Yaletown’s monstrous makeover

One of Yaletown’s original restaurateurs reflects back to its glory days

By Neelam Sharma

Salli Pateman, owner of Section (3), Yaletown’s longest-running restaurant, is feeling bittersweet about closing the doors permanently on her 18-year-old baby this Saturday. Like a parent with their embryo, Pateman watched her business at its inception grow, transform and adapt to its environment – Yaletown, which has feverishly bull-dozed its way into the thriving, cool neighborhood it is seen as today, but not by everyone.

“When I opened there were only two places [restaurants] to go in Yaletown in these two blocks Hamilton and Mainland, now there are 75. Some of them have up to 500 seats. There are just not enough people in this town to fill everything every day,” says Pateman.

An arts degree and years of serving experience in her artillery sac, Pateman speared her way through an uppity industry known for chewing up rookie restaurateurs and spitting them out. She is surprisingly delicate, soft-spoken, and gently radiates poise and grace.

“It was a bit of a risk going into the neighborhood and when I would tell people that I’m opening in Yaletown, people would ask ‘where is that?’” Says Pateman. “It was desolate, it was raw, and it was, actually, amazing at the time…Absolutely amazing just to be in the birth of a new neighborhood.”

The tiered, cobbled side paths of the Hamilton and Mainland blocks used to serve as rail platforms and are still lined with the same brick warehouses now refurbished and converted. When the Canadian Pacific Railway extended to Vancouver in the 1880s, Grand Canyon gold rush labourers from Yale (just past Chilliwack) sought work and shelter in the once industrial neighborhood, thus earning its name Yaletown. The area quickly transformed into a cesspool of warehouses, factories and rail buildings and by the 20th century Yaletown resembled an industrial wasteland pocked with abandoned buildings. The coming of the world fair, Expo ’86, started a gentrification process by the city and soon after the exposition, Concord Pacific Developments, a Vancouver development and real estate investment firm, began a large condo development project on the site, which kick-started the never-ending rejuvenation process of the Yaletown and False Creek areas. Concord Pacific Developments’ primary shareholder is Li Ka-Shing.

This high school dropout’s life strings together a rags-to-riches story. Currently, Ka-Shing is the ninth richest person in the world, worth an estimated US 25.5 billion dollars, just narrowly beaten by the Swedish chairman of H&M, Stefan Persson, according to Forbes. The self-made billionaire’s two main businesses, Hutchinson Whampoa Limited and Cheung Kong Holdings, are the world’s largest operator of container terminals and the largest retailer of health and beauty products, respectively. His investments in Vancouver and Toronto real estate scream pocket change in comparison.

As cranes erected and scaffolding went up in the area bordering False Creek and Yaletown, Pateman, with a bank loan and no business experience, had fallen in love with a spot on the corner of Hamilton Street and Nelson Street that housed a sample shoe wholesaler, there were no other businesses nearby. Now a four-storey Keg sits in that spot.

When the first patrons stepped through her restaurant doors, it was originally named De Niro’s Supper Club and it thrived in a hipster-like fashion (before the term ‘hipster’ was popular). The area was old, undiscovered and attracted an artsy crowd who have since moseyed on to find yet another undiscovered neighborhood.

Today, Yaletown restaurants and bars pack out faster than a Beijing city bus, on the weekends. Just what was the atmosphere like in a Yaletown restaurant back then?

“Just fabulous. We opened the doors with five staff including me and I said to them all, I can’t pay you right away…It wasn’t policed back then, no liquor inspectors, no police, no firemen. The weekends were so much fun. We’d pull the tables outside, sit on the loading dock and we’d dance on top of the bar, on top of all the tables, customers would go back and DJ by putting whatever CD in, we had so much fun. It was fantastic.”

Five years into the biz, the restaurant was confronted with its first major obstacle. Pateman received a letter by a Vancouver law firm cordially accusing her of being in violation of section (3) in the B.C. privacy act. Basically, that Pateman was using the Italian celebrity’s moniker to make money. Rather than butt heads with a law firm, Pateman swiftly made alterations to the title of her establishment.

Section (3), aptly named after the law it was sued under, now snuggles in between BQQues Bar and Grill and Chinois restaurant. The restaurant had moved a few doors down as business begged for more space. Over the years, Pateman struggled with maintaining her restaurant’s individuality as it continually reinvented itself to keep up with the area’s boom. Yaletown burgeoned from nothing to one of the coolest neighborhoods, to one of the hottest, to, now, one of the busiest and most densely packed.

“If I looked in those doors 18 years ago and saw the store where I opened, would I have predicted the 1000 square feet that I inhabited for so many years was going to become a four-storey Keg? No,” recalls Pateman. “I knew the area was going places but…it peaked on the way up and it was awesome. As the condos got built and as people moved in, it got busier and busier, that was still awesome. At some point, it shifted.”

Pateman is referring to when the cool, new and upcoming neighborhood she felt connected to began accepting corporate chain restaurants, thereby, each time, losing a bit of its own individuality. As these giants became a mainstay in such a tight area, smaller and unique establishments were seen springing up then shriveling up alongside.

In comparison, neighborhoods such as Gastown and the Drive exude a different personality. It is evident both neighborhoods have vehemently stonewalled corporate chains, and individual businesses proliferate. The streets ooze charm, antiquity and character and inside every door is a different personality, not to be outdone by the next.

“That’s one of the reasons why I feel like I want to move on. Go to another raw, just beginning neighborhood where you can be who you are exactly at inception and not try to fit in to some cookie cutter.”

The site has been sold to the chain Romer’s Burger Bar who will be renovating for a couple months.

Image:  by codyyeevong