Remembering La Bodega's Paco Rivas

Legendary Vancouver restaurant's co-founder shared his passion for all things Spanish

Last Saturday afternoon at Bodega on Main, every chair at the restaurant was occupied, every centimetre of floor space was staked out and every elbow-resting place at the bar was taken. Staff gingerly negotiated their way through the crowd to make sure everyone had enough to eat and drink. The loud din of animated conversation rose in waves every time old friends reconnected with each other.


It was exactly the way Paco Rivas, who died on December 19, would have wanted it.

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“We know he would have loved the party,” says his daughter Natalie Rivas. “All of his people were under one roof. He would have enjoyed it.”


When Natalie and her brother Paul, who own and manage Bodega on Main together, were planning Saturday’s celebration of their father’s life, they knew it had to be just right. “My dad had high standards when he was putting on an event,” Natalie said two days later. “We all worried he’d be watching — did we have enough food, did we have enough wine?”


Bodega on Main pays homage to the spirit and legacy of La Bodega, Vancouver’s pre-eminent Spanish restaurant for six decades. Paco and his partner José Rivas (same last name but no relation) had taken a chance when they opened La Bodega in 1974, introducing a skeptical steak-eating city to tapas.


Francisco (Paco) Rivas was born in Madrid, Spain on February 19, 1940. The Spanish Civil War had ended less than a year earlier. Paco’s father owned a taxi and his mother was a homemaker; hard work and the support of a tightknit family, including those who owned farmland, ensured the family always had food on the table. Paco's father was also very pro-education and made sure his children went to good schools.

“He was young and adventurous and had a zest for life,” Natalie says.


Paco went to London where he was first introduced to the hospitality business. He worked at several hotels, including the Savoy, and his curiosity took him to places such as Paris and Scandinavia.


In the early 1960s he immigrated to Montreal and got a job at the Beaver Club, “which was a big deal back then,” Natalie says. He continued exploring various opportunities until he landed in Vancouver in 1968 to work at Sea Island, a fine dining restaurant at the airport. It wasn’t long before a friend introduced him to Sharon Paul, an Anglophone from Quebec who had studied nursing in Montreal. They married in December 1969 and had two children, Natalie and Paul.

 

"What impressed me about Paco," Sharon says, "is that he was very spontaneous and bright, always ready to learn. He coud have a fiery temper but he never carried a grudge or went to bed mad."

 

When it came to his business approach, his wife says, "He was a perfectionist. He liked things done well."


Paco and his business partner José Rivas changed the face of Vancouver’s restaurant scene when they opened Chateau Madrid at 1277 Howe Street in 1971.


“My father was very proud of being Spanish and wanted to educate people on the history, the food and the music,” Paul says.


The restaurant, with its white-linen tabletops, was on the upper floor of what later became La Bodega (which translates as wine storehouse.) Although Chateau Madrid was a success, the partners believed that Vancouver was ready to discover tapas. “People balked at the idea. They thought it would be an epic fail,” Natalie says.


“Spain is a very social country focused around food and family and good friends,” his daughter adds. “You share around the table. He wanted that kind of atmosphere.”


La Bodega was born in 1974 and when it closed its doors in 2014 to make room for a new condo building, it was one of the longest-running restaurants in Vancouver. In fact, it was so popular that Chateau Madrid morphed into its second storey.


There were the dark wooden beams, the bull’s head on the wall, the checkered tablecloths and the menu that was as genuine and honest as the people serving it. Rather than following food trends, La Bodega perfected the rustic, simple-but-textured flavours of Spain and built a loyal clientele that not only savoured the food but the feeling of being welcomed into a loving and sometimes boisterous extended family.


Such success requires a lot of hard work and yet Paco always made his family feel like they were vital to his happiness. Working a double shift, he’d leave La Bodega in the afternoon, go home for dinner with his wife and children, and return to the restaurant for what could be a very, very long night shift.


“He was at every soccer game on a Saturday or Sunday even though he’d been at La Bodega until early in the morning,” Paul says. Natalie agrees. “We knew our parents worked hard but we never felt like we didn’t get more than another attention. You never saw [the work stress] or felt it.”


In 1999, Paco was diagnosed with Parkinsons but 10 years later they realized he presented more with PSP, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, an uncommon neurological disease that falls under the Parkinson’s umbrella. It affects the neck area, creating difficulties in swallowing and speaking.


Paco’s personality proved to be a useful ally in his fight with the disease.


“I think he was just stubborn,” Paul says, with a laugh. “He was fighting, fighting, fighting.”


Because PSP affects balance, it’s not surprising that one day Paco fell down the stairs at La Bodega. Paco was lying on the floor with a broken neck when the phone rang. When he tried to get up to answer it, the EMS who had arrived to take him to hospital struggled to stop him. “But it might be a reservation,” he protested.

Luckily, the break in his neck was high and didn’t cause paralysis, although Paco did have to spend six months in a halo.


His wife Sharon says, “when you have a long illness like Paco had, you can feel abandoned. But it never felt like that for us. We’ve been very present with our friends. They stayed with us all through journey.”


Paco Rivas died on December 19, 2016 and many of those friends were at Bodega on Main on Saturday to share their stories and love for a man who helped foster Vancouver’s food culture. Friends and staff share their memories here. 

 

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