For Almost 40 Years, Elbow Room Café Remains a Safe Space for City's LGBT Crowd
From The Georgia Straight: Nelson Lamarche remembers the first Pride festival he ever attended. It was 2001, and he travelled to Vancouver from Kamloops, which didn’t have such an event until two years ago. It was an exhilarating experience in itself, but the weekend also led to another unforgettable first: his inaugural visit to the Elbow Room Café.
“My partner took me and I thought, ‘Wow. I want to work here when I live here,’ ” Lamarche recalls by phone. “It was the gayest place on Earth. It was welcoming and friendly. When I moved to Vancouver in 2004, I handed out one résumé.”
Lamarche started out working as a line cook and he’s been there ever since. He still works in the kitchen while also holding down the role of the well-known West End restaurant’s general manager.
As a multitude of other restaurants have come and gone in Vancouver, the Elbow Room has remained—having gone on to become much more than a popular breakfast and lunch spot. It is as beloved for its home-style “big ass” menu items (featuring the biggest pancakes in town) as it is for its flying insults. Diners (or at least most of them) have come to expect and adore the caustic wisecracks from staff, most notably from larger than life cofounder and frontman Patrice (Patrick) Savoie.
Entrenched not just in the LGBT community but in Vancouver’s very heart, it’s a spot where customers find comfort in more than just the food.
“The Elbow Room is welcoming to all,” Lamarche says. “You can be who you are. Our employees and our customers know when they walk through our doors that they’re safe to be who they are. That’s what the Elbow Room does: we make sure that people are safe.
“We have a huge transgender community that comes here because they know they’re respected and they’re safe,” he adds. “What we provide is a home away from home. They also know that if I’m busy, you can go and get your own coffee.” (Or, as has been noted on the blackboard at times: you can “get off your ass” and get that coffee yourself.)
Savoie started the Elbow Room in 1983 with his beloved late partner in business and marriage, Bryan Searle, who died in 2017 at age 87. (Savoie wasn’t available for an interview.) The restaurant was initially located on Jervis Street just north of Robson Street, then moved to its current home at 560 Davie Street in 1996. The café’s lease there expires on October 31, the site being one of several that the City of Vancouver intends to redevelop for housing. Although Lamarche is hopeful that the restaurant will continue there or elsewhere afterward, its future is uncertain.
For now, though, it’s still going strong. And regardless of what happens down the road, the legacy the Elbow Room has already created is unshakable. It’s one that local playwright Dave Deveau explored in Elbow Room Café: The Musical. Director Cameron Mackenzie told the Straight before the production’s 2017 debut that the café has acted as a link between generations in a community ravaged by AIDS. “Young gay people don’t have the opportunity to learn about their history and the battles that came before them, because it’s hard to meet older queer people,” he said. “So, for me, this is the interesting thing. For me, the café is the physical tie between generations—and that sort of represents the marginalized. It’s a story that we don’t often hear.”
Vancouver artist John Ferrie first went to the Elbow Room the year it opened, shortly after moving here from Calgary. (Tom Selleck was sitting at the next table. The restaurant still has the Tom Selleck burger on the menu.) For Ferrie, a 2016 recipient of the TD Pride Legacy award, the café was a revelation and a haven.
“It was something else to be embraced by a city and to be in a place where you were fine being gay,” Ferrie says by phone. “There weren’t a lot of places you could go and sit and hold hands with your boyfriend and not be harassed.
“They called it the Elbow Room because it was so packed in there, you’d be bumping elbows against the person next to you,” he adds. “You always went back because you were loyal, and you waited an hour for a table because you were loyal, even with the obnoxious service. If you pissed that guy [Savoie] off, he’d throw you out so fast you wouldn’t know what hit you: ‘Just cuz you didn’t get laid last night, honey, doesn’t mean the rest of us have to suffer!’ ”
Ferrie remembers how Searle and Savoie supported people living with HIV/AIDS at a time when much of society, workplaces in particular, shunned them. He also recalls A Loving Spoonful founder Easter Armas holding initial meetings at the Elbow Room to organize Sunday dinners for friends who were ill with HIV/AIDS. Those informal gatherings led to Easter’s Sundays, monthly meals prepared by volunteers at McLaren House, a group home for people living with HIV/AIDS (PWHAs). That effort turned into Vancouver Meals Society, which evolved into A Loving Spoonful, which provides free healthy meals to PWHAs. The Elbow Room maintains its long-held tradition that patrons donate to the organization if they don’t finish the food on their plate. It has raised more than $100,000 for the nonprofit. (In the restaurant’s early days, those “forced” donations went to Oxfam.)
“This was the kitchen table of this remarkable AIDS activist [Armas], keeping her friends alive,” Ferrie says. “During the AIDS crisis, this was the venue you could go to to have meetings with your friends or your sports teams; that was where you gathered. Talk about magnificent.
“How many restaurants are there in Vancouver that have been around for 40 years?” he adds. “It hasn’t really changed much, and that’s endearing. We need to celebrate places like this. The more power to them.”