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Apr 26, 2010 04:02 PM

Blast from the past - utilitarian food paired with coffee and time travel (Reno's Restaurant review)

I've been living in Mount Pleasant for over 20 years and I remember well when Main street was spotted with "greasy spoon" cafes from Broadway up to King Edward. Slowly, they've almost all disappeared. Some have tried to cash in on retro-chic and self-consciously brand themselves as destinations for bohemian recreational slumming (Helen's Grill, for example), and upped their prices. Others, like Pings, have been reinvented as modern restaurants, the old weather-beaten sign the only evidence of past culinary sins. But a handful remain, seemingly oblivious to the area's ongoing gentrification, paying zero attention to the new zeitgeist, insisting on being themselves. They make no pretensions to serious food but offer, instead, honest no nonsense basic dishes, the purpose of which is primarily to prevent you from being hungry while not breaking the bank. I've got a weakness for these places because I like to travel high and low in most of my cultural adventures. And I'm aways looking for a perfect breakfast for $3.99 and a decent hamburger and fries for a five.

On the northwest corner of Broadway at Main street, beneath the Lee building, is Reno's restaurant. If you sit in a window booth you'll get lots to look at because there's a busy bus stop right outside. The setup is as basic as it gets. Think of dining in a Vancouver Island ferry restaurant in the late 70s and you'll get the idea. No table service - you grab a tray, peruse the many blackboard menus, try in vain to delineate the "specials" from the regular menu items, and then you tell the cashier what you want. You pay, then get a nicely laminated number, and then you seat yourself. The menu ranges from classics like various breeds of hamburgers, meatloaf, veal, pork chops and mashed potatoes, many breakfast variations to a wide array of Western-style Chinese dishes. There are so many items on the blackboards that it's actually bewildering to stand there and try and make a decision. For those watching their pennies a tip: often a plain old hamburger will be perversely more expensive than a hamburger with toppings like bacon or cheese, which will be on the specials board, so watch out for that.

The "service" is friendly, enthusiastic and efficient. No matter what you order, you'll probably be offered what passes for coffee. Personally, my standards for coffee are very high but somehow the coffee at Reno's goes down well with the food. You might think of this as proper pairing. The food itself is probably what you would expect - serviceable, utilitarian and filling. It comes to your table piping hot and there's always someone making the rounds to refill your coffee. And Reno's doesn't completely eschew modernity - believe it or not they've got free wifi!

So, primarily, the draw of this restaurant is for a shift in ambience, a little bit of time travel. Even the owner's vague attempts to "modernize" the place only add to the charm. The decor is a mishmash of a rookie set director's idea of retro: posters of Marilyn Monroe, a collection of old clocks, a jukebox in the corner that springs to life seemingly at random. Cast your eyes around and you'll take a journey though the last four decades. It's a bewildering soup of clashing styles but somehow the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and it works.

- Paul

(thanks to fmed for taking the pix)

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  1. Welcome to Chowhound Paul!

    1. Great review, Paul. They got free wi-fi ?!? I was there 3 weeks ago on a nice quiet Sunday morning. Heck I shoulda brought my laptop :-)

      I should say, Bert's on Main & 13th is as close as old-school greasy spoons on Main as Reno's is. Prices are higher but quality is consistent.

      Just around the corner from Reno's is The Nice Cafe (8th Ave, btwn Main & Quebec). Small cozy hole, bright near windows. Good ol' fashioned Chinese-Canadian fare with all the all-day breakfast classics and other meals like pork cutlet and salisbury steak.

      Which brings to my fond memory two other classic diners in the area that are now defunct: Molly's Coffee Shop on Columbia near 2nd Ave:

      And The Normandy, on Granville @ 11th:

      3 Replies
      1. re: LotusRapper

        gotta say that i find Berts to trying to be a bit grand for what is essentially a greasy spoon. They "upgraded" their interior a few years ago, making it into a kind of Bino's wannabee. And, for such basic food, I find their prices a little on the high side. I used to go to Pings in the 80s and get a burger and fries for $2.95. Someone might also remember the Premier Coffee Shop located at Broadway and Main, the site of a recent file, where Kishu Island (vancouver's worst sushi) was before it burned down. Very similar circular layout to the Aristocrat, formerly at Granville and Broadway.

        1. re: tangentdesign

          The Aristocratic - I have fond memories of the place having worked across the street for many years. I've had perhaps hundreds of their Denver sandwiches.

          Another place (I cannot remember the name now...hopefully someone does...) - was the diner where the Commercial Dr location of Szechuan Chongqing now resides. It was a diner with a Classic U-shaped bar separating the kitchen from the rest of the room. I lived a few doors down for a few years. (Similar to the Aristocratic's layout)

          There are a number of diners that have "modernized" and are now trying to cash in on the retro cache. The Roundel on Hasting St for example. Then there are the neo-diners like Choppers which recently re-opened at its new location on Nanaimo/Broadway. The new Acme in Gastown too.

          And of course...Bon's...which put the word "greasy" in "greasy spoon".

          1. re: tangentdesign

            Not a big fan of greasy spoons but appreciate their presence in neighborhoods. This might make you feel on the older side of things, but that burger and fries for $2.95 in the 80s at Pings was at least 20 years ago. Cost of living/business was (I imagine) a whole lot less then! Even just accounting for inflation, a $3 burger would cost almost $6 now using the 1985 dollar as a reference.

        2. While we're on the subject of greasy spoons, let's not forget the Argo Cafe at 2nd and Ontario - old style greasy spoon interior/exterior but serving dishes like catfish, flat iron steak, lamb with mash, wasabi sesame tuna + more. All around $10. Only open for lunch.

          13 Replies
          1. re: tangentdesign

            Okay this seems to be opening up into a "cafes that serve all day brekky and make a decent burg" kind of thread. So I'll 'fess up to collecting a list of the above for the last few years (note that I've by no means visited them all). If I post it here, will y'all chime in with thoughts about what I've got, what I've missed and any I should remove 'cause they're long gone?

            Hamburger Mary’s, Davie & Bute, Vancouver
            Teresa’s Cafe, Denman, Vancouver
            The Grove Inn, Denman, Vancouver
            Ovaltine Cafe. (604) 685-7021 251 Hastings St E btwn Main and Gore breakfast all day till 8:30
            Grade 'A' Cafe at 1173 Granville at Davie
            Smile Restaurant, 424 W Pender
            Tacos Mexico Rico 309 West Pender at Hamilton (604) 688-7426 for Mexican style eggs

            Red Onion, 41st & Kerrisdale, Vancouver
            Art’s Place, 2407 41st & Balsam, Vancouver

            Lotus Eatery, 7th & Hemlock, Vancouver
            Joe’s Grill on Fourth
            Flying Swan on 4th
            The Diner 4556 W. 10th Ave., West Point Grey, 604-224-1912.
            Paul's Place Restaurant & Omelettery South Granville 2211 Granville, 604-737-2857 7 am – 3 pm 7 days
            Sunshine Diner Broadway near MacDonald

            Flowers Café 337 E Hastings Street (604) 633-9987
            Uncle Henry's 547 E Hastings Street (604) 254-3629 Chinatown
            Save on Meats Coffee Shop - 43 W Hastings
            Roundel Cafe (Hastings at Nanaimo) 2465 East Hastings Street (604) 253-2522 Sorta similiar to Sebs
            King’s Cafe, Hastings, Vancouver
            Master Chef, E. Hastings, Vancouver
            Tom & Jerry’s, Hastings and Kaslo, Vancouver
            Slocan Family Restaurant, Hastings & Slocan, Vancouver
            Docker's - 6094 Fraser @ 45th

            LT Cafe 1640 SE Kent Ave (604) 324-4828 below SE Marine just past Knight
            Risty’s, 63rd & Granville, Vancouver

            Truck Stop Cafe 1046 Clark Street btwn Parker and Napier (604) 254-6331 East Van
            Teresa’s 1260 Commercial between William and Grant mondays 8-2pm, tuesdays - sundays 8-9pm (604) 676-1868 (note this is a coop owned and run by the workers)

            Reno’s, Broadway & Main, Vancouver
            Sunny Spot Café (on Main near Broadway) 872-1816
            Bert's Restaurant 2904 Main Street 604-876-1236
            The Well on Main Street between 14th and 15th
            Argo Cafe 1836 Ontario for a post-modern take on the diner (breakfast and lunch only -- be sure to check out the lunch specials like duck confit or seared tuna for like $12!?) weekdays only??
            Seb’s 592 E Broadway (604) 228-4403 good veg options
            Libby's Kitchen . 3429 Porter St., East Side, 604-874-5547. ?free wifi
            Nice Café 154 East 8th (604) 874-4024 8-4 T-S 9:30-4 M 8-3
            Helen's Grill 874-4413 at Main & 25th T-S 8-8 M8-5 Sun 8 am-7 depending how busy they are
            Bon's Off Broadway (2451 Nanaimo Street). . 2451 Nanaimo St., East Side, 604-253-7242. $
            Dona Cata 5076 Victoria drive (604) 436-2232‎ now serving breaky Tues to Sat 9-2
            Deacon’s Corner Monday to Friday 7am - 3pm Weekends 9am - 3pm 101 Main Street Vancouver BC (corner of Alexander St.) 604.684.1555email: (Gastown/Railtown)
            Docker’s Diner aka Docker’s Grill 1869 Powell Street (604) 254-3732 (Outer Railtown) liver and onions, pancakes, egg breakfasts
            Choppers Diner, relocated to the east side of Nanaimo south of Broadway from its former spot on 1st Avenue.

            Steveston Hotel Restaurant, Steveston, Richmond
            Net Shed, 3820 Moncton Steveston, Richmond
            Sandwich Tree, Cambie Road, Richmond
            Fisherman’s Boot, Steveston, Richmond

            Hilltop Cafe, 240th & Fraser Hwy., Aldergrove
            Poultry in Motion, Marine, White Rock
            Skyhawk Restaurant, Boundary Bay Airport

            Tomahawk Restaurant
            Tommy's 1308 Ross Road 604-988-0053 NVan
            Corner Cafe, 15th & Pemberton, North Vancouver
            Lynnwood Hotel, Main & Mountain, North Vancouver
            Highboat Cafe, Mosquito Creek Marina, North Vancouver
            Whytecliffe Park canteen, West Vancouver
            Calvin's Café 2452 Marine Dr., West Vancouver, 604-922-4222 .
            The Moodyville (Lonsdale and 1st) $4.99

            Cosmos, Sperling & Hastings, Burnaby
            Parkcrest Diner, Broadway, Burnaby
            Big 6 Restaurant on Sixth Street just west of 10th Avenue 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends, seats 60
            Paul’s, Hastings St., North Burnaby
            Fraser Park Restaurant, Byrne Rd., Burnaby

            Amelia’s, two locations, New Westminster

            Rosie’s Country Cafe, King George Hwy., Surrey
            Round-up Cafe, 10449 King George Hwy @ 104 Ave (Surrey) Surrey
            The Roadhouse, 160th & King George Hwy., Surrey
            Fresgo Inn, King George Hwy., Surrey
            Rocko’s, Lougheed Highway, Mission
            Kitchen on the Ridge, 224th & Lougheed, Mission
            Michael’s, Lougheed Hwy., Mission
            Home Restaurant, Maple Ridge
            Bobby Sox ‘50s Diner, Maple Ridge

            Dot’s Cafe, Langley
            Willard’s (or Dayrunner), 200th & 96th, Langley
            Craig’s Cafe, Austin Ave., Coquitlam
            Poco’s Cafe, Shaughnessy, Port Coquitlam
            Hopewell Chinese Kitchen, Coquitlam

            Tacos Mexico Rico
            309 Pender St W, Vancouver, BC V6B1T3, CA

            Helen's Grill
            4102 Main St, Vancouver, BC V5V3P7, CA

            Master Chef Cafe
            2481E Hastings St E, Vancouver, BC V5K1Y8, CA

            Net Shed Cafe
            3820 Moncton St, Richmond, BC V7E3A6, CA

            King George Restaurant
            13588 88 Ave, Surrey, BC V3W3K8, CA

            Ovaltine Cafe
            251E Hastings St E, Vancouver, BC V6A1P2, CA

            Libby's Kitchen
            3429 Porter St, Vancouver, BC V5N4H2, CA

            Red Onion Restaurant
            2028 W 41st, Vancouver, BC V6M1Y8, CA

            Grove Inn Restaurant
            1047 Denman St, Vancouver, BC V6G2M4, CA

            Tom & Jerry Restaurant
            2828 E Hastings St, Vancouver, BC V5K5C5, CA

            Uncle Henry Cafe
            547E Hastings St E, Vancouver, BC V6A1P9, CA

            Sunshine Diner
            2649W Broadway W, Vancouver, BC V6K2G2, CA

            Boundary Bay Airport
            , Delta, BC V4K, CA

            Bon's Off Broadway
            2451 Nanaimo St, Vancouver, BC V5N5E5, CA

            Truck Stop Cafe
            1046 Clark Dr, Vancouver, BC V5L3J9, CA

            Fraser Park Restaurant
            4663 Byrne Rd, Burnaby, BC V5J3H6, CA

            Fresgo Inn Restaurant
            10102 King George Hwy, Surrey, BC V3T2W4, CA

            Risty's Cafe
            8542 Granville St, Vancouver, BC V6P4Z7, CA

            Main Street Cafe
            317 MacKenzie, Revelstoke, BC V0E2S1, CA

            1. re: grayelf

              Whoa! Another edition of The Grayelf Guides to the Vancouver Gastronomic Underground!

              1. re: grayelf

                You're a MACHINE, Grayelf ! First the carted dim sums and now this. Someone stop her !!!

                1. re: grayelf

                  Sad to report that the LT Cafe is no more.

                2. re: tangentdesign

                  Just looked at the menu of the Argo Cafe, here are some highlights:

                  1)Wild Catfish,Rice&Veggies with Crab&Cream Sauce$11.50
                  2)Pepper Corn Duck Confit,Mash Potatoes&Veggies$10.50
                  4)Cajun Flat Iron Steak,Mash Potatoes&Veggies$10.50
                  5)Grilled Cod,Rice&Veggies with Black Bean Sauce$10.50
                  6)Lamb Chops,Mash Potatoes&Veggies with Dijon Sauce$10.50
                  7)Snapper,Rice&Veggies with Spicy Chipolte Cream Sauce$10.50

                  How's the food? Not what I think of as a greasy spoon, but this looks like a terrific find.

                  1. re: Tinfoilhat

                    I love the Argo. The food is fantastic. It is an interesting hybrid between bistro and greasy spoon - if you can imagine that. Great value.

                    1. re: fmed

                      Ditto. Last time I was there I had short ribs for a tenner, and I couldn't finish it, there was such a lot of it. I had the burg and fries once and it was okay. I go for the "couture" stuff :-).

                      PS further to my rant on another thread about misspelling Spanish words, it's chipotle. Just sayin'.

                      1. re: grayelf

                        I had lunch there today - great value, presentation, wide menu choices. Flat iron steak and duck confit pictured...

                        1. re: tangentdesign

                          It was you who introduced me to the Argo a few years ago tangentdesign.

                          I'm a huge fan of their duck confit - nicely fried to a crisp whenever I've had it. Served with the usual Asian greens - often baby bok choy.

                          So I'm thinking that the Argo is a "Greasy Spoon meets Chinese Influenced Bistro". It is Vancouver all wrapped up into a nice slightly shabby package.

                          Remember the coverage they got from the NYTimes?

                          twinkienic reported that the place got super busy shortly afterwards with Argo virgins checking it out. I hear it is back to normal now.

                          1. re: fmed

                            We need to convince them to open for dinner. I've never been, and it's not possible M-F during lunch.

                            1. re: LotusRapper

                              I think some of the cooks work night shift at other restaurants.

                                1. re: tangentdesign

                                  I have a hard time getting down there M-F myself LR --usually in the summer when I'm on hols. I was excited to hear they were doing a Sat brunch but that didn't even last long enough for me to try it :-(

                3. - fmed: corner of commercial & 12- th: originally the ' renfew diner '. popular buffet joint.

                  - paul: utterly FANTASTIC op on this thread: thank you ! one thing: ' helen's grill ' may have hiked their prices a bit- but the owners have not changed anything else there, have they ? same menu, same decor, same owners ? ( no- not possible ) i mean- the place has not been DELIBERATELY ' stance themed ' to attract the hipster wannabes has it ? last time i passed thru central newark, nj- i remember, from a greyhound window, seeing all these streets peeling off in myriad directions littered with helens grill- like estabs.

                  - i have been going to the argo cafe ( off and on ) since 1979. far as i know- that cash register is the original. took a ( then ) girlfriend there for lunch 2 years back. she said to me ' this isn't the sort of place i would bring a companion for lunch '. our relationship ended shortly thereafter.

                  - ' laura's cafe ' - just around the corner, still exists. nothing has changed there in over a hundred years. the drycleaning plant across the street is their bread ' n ' butter.

                  - i used to love going to the blue eagle cafe- especially for their beef liver ( nebraska- sized portions ) with fried onions and mash pot with gravy ( canned peas ) the order came with ' soup of the day ' & tea or coffee & white bread & butter and a horrible desert of either jello or pudding. the waiters were elderly chinese with slicked- back hair. they wore white linen coats with red bow ties ( serious ) - the blue eagle crashed in the 90 's- was sold. the superb and significant interior was entirely trashed and the restaurant iwent from being a shooting gallery to a ' convenience store '. the exterior neon sign finally came down about a month ago- now stored at the vancouver museum.

                  - around the corner- on pender- was the ' hong kong diner '. would open at 5 a.m. and brewed their coffee with fresh eggshells. coffee with a chinese bbq bun. wooden swivel stools, long arborite counter. stainless steel everywhere- including the remarkable ' udders ' from which cream was dispatched. counter booths with raised partitions. wrought- iron hooks for jackets. everyone making a racket with newspapers.

                  - the ' luckytime cafe ' on cambie- where the ethiopian place is now. huge, wedge- shaped neon sign jutting out into the street- LUCKYTIME CAFE in rounded, slightly off- kilter, cartoon letters.

                  - the ' white rose lunch ' on pender near seymour. great cheeseburgers. open late- sometimes until 11 p.m. hang- out place for track regulars with their racing forms and cigarettes, arguing about horses.

                  - ' al's restaurant ' - pigeon park. still there. in ' 79- a full breakfast- including coffee- 1.25 $

                  - ' frankie's inn '- bottom of lonsdale, north van. there was nothing like it ANYWHERE in vancouver. standard lunch counter place serving the shipyard workers across the street. pork chops, hamburg steak, etc. AS WELL AS donburi, yakisoba, and teriyaki. in 1976- this was something.

                  - ' the mutual cafe ' on robson st. of all places- somewhere between burrard & bute. student hangout. front windows all steamed- up. micro- jukeboxes in each booth. the mutual was renown for its egg foo yung bowls.

                  - and countless others, but i have said more than enuf for now.


                  2 Replies
                    1. re: slugsunderfoot

                      " - fmed: corner of commercial & 12- th: originally the ' renfew diner '. popular buffet joint. "

                      Ah that's it! I've been wracking my brain trying to remember the name. I lived only a few doors from it for a while.