Sam Yehia vividly remembers the first time he visited the Cambie Bar & Grill in the winter of 1990.
No-frills, a little worn at the edges, a bit sketchy — and that was just the regulars sinking their beer at the terry towel-covered tables scattered around the venerable downtown dive bar.
As Yehia surveyed the room from the entrance, a large chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling and crashed to the floor beside a table of beer drinkers, he recalls. A “mushroom cloud” of dust billowed up beside them.
“I was quite startled by the fact that no one moved,” Yehia remembers. “Then [the table of beer drinkers] looked around and saw the plaster. Then they picked up their glasses, blew the layer of plaster dust off the beer glass and continued drinking.”
Yehia was so impressed, he bought the building.
Now CEO of the Cambie Malone’s Group, he believes it’s that kind of resilience and devotion shown by the Cambie’s patrons that’s kept a bar going in here under different names for more than a century, give or take that party-pooping period of Prohibition.
To celebrate what the bar claims is its 120th anniversary, Yehia and his team are throwing a three-day Cambie Fest party starting Thursday, featuring live music, art shows, DJs and, of course, drinks specials.
It’s notable that the Cambie has remained almost impervious to change amid Vancouver’s whirlwind evolution from logging outpost to multicultural housing hedge fund.
Yehia says he's made occasional small improvements to the venue, but not so much that people notice. That said, he recalls customers faithfully putting up with a four-month renovation to the toilets about a decade ago.
“It made me realize that this has to stay in its original form and its original mandate of being that watering hole for all walks of life; however you have come here, this is your corner,” Yehia says.
This demographic – or, rather, lack of – is another reason why people keep coming back to the Cambie, Yehia believes.
Customers range “from 19 to 99 years old,” he says, and they sit at communal tables; it’s a “tie-free zone,” says Yehia, who gleefully reports seeing many guys in suits stuffing their ties into their pockets as they enter. Meanwhile, the Cambie Hostel upstairs houses up to 150 people from around the world, and the bar is often their first social experience of Vancouver.
It’s this mix of humanity that gives the Cambie its special atmosphere, Yehia says – and its many stories.
Yehia relates several, including the discovery of a printing press in the basement that the previous owner had used to create counterfeit cash; and the night during the toilet renovations when the six temporary Porta Potties in the lane outside were toppled, domino style.
Almost everyone who’s frequented the Cambie in their youth — and that means most people who turned 19 while living in Vancouver (or some younger teens willing to test their fake IDs) — has a “Cambie story”.
Many of them, you might imagine, describe some sort of debauchery possibly related to the Jäger Bombs on the drinks list.
But there are many heart-warming tales too, of relationships that began here and developed into long-lasting marriages.
A Facebook post by the Cambie Bar asking for patrons’ favourite stories ahead of Cambie Fest was full of many such fateful tales.
"Was there April 26, 2002, bumped into a guy that was in the same artillery unit 10 years before," recalls Jessikah Parson. "Started reminiscing and all of a sudden we're celebrating our 15th anniversary. Our daughter is about to start Grade 8."
"I met my [future] husband at the Cambie in November 2011 on a random Thursday night," writes Jen Miller Kuni. "We got married exactly a year ago and stopped by after the ceremony for a pint!"
Over the years, there have been many wedding receptions held in the bar, Yehia says. Even more poignant are the celebrations of life that take place there. It proves Yehia’s point that the Cambie remains a place for the community to gather – a growing rarity in downtown Vancouver.
He says he’s fielded offers to buy the property, which occupies prime real estate. But Yehia appears to feel responsibility for keeping the unique atmosphere of the Cambie intact.
“There’s nothing slick about the Cambie. It’s raw, it’s the real McCoy, it’s the ground zero of pubs,” he says.
• Cambie Fest runs Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at the Cambie Bar & Grill. Tickets $10/day. VIP Party ($25) on Sept. 2 from 5:30-8 p.m. Full details at cambiepubs.com/cambie-fest
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story referred to the Cambie Bar as the city’s oldest licensed establishment, based on claims made by the Cambie Bar & Grill. The Westender couldn’t find corroborating proof of this. The building that currently houses the bar was built in 1899 as a drug store and office building. It became the Hotel Carlton and Carlton Cafe in 1910.