Tomahawk Barbecue evolves with the times
N orth Vancouver’s Tomahawk Barbecue has survived the Great Depression, a world war, the fast-food revolution, the diet craze, progress, regress, life, death and dry rot.
More than survived, it’s thrived.
Generations of customers keep coming back for the “Yukon-style” bacon and eggs ( Yukon- style means “big”), the fresh turkey sandwiches (turkeys cooked onsite nightly), the Skookum Chief Burger (that’s organic beef from a ranch in Salmon Arm, B.C.) and a selection of freshly baked pies made from 100-year-old family recipes.
But an institution like the Tomahawk doesn’t rest on its laurels. For a home-style restaurant to work for nearly 100 years, it has to constantly adapt and evolve with tastes and the times.
So these days you’ll also find on the Tomahawk menu a Granola Yogurt Medley, a selection of green salads and a veggie burger comprising mushrooms, brown rice and low-fat cheeses — along with fresh tomato and lettuce.
“We really are a dinosaur,” says a grinning Charles Chamberlain, whose dad Chick opened the Capilanoarea diner in 1926.
It was the region’s first drive-in — before burgers, it offered “sandwiches in the car,” a novelty in 1920s- era Vancouver.
But Chick Chamberlain’s timing couldn’t have been much worse. The stock market crashed and the Depression kicked in just three years later. Still, the family persevered.
Those principles of perseverance, adaptability and patience to do things right have stayed with the business through thick and thin.
“We’re definitely not complacent about it,” says Charles — Chuck to his family, friends and customers. “As with anything, you’ve got to stay on top of things.”
The Tomahawk is part- museum, and features an impressive collection of West Coast native artifacts donated or traded by local Squamish and other First Nations with whom Chick Chamberlain, the son of British immigrants, had close relationships.
Chick fell in love with the coastal peoples and culture. In tough times, he’d provide meals on barter, or less, collecting the odd piece along the way.
“During the Depression, everybody had to help one another – it didn’t matter colour, race, creed, anything,” says his son.
Eventually, Chick started serving on the local band council — the first white man to do so — and the only one for years. Now descendants of those First Nations friends bring their grandchildren into the restaurant to see the work of their forebears.
Charles ( Chuck) Chamberlain started his apprenticeship at the Tomahawk when he was just seven years old, clearing carhop trays on weekends.
He’s 71 now and still works 17- hour days, seven days a week except Christmas and Boxing Day, when the place closes and he and his 24 staff — some of whom have been there more than 20 years — take a much-deserved break.
By 1960, dry rot was getting the best of the original log building, so the family moved the business to a new building across the street.
Business took a nosedive in the 1980s with the rise of various diet crazes.
“That was just horrendous,” says Chamberlain. “Not just for me, but other restaurants, too. Nobody was eating any bacon or toast, the mainstays of the business. But we carried on. We didn’t change too much.”
These days, the Tomahawk goes through a tonneand-a-half of bacon a month.
The Mixed Grill, a menu item spawned by a customer who’d bring in a baking sheet after his Sunday soccer game and ask Chick Chamberlain to “load ’er up” with whatever was available, serves up nine slices of bacon along with two free- range eggs, two slices of Klondike toast, an organic hamburger patty, aged cheddar cheese, a wiener, onions and fresh sautéed mushrooms.
In an era of cheap fast food, never-ending deadlines and a relentless demand for instant gratification, the alcohol-free Tomahawk just keeps chugging along like it’s in some sort of time warp. On weekends, customers queue for more than 30 minutes to enjoy servings that cost from $8 to $15 a plate.
Robert Mackay is 83 years old and he’s been coming to the Tomahawk since 1950. He’s down to once a month now, but the Yukon- style breakfast remains his favourite.
“We love the novelty of the place,” he says. “We enjoy the atmosphere. It hasn’t changed much. They’ve modernized the restaurant ... but the food is still just great. It’s always been great.”