NORTH SHORE SHAKEDOWN: It's closing time at West Vancouver's only true dive bar

Grant Lawrence pours one out from below deck of the Squarerigger Pub

After a remarkable 42-year run of slinging suds to a loyal cast of rough ’n’ tumble regulars, Ambleside’s legendary Squarerigger Pub has permanently closed its doors.

For many, the nautical-themed hole in the wall was a West Vancouver rite of passage. The Kooner Hospitality Group that owned the pub for the past several years cited COVID-19 as the reason for the permanent closure, but wouldn’t offer details.

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“It was West Vancouver’s one and only dive bar,” Baron Cameron expressed longingly. Cameron, a freelance photographer and lifelong West Van resident, had been a colourful “Riggular” at the pub for almost 20 years, and was “practically part of the furniture,” as another longtime customer described him.

“Yeah,” Cameron concurred. “I staggered in one night in the early ’90s and never left.”

In recent years, the pub was nicknamed “West Van’s Dirty Little Secret” by former staffer turned regular Crystal Fleming, whose father Gord Fleming was an original two-fisted patron. The tagline caught on to such a degree that they started printing it on the bottom of the bar receipts. According to Crystal, KHG never updated the decor and allowed the beloved pub to slide into a state of disrepair. “It went to crap,” she stated.

“We practically had to pour our own drinks,” Cameron confirmed. “It was kind of an ‘inmates running the asylum’ type situation by the end.”

It wasn’t always that way. The Squarerigger Pub, so named after the wooden-hulled, wooden-masted square-sailed ships of yore, was tucked neatly into West Van’s Village Square, a European-style inner plaza at 14th Street and Marine Drive.

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Baron Cameron and Sarah Jane Ritchie. photo courtesy Baron Cameron

Original owners George Fotiou and Dan Reagan managed to land a highly coveted pub licence in 1978 (then called the “million-dollar pub sweepstakes”) with the help of influential West Vancouver Crown prosecutor Lorne Topham. Together, they converted a small teahouse into a bona fide 70-seat pub. It quickly became the place to be.

“There were long lineups to get into the Squarerigger when it first opened,” recalled original customer Rick Boulton, a recently retired North Van parks manager. “It was so difficult to get a pub licence back then. You really couldn’t go anywhere for a mixed drink or a beer that wasn’t connected to a hotel. You had to be having dinner. A pub in Ambleside was a big novelty.”

The Squarerigger’s owners had beaten out several other West Van applicants for their licence – including future mayor Mark Sager – supposedly because its location wasn’t directly on Marine Drive. Anything to do with alcohol was best kept out of sight and out of mind in tony West Van.

Still, the pub was so busy when it first opened that they created a “Neighbourhood Card” that allowed friends and neighbours to skip the queue for a cold one. Boulton still has his.

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photo courtesy Baron Cameron

One bartender everyone seems to remember is Noel Poesiat, the namesake of the Squarerigger’s infamous signature drink “Noel’s Punch”: a towering beer mug mix of ice, vodka, lime juice, soda, and Amaretto. According to Poesiat, it was “extremely refreshing.” In the early 1980s, Noel went from “bus boy to running the place within five years.”

By then, the opening buzz had worn off and the pub was seeing some quiet nights. That was when Poesiat convinced the owners to take a gamble on live music. Poesiat had gone to Hillside Secondary with Colin Nairne, who was playing guitar with a new band called Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts. Poesiat managed to book the group to play New Year’s Eve at the Squarerigger. By then, the pub had taken over a downstairs art gallery, which was where the band played. The extra space also increased capacity to 120.

“The place was absolutely stuffed to the max,” remembered Poesiat. “We easily did five times the regular bar sales and more than doubled the capacity.” Bentall played the Rigger a few more times in various incarnations before becoming a platinum-selling, Juno Award-winning artist with multiple hit singles, but he can still remember the Squarerigger gig: “It was one of those wild, jam-packed scenes.”

More live music followed. Noel also went to Hillside with John Mann, the legendary lead singer of Spirit of the West. His first band, Eavesdropper, played the Squarerigger, as did the iconic Spirit of the West. The band would later immortalize the pub within the lyrics of their perennial drinking anthem “The Crawl:”

“Park Royal Hotel, The Rusty Gull, Squarerigger and Queen's Cross / We'd started out with eight good boys but half had gotten lost; / And you'll never keep the lads together when their eyes begin to rove, / And there was just the three of us that made it to Deep Cove.”

By the mid-1980s, bartender Noel Poesiat had moved on. Live music faded and problems began to mount. Underage kids had discovered the Squarerigger, and many a nostalgic West Vancouverite will claim that their first pint was consumed within the pub’s walls when they were well under the legal drinking age. The infamous off-sales window that opened into the adjacent McDonald’s parking lot had the reputation as the easiest way to score a quick six-pack of Kokanee without being ID’d. Fights and brawls at the Squarerigger became commonplace. Eventually, according to Noel, the original owners engaged in their own battle, a dispute that wound up in court, resulting in the forced sale of the pub.

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photo courtesy Baron Cameron

Enter Bryan Nygard, a former West Van police officer, and his wife, Sandra “Chick” Spohn. They bought the pub in 1986 and, by all accounts, like doting innkeepers, they lovingly restored the décor, vibe, and reputation of the Squarerigger. They added an outdoor patio, a jukebox, a phone booth shipped over from Glasgow, a pool table (unheard of in any West Van establishment at that time), a cold beer and wine store, and Chick’s famous free Friday night appetizers that packed the place.

Nygard, now retired and still living in Ambleside, affectionately remembered the cross section of clientele. “With the courthouse down the street, you’d have both the lawyers and the criminals coming in for a drink at the same time,” he chuckled. “And they’d all have a story. Sometimes you’d have to ask them to hold up their wrists to see the handcuff marks to figure out which one was the crook.”

Ian Miller was another Riggular who remembered Bryan and Chic fondly. “They were great owners,” Miller told me. “They cared.”

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The patio of the Squarerigger in the early 1990s in the Village Square of West Vancouver. photo courtesy of Sandra Spohn

Miller, who later became a convicted international drug smuggler and wrote about it in Hustler, said he always felt at home at the Squarerigger. “Didn’t matter what stage of life I was at,” Miller expressed. “Whenever I went in there I knew somebody, like Larry.”

That would be Larry Whitby, a Rigger legend who had his favourite table and chair, where he would play KENO for hours.

“He’d be there every day after work,” said Miller. “He was with Ferguson Moving. Really nice guy. Huge hands. He’d rack up a bar tab in the thousands, but then win big at KENO and pay it off.”

“Larry would always fall asleep in his chair,” continued Baron Cameron warmly. “His head actually wore away a patch on the wall from simply leaning against it so many times, which they never fixed, never painted over.”

Eventually, Chick affixed an engraved metal plate above the spot on the wall. It read “Larry’s Livingroom.” Larry Whitby passed away in May 2019.

Since Crystal Fleming’s father Gord was a Riggular from the beginning, some of her earliest memories include being bounced on Larry’s knee. She bartended on and off at the Rigger in the 2000s.

“It was a working class bar,” Crystal told me with emotion in her voice. “It was a great feeling going in there. Everyone was treated the same. With respect.”

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Bryan Nygard and Sandra “Chick” Spohn, Squarerigger owners from 1986-2003, with the 1994 BC Lions Grey Cup. photo courtesy of Sandra Spohn

After 17 profitable, standout years, Nygard and Spohn sold out in 2003. Amazingly, despite living a few blocks away, Nygard never once set foot in his beloved pub again.

“We enjoyed our time there and did well, but no, I never looked back. But to this day,” he added reflectively, “I will say that one of my favourite sounds is coins in the slot of a pool table.”

A few years later, the Squarerigger was purchased by its final owner: KHG. They brought in Scott Thompson, a young, popular, first-time manager.

“I loved the Squarerigger,” stated Thompson, who now owns and operates Mad Lab Distilleries in East Vancouver. “It had its problems and the owners weren’t putting any money into it, but I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. The community in that place was amazing. I considered that bar a great equalizer. You’d see someone who just closed a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars chatting with someone who didn’t have $5 to their name. There was no pretension.” Thompson paused for a moment. “Then again, I did call the police more times at the Squarerigger than at any other bar I’ve ever worked at.”

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photo courtesy Baron Cameron

Despite the flare-ups of sloppy drunken punch-ups (Paul Preminger, the drummer from my band, the Smugglers, once had an acoustic guitar smashed over his head at the Rigger) the one word that comes up again and again is “family.”

Trish McKay has cerebral palsy and gets around West Vancouver on an electric scooter. She can easily recall her first night at the Squarerigger.

“It was my 37th birthday, and I wanted one more drink. I got brave enough to finally check out the Rigger. They found out it was my birthday and all of the sudden the entire pub is surrounding me singing Happy Birthday. One of the Riggulars ran across the street to 7-Eleven and returned with an ice cream cake and candles! I knew then I had found my new hangout, and they all really have become family. That was 10 years ago, and they have been there for me through good and bad.”

“There was no judgment at the Rigger,” added Vanessa Horn, a 20-year customer, who, like Trish, was reluctant to enter at first. “Baron once strolled in wearing a kilt, a woman’s fur coat, and full makeup. No one batted an eye. And there was a beer waiting for him on the bar.”

NORTH SHORE SHAKEDOWN: It's closing time at West Vancouver's only 'dive bar'_3
photo courtesy Baron Cameron

Rumours of the Squarerigger’s closure have persisted for years before the plug was finally pulled in mid-April.

“The bar wasn’t that profitable,” admitted Thompson. “Customers had been coming in for the past 15 years saying ‘I heard this place is shutting down soon.’ It finally happened. I heard it was a lease issue.”

John Ferzandi owns the building and had been the Squarerigger’s landlord for almost 30 years. He said he tried to convince KHG to stay.

“They were on a short-term, month-to-month lease, and they didn’t want to renew,” Ferzandi told me. “I tried to help them. I offered them rent relief to stay on, but they told me that the numbers didn’t make sense, that they wouldn’t consider reopening. I’ve been approached by others about the space, maybe a new pub or restaurant, but everything is in limbo right now.”

Despite the closure, a dozen or so Riggulars still gather at happy hour – at supposedly safe distances – outside the locked doors in the Village Square. In mid-April the movers showed up.

“I went into shock,” said Trish McKay when she heard the news. “I dropped everything to go see it for myself. I cried.”

After removing whatever equipment they deemed valuable, the movers allowed the Riggulars who had gathered outside to strip the place of all the old artifacts that had collected over four decades.

“I got the sidewalk sign,” McKay told me. Other items that went to safe homes included a captain’s wheel, a First Nations wooden statue, a harpoon, model ships, a 1994 Grey Cup football, and the “Larry’s Livingroom” sign.

Once pubs are allowed to reopen, the Riggulars plan to relocate to the West Van Legion on 18th Street, but they know it won’t be the same.

“The special thing about the Squarerigger that will likely never be duplicated,” summarized Cameron, “was it was full of an amazing array of people who would otherwise never have met, and we all had one thing in common: beer.”

Grant Lawrence is a North Shore-raised author, musician, columnist and CBC personality.

• • •

Noel’s Punch Recipe:

-          One large beer mug filled with ice

-          Two shots of vodka

-          A cross mix of sweetened lime juice and soda

-          Fill to a half inch from the top

-          Add one ounce of Amaretto

-          Enjoy!

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