Cactus Club English Bay, Vancouver.

February 2014.

What a sweet dream location and physical plant. It’s a complex glass box directly on the English Bay beach looking onto the Georgia Strait sunset, at the busy summer tourist south end of Denman Street. There are three levels, one pitched as a formal dining room off the street, then a bar and bistro beneath, and finally a seasonal outdoor beach concession with take-out window around one side. We watched it being built from where we lived about four blocks away in the West End, already drooling as they set the foundations.

Cactus Club is where wonderful Rob Feenie landed when his Broadway Lumiere tragically crashed, a result (urban legend has it) of his business acumen falling far short of his cuisine. Very sad.  It was our favourite special night out in town, and as good as some of the most creative restaurants we’ve been to in other cities.

Feenie plus the location and view sounds like a recipe for dinner from heaven. Too bad: once greeted and having experienced from a male hetero perspective the ambivalence of a very pretty girl talking vacuous rubbish (how’s your day been so far), and getting seated, it’s everywhere a histrionic festival of juvenile although not all young narcissism loudly competing to re-create spreads from People Magazine. The serving staff in small black dresses could slide in on a night off beside any of the clientele. I feel like daddy invading and being tolerated by, and at the same time nauseatingly disappointed at, kids having a good time.

I’ve eaten here with a male friend enjoying the good food and quietly keeping an eye on the waitresses. Robin and I have had a couple of dinners in the luscious sunset, and once or twice on a summer Thursday I have locked up my bike in front or wandered in from the beach and sipped a martini at the outdoor bar, trying on being 20 years old.

The menu hasn’t changed much in a couple of years. Fish, meat, chicken. Mostly fish. But when it arrives, it’s delicious. Beef carpaccio wasn’t quite Genoa family restaurant, but pretty damn close. My Alaska black cod was the well-travelled Feenie invention, maple syrup seductively enriching the oily fish, with competently-cooked accompaniments. Robin had a vegetarian item based on rice with subtle Asian flavors, exactly as moist as it needed to be, the vegetables just barely avoiding being undercooked. I ate half of it.

Why can’t I change channels from the conservative bore who thinks youth is wasted on the young?   The sorry reality is I want to come to this place and bask in the English Bay sunset hearing the murmured conversation of emeritus professors and seasoned musicians, poring over a menu of red wine braised octopus or venison tartare, not nominal surf and turf, and a 15-page wine list packed with carefully selected Burgundy instead of eight items on a laminated card. Shame on me. Food 8.6, service 5.3 ambience schizophrenic (9.3 physical, 3.2 social) overall value ??. We will probably go back….

April, 2014.

(We did. And now maybe we’ll steer clear…)

May, 2015.

…except. Stranded on a Friday with our flight to Paris delayed by four hours, we wanted to have lunch without going far afield, and hit the beach balcony shortly after 11 o’clock when the place was still almost empty. The music was soft and quiet, we had our choice of seats, and I faced the service and reception area with full view of the server girls.

The food really is good. Tuna tataki and ceviche were completely lovely with our shared bottle of overly-acidic white.

This was a perfectly nice experience you can have as long as you ignore the spring-and-summer tourist crowd that replaces the winter local rich-kids nonsense. I guess I continue in my ambivalence about this glitzy tits-and-ass forward dream-location good-food show. I’ll keep my eye on it…

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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