Born in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Seraphim “Joe” Fortes arrived in Vancouver by boat from England in 1885. He was a vital force in the building of Vancouver as a community, and a fountain honouring him still stands in the West End’s Alexandra Park. He was a local hero, acting as a lifeguard around English Bay, and was credited with saving many lives. When Bud Kanke, now a legendary restaurateur, but back then something of a trailblazer, decided to start an American-style steakhouse—which served fresh oysters on the half-shell to boot—and name it Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House, and open it in Vancouver precisely 100 years after Fortes arrived, it was a fortuitous, wise choice. Fortes’s community spirit, and his stint as a porter at the Sunnyside Hotel, lent itself to Kanke’s premise that a new style of fine dining and warm-spirited service could be introduced and maintained in the city.
Thirty years later, Kanke has retired, though he occasionally visits Joe Fortes, and quietly wonders aloud about the wisdom of having sold, though the place is in great hands with the new owner, David Aisenstat, son of Hy, himself a restaurant industry legend. But the resident genius of the place, known only, and affectionately, as Frenchy (his business card is no more revealing than that, either), still patrols and enlivens the various areas of Joe’s, making every guest feel welcome and good about being on premises. “It is what we do here,” he remarks, all the while scanning the room, on the lookout for an unattended patron. “We make people feel welcome.” So true, Frenchy.
There is a robust, happy vibe in the grand room and bar on the main level, and this all sifts upwards to the second-level dining area and the rooftop patio, the first of its kind in Vancouver. “During the Olympics, we could not rest at all,” Frenchy says. “We were busy from opening to late-night cocktails. An incredible experience, and it was so great to be part of that, showing an international crowd what our city is all about.” This is a man who takes great pride in his work, a fully and completely dedicated individual with an infectious way about him. “We teach the staff, all of them, just as Mr. Kanke taught me in the early days: you act as if you were an owner of the restaurant, that is the care and attention you bring to the job.” Even a cursory look tells you this works well, for the restaurant but more so for the guests, who unfailingly leave the place happy.
Chef Wayne Sych oversees a kitchen that literally never closes. “There are several staff doing the night shift, getting things ready for the next day’s service,” says Frenchy. “It goes around the clock seven days a week.” He shakes his head, still amazed after all these years. Frenchy himself has many a fine tale to tell, about newly bankrupted oil tycoons, business deals made on napkins, a broken heart here and there, even a cameo in a Tim Burton movie, but he is ever discreet about it: “If the walls could talk, sir, then you would have a book or a movie for sure.”
Such dishes as soy-glazed sablefish, New York steak, and the remarkable chowder and crab bouillabaisse make this a festive occasion every time, and it is all expertly prepared. The chef is by no means living in the past, but ensures that a certain comfort level is always apparent on the menu. Joe Fortes was a frontrunner for the rooftop patio, but also for that now almost too common feature called brunch. At Joe’s, the meal is legendary for amply good reasons, and getting a table is something you might need to work at. But it’s worth it.
Frenchy surveys his terrain, hurries off to move a chair, pick a fallen jacket up off the floor, arrange a wineglass just so, and then returns. “Sir,” he says, “this place is special because we all love what we do, and it is always conveyed to our guests. They have a great time here. That is the whole point of Joe Fortes: feed people, make them feel good. It’s what we do.”
Joe Fortes, 777 Thurlow Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, V6E 3V5, 604-669-1940.