The White Spot, Vancouver.

All my life

I don’t want to overstate the history, uniqueness, or food quality of this straightforward Vancouver eatery chain, but I’ve experienced a lot of that history myself, and my memories are of consistently great flavour, especially of their “legendary” flagship, the hamburger. For many decades the pinnacle of fast food in my home city.

Dirty 30s entrepreneur Nat Bailey founded his burger joint when the city was still frontier, racist, and bareknuckled. The business survived as most small businesses do: he gave the people what they wanted.

In the early 50s when I was a little boy my parents would take us in our 1952 blue Oldsmobile to the then south Granville Street headquarters. My brother and I in the back seat would receive our orders from teenage car hops we envied for their cool balance of food on wooden trays with adjustable metal ends that fit into the car’s window slots. We propped ourselves up to chow salty crisp delicious hot dogs, fish and chips, or fried chicken.

I’ve only recently left dear old Vancouver for the relative calm of the Sunshine Coast. I negotiated high school on its affluent west side, and on teenage weekend nights “The Spot” was where I usually ended up, lucky or not, around midnight. The car hops in the same green uniforms and white police-style caps I remembered as a kid brought the food, although now I ignored them, cooler as I was in the front seat of dad’s later-model Olds with my date, hoping, somehow innocently presuming, that the 17-year-old girl beside me (just as unknowable to me as I was to her) was as happy as I was. Fries, burgers, and if I was trying to be sophisticated clam chowder. But if I was hungry, the White Spot hamburger with its soft bun and perfectly-positioned sour and rich sauce was my effective antidote. It tasted wonderful.

Robin and I were back to today’s Kerrisdale White Spot on Arbutus recently, and although professional restaurant marketers and food designers have done their damage (and maybe truth be told helped the place survive), it is still packed with multigenerational and multicultural families. The old Marpole Drivein with its dark faux log-cabin 1950s dining room and car hops is long gone. But our little family has history even with the relatively modern upscale Kerrisdale storefront location. Screaming and then reluctant kids ate with us there for a decade and a half ending … maybe 10 years ago.

Oh now there is every imaginable concession to dietary political correctness and trendy food: vegetables, tofu burgers, Asian, etc. But thank god they have somehow managed not to ruin the central treat of this venerable wonderland: the White Spot Hamburger.

I always order the “classic”, sometimes having to negotiate with the not-necessarily high performance servers to explain what I want: a bun, meat patty, lettuce, tomato, raw onion, bacon, mushrooms, and an extra blast of the mysterious and never-changing-in-sixty-years mayo-and-relish hamburger sauce.

When it finally arrives with its fries, I can’t wait to grab the thing in both hands and get my jaws around its complicated magnificence. The flavour is indescribably wonderful, the bun is so soft it almost disappears, and all the extra filling and condiments roll around helping me to completely lose myself in the experience, as my pretenious psychiatry professor once characterized satisfactory sex.

Sure. There must be way over 10,000 little towns all over North America with burger joints and histories, and every self-respecting football-playing deucecoupe-driving now-elderly guy who never left home will swear on his sweat socks that Granny’s (or Joe’s or whatever) burgers are the best in the universe. I wouldn’t dream of contradicting anyone’s imagination. But the White Spot is mine: we reunite about every three months, usually with our now middle-aged boys, to sink our teeth into exquisite flavour and (for me) more than 65 years of the history of my city, my home, and my life.

Food 7.5 (but 9.3 if you order the right burger), service variable but average about 6.8, ambience 6.5 with noise and screaming kids, value (for me) incalculable.

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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