As a boy, Zoltan Szilvassy used to cycle from Port Coquitlam to the Downtown Eastside, crawl into boarded-up buildings and unearth more treasures than he could pedal home.
A rusty saw he found when he was 12 (and on foot) now hangs on the wall at East Café, which he and his wife Dayln opened three months ago at the corner of East Hastings and Nanaimo. A lamp he stumbled upon is now suspended above the condiments.
Zoltan, who’s worked as a vintage scooter mechanic and espresso machine repairer, previoulsy owned much of the cafe’s memorabilia — the weathered time card holder from Dayton Boots, a Viewmaster slide of Vancouver images, and The Young Canadians and D.O.A. gig posters.
Inside the coffee shop, which used to be a Mr. Donair shop, they’ve also mounted photos that pay tribute to stevedores, nurses and grain elevator workers but Zoltan says archival shots of the formerly working-class area were scant because the vicinity was previously considered unimportant.
Zoltan’s love of history also stopped him from painting over a kitschy Mediterranean mural, put there by his friend’s family, which ran a restaurant in the spot in the 1960s. But he has covered it with a white sheet. A splintered wooden sign that he recovered from the defunct Brave Bull’s House of Steaks now rests in front of the hidden mural with other paraphernalia and the couple’s vintage bikes.
The pair shares a passion for community and all things vintage. His family used to visit Hungary, where Zoltan discovered his love of history. “I just liked old stuff,” he says.
Dalyn researched every business that occupied 2401 East Hastings St. before them. “We were a confectionary in 1914,” Zoltan notes.
The couple has lived all over Vancouver and say their current neighbourhood is their favourite. “Just the diversity,” explains Dalyn. “You can walk out the door and get lots of different stuff.”
They take the Courier to one of their favourite lunch spots, Master Chef Café, just up the block.
Its wood panelling, red vinyl booths and stools that line a long lunch counter make it feel like a step back in time. Tony Fung takes orders for diner-style and Chinese food while his wife, May, cooks them up. The Chinese-Canadian pair are in their 80s.
Zoltan orders a cheeseburger deluxe (made from beef bought at the neighbouring Rio Friendly Meats) and an order of “May’s world famous freshly cut fries” according to the yellowed paper menu for a total cost of $4.
Dalyn says a couple of Portuguese men typically occupy a table and chat with Fung.
“I like something talk, talk, talk, talk to the friendship,” Fung interjects.
Roundel Café, just down the street, previously looked at lot like Master Chef, says Zoltan.
“And same with Red Wagon,” Dalyn adds, referring to the nearby restaurant that was featured on TV show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and sees line-ups out the door every weekend.
After lunch, Zoltan returns to the coffee shop and Dalyn heads to Rio Friendly Meats. Owner Eddy Musto wants to know what Dalyn is making when she orders a pound of bacon. Then he wants to know if she’ll bring him a slice of the “fatty” she’s preparing; sausages, jalapenos, cilantro and macaroni and cheese smoked within woven slices of bacon.
On the way to Donald’s Market, Dalyn points to some of their other favourite eateries —Nanaimo Sushi, Seto Café that slings all-day breakfast alongside Chinese food and Felicia’s Italian restaurant with its plentiful art, photos, foliage and an Elvis clock.
“That’s the hub of this neighbourhood, absolutely,” she says of Donald’s, an independent grocery shop.
The second Dalyn steps through Donald’s doors she’s greeted with a warm “Hello” from the cashier who has memorized at least 7,000 customers’ names.
Back at East Café, customers flow in. “Iced coffee?” Zoltan says when a mustachioed man in a burgundy smock comes in.
“How did you know?” asks Joe Commisso of Sorrento Barbers and Hair Stylists. Commisso, a longtime resident of the area, says over the last two decades Chinese-Canadian residents have taken to the neighbourhood much like European-Canadians did decades ago. He likes the mix. “To have a good minestrone you put a lot of stuff… one choice it’s no good,” Commisso says.
Zoltan, who used to co-own the departed Lugz coffee shop on Main Street near Broadway before Tim Horton’s occupied the corner, doesn’t want affordable, independently owned businesses in Hastings-Sunrise to be replaced by chains.
“[But] I know by doing these kinds of articles and having our cafe we increase the popularity of the area,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with what happened to Broadway and Main, but we don’t want to lose why we’re here.”
Dalyn opposes rezoning that would allow mid-rise buildings along the Grandview-Woodland stretches of Nanaimo and East Hastings.
“If that goes through, it’ll all be gone because the property taxes will skyrocket,” Dalyn says. “Our landlord’s down at city hall trying to fight for that all the time.”