(Photo by Flckr SqueakyMarmot under create commons license)
It’s a great story, a satisfying tale that adds to the mythology one of our great city icons. Young Dynamic Entrepreneur (in the form of Mark Brand) Saves Downtown Eastside Institution Save On Meats! Wrecking ball averted! Greedy developers thwarted! Hurrah!!
And without any irony, this is a great accomplishment. At every step of the way, Mr. Brand has shown smarts, energy, and enough chutzpah to move mountains in this corner of Gastown/DTES. But as with every compelling story, the really interesting stuff happens between the lines – and a deeper truth is revealed if you are willing to explore and look carefully.
Replacing what had been a very large horseshoe butcher shop area and a dining counter in the back, the space has been split into two, with a dedicated butcher shop on one side, and long diner in the other. What is immediately apparent is how approachable everything is – clean wide open rooms, with gleaming floors and counters, and goofy chatty signage. The friendly expansiveness in both rooms pulls you in for a closer look.
The straightforward diner menu is full of coffee shop classics – solid and reassuring, like a good firm handshake. Everything is made in house, including the burger buns and biscuits, a quality that you can immediately taste. The Save On Meats Burger is simple beefy satisfaction, accented with bacon, cheese, tomato and iceberg lettuce – all with a pile of fries. And at six dollars, the value proposition is overwhelming.
The meat loaf with sides of carrots and peas, meaty gravy, and smooth mashed potatoes is a cafeteria classic in the best sense. The biggest surprises on the menu are the sundaes. How awesome is it to tuck into a gooey dessert and not be overwhelmed by crushing sweetness? The house made ice creams, chocolate toppings, and fruit sauces all have a genuine old school flavour. The Knickerbocker Glory is particularly tremendous.
The meat shop has been stocked with a range of shoppers in mind. Choices include pork loin roast at about two dollars a pound, lovely house made sausages, and Cornish game hens and squab if you’re feeling a little fancy. I’ve seen the butchers patiently walk a local customer through a purchasing decision – giving them good advice on how to get the most bang and quality for their limited buck.
For me, the real story of the new Save On Meats is about respect. Respect for a local institution that for decades has served the poorest postal code in the country. Respect for local residents, ensuring they have access to well butchered meat and food cooked from scratch at attainable prices. In the US, if you lived in a neighbourhood like the DTES – your food choices would be limited to gut rotting processed foods.
Mark Brand could have hipstered up or foodified Save On Meats, turning it into a fetish of nostalgia, but he hasn’t. A friend, visiting from Montreal, she told me that she has seen lots of places pay lip service to the idea of revitalization, but nowhere has pursued it with the earnest enthusiasm that Save On Meats has shown so far.
When I was a child, walking from Chinatown to Woodward’s along East Hastings, the streets would be full of gritty characters, but there was the energy of a real living neighbourhood. I am glad to see that the new Save On Meats has decided to truly inhabit it’s neighbourhood, both in location and spirit.