set to come down, and the last properties on the block secured (Vincent Fodera, owner of the Jimi Hendrix Shrine, held out until 2015), the collection of century-old buildings and vacant lots on the 700 block of Main has finally become too lucrative for developers to ignore. Promisingly, the new mixed-use development, unveiled at a public open house on January 24, does include space for the Brickhouse on the ground floor. But although Chow has seen the mock-ups, he’s not convinced he’ll be involved. At this point it’s anybody’s guess whether Chow and his stories will endure in a different form, or whether the business—like the building that houses it—will become just another brick in the wall.
“I saw the artist’s rendition,” he notes. “They said, ‘Oh, we’ll save the bricks for Leo to use.’ Well, how do they know I want to keep the bricks? You don’t want to duplicate. If you try and duplicate, you’ll fail.”