Vancouver
3 min

The donut set doesn’t come here anymore

It was shabby and Victor Coté was insufferable, but the food was amazing

The Corner Restaurant & Bar on Davie St, at Seymour, occupies three former storefronts that hold a treasury of queer memories.

In the 1970s, walking west from the corner, you’d pass a grocery store, a painted-over window beside an unmarked door, and a tiny restaurant, Chez Victor. Next was the tattoo parlour, but it wasn’t yet drawing a queer crowd.

Behind the unmarked door was a dimly lit staircase to the basement cabaret, Champagne Charlie’s. Soon after I began my weekly queer column in the Georgia Straight, I was refused entry to Champagne Charlie’s one evening for rude remarks I had made in print about the reigning diva, Dee Dee Ambrose, or possibly one of her cohorts, Charity or Bobbie Blake. I was an equal opportunity trash talker back in the day, much like our own Raziel.

I don’t recall exactly what brought it on, but I remember owner John Stevenson peering at me through the cashier bars and saying, “We don’t need that kind of journalism here!”

My companion for the evening, Wally “Riga the Clown” Price, steered me back out onto the street, assuring me that I’d live to be thrown out of better dumps. He then rapped vigorously on the window next door, where a cadaverous-looking man was clearing tables. Looking supremely skeptical that anything good could come of doing so, he unlocked the door and let us in for introductions and explanations.

Seating us at a window table and firing up a — well, let’s just call it a cigarette — my new friend shared his own unique perspective on the Champagne Charlie’s scene, and several other topics.

It was Victor Coté’s unique perspective on pretty much everything that earned him admirers and detractors in equal parts. You either thought him the wittiest and most talented chef in the city or the most self-absorbed and arrogant old queen you’d ever encountered.

To be a real friend of Victor’s, you had to learn to hold both these thoughts at the same time. Firmly.

Victor had scraped together his life savings, mostly earned in the cookhouses of northern logging camps, and opened the three-tables-and-a-lunch-counter Chez Victor sometime in the late 1960s. The linoleum was cracked, the paint peeling, and you could maybe jam in 20 people. There was a pass-through between the kitchen and the main room, and the place had served coffee and doughnuts to its previous clientele.

The day Victor opened for business, a matron bustled in and loudly demanded “three coffees and six doughnuts to go.” Through the pass, Victor fixed her with a baleful glare and intoned, “I’m sorry, Madame, the doughnut set doesn’t come here anymore.” That pretty much set the tone for the establishment.

Chez Victor, by the time I was dragged across its threshold in 1970, was listed in Where To Eat in Canada as one of the “10 best restaurants,” a distinction shared in Vancouver only by the William Tell, much to the chagrin of both proprietors.

Victor employed a steady stream of between-work actors, musicians, broadcasters, and even this gossip columnist as an all-in-one busboy, waiter, dishwasher and whipping post for his acerbic wit. I followed hard on the heels of actors Pia Shandel and Jace Vander Veen and was succeeded in turn by young broadcaster Gary Barclay and others.

In exchange for putting up with his outrageous ego, we got to rub shoulders with, or at least serve omelettes to, local power brokers, visiting celebrities and rock stars coming in after their shows for a preordered serving of Victor’s spaghetti and “special sauce.” This last dish involved about half an ounce of marijuana and was much appreciated by the likes of Jimmy Page, Ian Anderson and Jerry Garcia.

Anyone could come in for lunch, but reservations were needed for dinner, only one dinner party per evening, and you brought your own wine.

Though it was shabby, and Victor was insufferable, the food was amazing, his jazz collection without equal, and his curried pineapple on vanilla ice cream to die for.

It was all over by the mid-1980s, but it was an institution while it lasted.

Victor bounced from kitchen to kitchen for a decade or so, wherever they thought his name would draw a crowd (and they could put up with his enormous ego), but was finally called home to that great steam kitchen in the sky shortly after the turn of the millennium. I hope the Big Chef was ready for that!