Raincity Grill owner Harry Kambolis, at Nu, 2005

Raincity Grill owner Harry Kambolis, at Nu, 2005

Raincity closes

Whatever the circumstances, I was saddened by last week’s shuttering of long-running Raincity Grill and, not that long before, of C Restaurant, owned by Harry Kambolis. In the fickle world of dining there are any number of reasons as to why restaurants come and go. (And you can read plenty on line about Raincity, if you go looking.) But it’s still a loss when iconic rooms vanish.

For now, though, I think it’s important to put things into perspective, namely the immense contribution that Kambolis and his colleagues have made over the years, and the profound impact that these two restaurants in particular have had on Vancouver’s (and Canada’s) food scene.

C was instrumental in supporting the reintroduction of West Coast Pinto Abalone andf the  Bamfield Community Huu ay aht Abalone Project

C was always proactive, as in supporting the reintroduction of West Coast Pinto Abalone and the Bamfield Community Huu ay aht Abalone Project

When Kambolis launched C and announced it would serve only seafood, more than a few people thought he was nuts. In 1997 there were essentially two ingredients that drove the restaurant business in Vancouver: salmon and steak. But Kambolis—first with the late Soren Fakstorp, and then Robert Clark persevered—relenting only slightly by putting duck on the menu as their ‘meat du jour.’

“At least it’s water fowl,” Clark used to quip.

In those days, most Vancouver salmon was either planked or smoked; and seaweed was something you put on your garden. Moreover, ‘good’ dining was all too often directly proportionate to the size of the serving on your plate as opposed to its taste or interest factor. C steered us in a different direction.


The rise of ethical sourcing

Back in the day ... Robert Clark shows off Hawkshaw salmon shipped overnight from Prince Rupert

Back in the day … Robert Clark shows off Hawkshaw Skeena Sockeye shipped overnight from Prince Rupert—and, yes, that’s Annette Rawlinson in the background.

By working with the likes of Prince Rupert fishers Fred and Linda Hawkshaw, Kambolis and Clark were able to underscore the point of difference for sustainable fisheries.

Prior to that, if you’d mentioned the word ‘by-catch’ to most people they’d look at you with a blank stare. But C (along with Blue Water) gently prodded and then pushed us towards understanding the true value of what we have. Cue the launch of Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise (C was the founding restaurant) and the rest is history …

Vancouver PR pro Sue Alexander (part of the Kambolis group for 12 years) says: “Harry gave me a huge amount of freedom to come up with ideas. He had the vision to allow us to do all those things—like tracking down the Hawkshaws” (for Skeena Sockeye)—and getting Ocean Wise off the ground with the Aquarium.”

The producers dinners started at C—with the support of Christina Burridge and Seafood Alliance in conjunction with BC Salmon Marketing Council.  Alexander also points to other ground breaking chefs who worked for Kambolis such as Scott Kidd, Sean Cousins and Andrea Carlson.


The broader impact

Unidentified Raincity salad, circa 2001

Unidentified Raincity dish, circa 2001

It’s hard to overstate the shift that Kambolis and Clark seeded in Vancouver’s restaurant community at large by ‘going direct’ to so many producers. Not only that but the fishers and farmers were often people from well outside, who would have had little success in cracking the Vancouver market without their help.

C's Rob Clark and Lee Humphries cook up a storm at BC Spot Prawn Festival

C’s Rob Clark and Lee Humphries cook up a storm at BC Spot Prawn Festival

Some people found it amusing when in 2005 Kambolis asked Ballet BC to help choreograph C’s servers. However, the results were immediately obvious: simplified but elegant co-ordinated delivery and removal of dishes that absolutely suited the style of food.

C seafood salad, true to form Ocean Wise

C seafood salad, true to form Ocean Wise

If C was progressive and even provocative, Raincity was the original trend-setter. It was the first of the ‘Real BC’ rooms to grasp the reality of “Regional Seasonal” and survive. Opened in 1992, Raincity Grill achieved what Janice Lotzkar’s Raintree might have, had she been able to stay the course. Or, come along a decade later.


BC Wine Booster

Kambolis (along with the likes of Peter Bodnar Rod and Brent Hayman) got firmly behind not only BC wines but shaped the first wine list that was “Cascadian” and beyond. By including wines only from BC, Washington, Oregon and California, Raincity Grill was the first to seriously focus on the west coast (thus risking alienating the wine ‘establishment’ elite). They also launched Vancouver as a wine by the glass town—offering well over 100 wines, when most places elsewhere might have had half a dozen at best.

Because of that unbending dedication to ‘regional seasonal’, more than any other Vancouver offering, Raincity Grill cloaked itself in the mantle of being the ‘quintessential Vancouver restaurant. Score a major assist from the 100 Mile Diet, for sure. But Kambolis had the vision to promote it and then stick with it.

If there’s a silver lining it lies in the scores of people who worked at and contributed to Raincity and C’s success (and even Nu’s) and who’ve gone on to broadcast their messages elsewhere, far and wide.

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