The Hired Belly is happily ensconced at Hy’s Encore, cosseted in the city’s most cherished culinary time warp.
On the rare occasions I get to Hy’s, I hunker down in a cozy banquette and marvel at such an unabashed anachronism. There aren’t too many places where you can still drink in the ‘old’ Vancouver but at Hy’s you can do just that, by the magnum.
For here—from the oversized leather chairs to the clear screen that frames what may well have been the city’s first ‘open’ kitchen (well, visible and cutting edge for its 60s era)—time stands still.
Somehow, for all the glitz and bling of others it’s Hy’s Encore’s plush, shamelessly dated (smartly refurbished) surroundings and reassuring, old-style intimate feel that draws me back for more.
Why? Because, above all, Hy’s has character. And that character—of which so many of today’s rooms today are so devoid—counts for plenty. You can almost hear the paneled walls talk—if only! The stories of what went down at Hy’s (and not only here but across the country) are the stuff of legends.
However, my favourite Hy Aisenstat anecdote shows up in Peter C. Newman’s ground-breaking book, The Canadian Establishment. When the original (upstairs) Calgary restaurant burned to the ground, asked what could have caused the fire, Hy responded (likely without missing a beat):
“It was either a tri-light in the second floor or an Israelite in the basement.”
Wander into Hy’s vestibule and ornate bar and it’s not hard to be transported back to a time when this was home to the city’s power base—a lingering lunch haven for Howe Street movers and shakers with a line-up of double martinis to match.
Tradition dictates every meal starts (well, after a Caesar) with Hy’s legendary cheese toast: Hot, sneaky little orange Cheddar packages (delivered under a blanket of tin foil) that, no matter how hard you try, will ultimately prove irresistible. (They’ll also happily put some in a box that you can take home and warm up later.)
We haven’t tracked the menu that closely but you can be sure, except for the addition of some extra seafood plates and a few smaller portions, it really hasn’t changed that much in 50 years. Which is not a bad thing at all.
In fact, the classic prawn cocktail (complete with secret sauce) is probably the sole survivor of its kind in the city. And the prawns are almost as big as a small lobster tail.
Ultimately, though, it is still all about the steak: Hy’s uses only Prime-graded beef and puts immense effort into maintaining its (rare) supply, perfectly aged and grilled always precisely as requested. The Prime filet mignon medallions, swathed in a brandy and wild mushroom sauce, usually get our vote. Then again, so does Hy’s New York strip, drenched in a respectably piquant green peppercorn and brandy sauce. The meat is always superb both in flavour and texture.
Oh, and they really do cook it exactly how you want it. And if you’re looking for a bottle of serious Brunello di Montalcino (such as Altesino), or BR Cohn Olive Hill Cab, they can probably produce it from their cellar.
And did we mention the French fries? (Although what happened to the shoe strings?) And the still formal, not too intimate but genuinely friendly service, from arguably the city’s most seasoned staff?
Wrap it up with a couple of shared desserts, like the velvet smooth cheesecake or creme brulée.
Better still, go for the cheese plate which yields a good selection, properly matured and at room temperature, generous portions, and with thoughtfully cut bunches of grapes.
Tucked away upstairs, a panelled parlour rates among the best business rooms in town.
Price? Well, it’s kind of like that old Rolls Royce saying: “If you have to ask …”
The original Vancouver restaurant was Hy’s at the Sands Hotel (now the Best Western Plus Sands), which accounted for the second location being named Hy’s Encore. The Sands closed long ago, although I do vaguely remember leaving there after my brother-in-law’s stag. And Hy’s at the Mansion is also long gone. (But so, too, thankfully, is Romano’s Macaroni Grill).
Only the Encore lives on.
Or, as Hy’s likes to say: Some things never change: Thank God!
(Hy’s really does have a fascinating history. Read more about it here.)
Hy’s Encore, 637 Hornby St., 604-683-6761