Thursday, December 8, 2011

They're pouring pints again at the Bimini

Jeff Donnelly, who owns The Bimini pub, stands in front of the reopened Kitsilano landmark. You can tell the story of the city from that one address. Rafel Gerszak photograph for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 7, 2011

A landmark pub reopens its doors four years after being destroyed by fire.

The pub enlists a publicist to ensure word gets out about “seasonal menus crafted from organic, locally sourced ingredients,” about an executive chef working with a consulting chef, about a design firm is enlisted to create a room with “a modern but warm and familiar feel.” It is noted the rebuilt interior includes 85-year-old wood reclaimed from a defunct mill.

The bartenders at the Bimini in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood are once again pouring pints, happy news for them and for those who imbibe. On Oct. 4, 2007, the day before the bar was to reopen following a $250,000 renovation, fire destroyed an historic building. Even a popular foosball table had been burned beyond salvage, the players melted into plastic blobs.

Bars and restaurants open — and close — all the time in Vancouver. It’s part of the city’s boom-and-bust cycle. After all, a metropolis grew from a site beneath a maple tree chosen by a windbag saloonkeeper known as Gassy Jack Deighton. He promised to tap his whiskey barrel as soon as a wooden saloon was constructed. The work was done in a day.

The Bimini, at 2010 W. Fourth Ave., became a landmark as one of the city’s first neighbourhood pubs.

You can tell a chapter in the story of the city by working from that street address.

For decades following prohibition, the hotel industry had a monopoly on the sale of draft beer. Nightspots were known as bottle clubs, where patrons bought pricy mixes to go with their secreted under-the-table, brownbagged booze. In Chinatown, thirsty patrons could order special teas in which beer would be served from pots into thimble-sized tea cups.

The liberalization of liquor laws came slowly. A cocktail license is granted to the Dine in the Sky atop the Sylvia Hotel. Then, the Cave and Palomar clubs gain cabaret licenses. The longtime Social Credit government of W.A.C. Bennett, a teetotaler, is not eager to increase beer sales. The province’s drinking laws are considered antediluvian by sophisticates.

The NDP swept away Mr. Bennett’s Socreds in 1972. They brought in Hansard for the legislature, banned pay toilets and corporal punishment in the schools. They also thought it might be pleasant for working people to celebrate the end of the day by enjoying a glass of beer at a nearby, English-style pub.

Peter Uram, a recent graduate from Simon Fraser University who had been making commercial films, decided to try for one of the new licenses.

“Back then, you only had hotel bars and that was about it,” he said, Tuesday. “Took us three years, lots of ups and downs, to get a license.”

He had bought a decrepit, wooden building on a stretch of West Fourth that remained more industrial than retail. The growing hippie popularity of the strip had seen the opening of small businesses such as the Soft Rock Cafe and the Lifestream health-food store.

Mr. Uram’s building had long been the home of the Fourth Avenue Heating and Plumbing Works. It had a large open space and tall ceilings. At some time in the past, the space had been used for the building of sailing boats, which could be launched into the waters of nearby English Bay.

To counter the monsoon-like autumn rains, the interior was given a tropical theme. He named the place Bimini after the paradisiacal Bahamian islands.

The pub was a welcome addition to a street undergoing development. At the same time, the staff joined the Service, Office and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada, an independent trade union with a feminist perspective seeking to organize “pink collar” workers in bars, restaurants and banks. A bitter strike, including an attempted raid by an American-led rival union, ended with a contract. The union was decertified within a year.

Mr. Uram remembers one unhappy night when the Doobie Brothers were made to queue.

“The doorman didn’t recognize them,” he said, “and didn’t let them in past the lineup.”

Another time, English punk rockers The Clash played foosball at the pub while being interviewed.

In time, the street changed from semi-industrial to mom-and-pop retail to higher-end retail.

“Our success helped make West Fourth what it is today — a nice shopping area,” said Mr. Uram, 65, who still owns the building. “It’s not quite Robson Street, but it’s a pleasant place to spend an afternoon, or evening.”

Four years ago, he looked out his West End residence to see a tower of smoke rising from Kitsilano. He soon learned it was his building.

The original wooden structure has been replaced with concrete block and sprinklers.

“We’re good for another 50 years,” he vowed.

The first building on the site had a tall ceiling and an open interior for a reason. At a time when West Fourth ended one block further west, when the few houses on the quiet slope were occupied by masons, painters and carpenters, a prominent local pastor named Rev. P.H. McEwen built the Fairview Baptist Church. The church abandoned the building after less than eight years. Demon rum is being offered where once the prayers were for temperance.


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