Water Street Café, one of Gastown’s most iconic and well-loved restaurants will say goodluck to its original owner and creator, Dominique Sabatino as he trades in his worn apron for a shiny new set of golf clubs.
Just a few days ago, we sat down with Dominique and the Cafe’s new owners, Eli Brennan (GM from the Teahouse Restaurant, Cardero’s) and Alan Tse; (Executive Chef from the Teahouse Restaurant).
As the torch of responsibility passes from one set of hands to another, the flame of hospitality, warm welcome and great food continues to burn bright within the familiar wide airy windows of the one and only Water Street Café.
Pictured above: from left to right; Alan Tse, Dominique Sabatino and Eli Brennan.
How did it all begin for you here in Gastown?
Dom: I was working in Al Porto Ristorante at the time. One day, as I crossed Water Street I saw a For Lease sign on the window of the heavily draped Brasserie de L’Horloge. I had always wanted to own my own restaurant and as I looked at the building I thought; “It’s time”. The Steamclock bellowed out it’s usual chime as I made an appointment to view the property. As soon I saw inside, I immediately fell in love. I saw the space becoming a classic neighbourhood bistro, full of life, light and great food. It needed some changes though. The big bright windows you see today had been completely covered by thick curtains. You could only see out through the Water Street entrance and that was only about a square foot of an opening. I got rid of those curtains which allowed a flood of natural light and beautiful street views to enter the café. My vision for Water Street Café was inspired by something someone once told me: “A successful restaurant will not only be defined by the food”. I’ve always believed that you can create any menu you like so long as it’s of good quality, consistency and value. We have done it all – from Italian, to French to Mexican, as well as West Coast and Asian. We wanted it to be branded as a Café so that we never felt pigeonholed into serving one style of cuisine.
What has the experience been like running Water Street Café for almost 30 years.
Dom: It has been great! There have been a few ups and downs but as I reach the end of the journey, I can say that it has been a lot of fun. The changes that have come to Gastown over the past three decades have been incredible. Half the neighbourhood has been rebuilt within a gradual transformation that has been largely positive. When we started out, there was the Water Street Cafe, Kilimanjaro, Railcar, Brothers, Al Porto, The Old Spaghetti Factory and a handful of smaller restaurants. Gastown today is one of the best places in the city for dining out along with its incredible selection of bars, coffee shops and retail stores.
What is one of your more memorable moments during the years here in Gastown?
Dom: The whole trip has been positive, right from the get-go. When we opened in 1988, as the cruise ships began rolling in, people started to come to Gastown and to the Café. Our sales grew steadily and our customer base became firmly established. I remember some of my very first customers. There were people who met here, dated here and became engaged in this restaurant. Those same people are now bringing their children here for their graduation parties and some are even bringing them in for their kids’ wedding parties. It’s all come full circle. We have staff that have worked here whose children are now working here. And that’s kind of special.
Is that why they call you The Godfather?
Dom: They call me a lot of things but that’s a new one. Alan here just came up with that!
How do you feel about passing the torch?
Dom: I feel good knowing that Eli and Alan are taking over. They have the skills, the right attitude and the knowledge to succeed. Most importantly, they’re nice guys. Alan and Eli are genuine and I know that this will reflect itself in the food and how the guests are received. I am very confident that Water Street Café is in the right hands.
Dom: Golfing, fishing, traveling – anything that’s fun ending in ‘ing’!
We then turned our focus to the Cafe’s new owners, Alan and Eli.
What do you do and how did you get here?
Eli: I have been in the restaurant industry for 20 years and for 5 of those years, I was General Manager at the Teahouse Restaurant in Stanley Park. Alan and I have worked together for 11 years, having both started out working in Cardero’s – I was an expediter and he was a grill cook. In the past year, I served as General Manager at Cardero’s.
Water Street Café has an amazing history and it’s in a beautiful location. It is a true icon in the city. When this opportunity came up, I knew it was perfect for me.
Alan: I have been working in the industry for 15 years, including serving as Executive Chef at the Teahouse Restaurant. I consider myself very fortunate to have met Dom and to be taking over such a successful restaurant. We want our guests to continue to experience the high level of food and service they are used to receiving here as well as enjoying some of the exciting new offerings that we will bring to the menu.
Are you excited to take over such an iconic Gastown restaurant as the Water Street Café?
Eli: I live in Gastown and I love the neighbourhood. I think Dom nailed it when he opened up this restaurant and said he wanted to make it place with good food for good people where locals can come and feel at home, a place that’s not overpriced or pretentious and is warm and inviting. Water Street Café is all this and that excites me.
Alan: I feel very grateful and fortunate to be part of this new beginning. Eli and myself are confident that we can finally fulfill our dream of owing our own restaurant. Most importantly, I want the experience of dining here to be authentic and to be memorable. The idea that you might come here on perhaps a rainy day, order a simple pasta and remember it 20 years from now. That’s something I hope I can carry on here. I do want to say thank you to Dom for giving us such a strong service team. His relationship with the staff is solid and we are very lucky to have a crew like this behind us.