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THE DISH: Storied Norgate diner steeped in history

The Tomahawk restaurant has an unmediated relationship with its history.

The Tomahawk restaurant has an unmediated relationship with its history.

The older I get, the more I come to appreciate how vital it is to keep history close at hand, to keep the past alive through knowledge of it and afford it the ability to inform and, where appropriate, guide the present.

We are not blank memory cards inserted into an indifferent machine, but rather subjective navigators of an existing context, a world into which we are thrust and the customs of which we inherit before we can shape it.

I was recently watching cartoons with my kids on a Saturday morning. My son, The Boy, put on some classic Looney Tunes, a selection of cartoons from the catalogue that populated Saturday morning children’s programming when I was a boy, when my father was a boy, and when his father was a boy before that.

Looney Tunes are still the property of Warner Bros., the studio that produced them from the 1930s through the 1960s. Today, however, when you tune into the cartoons, they are prefaced by a disclaimer exhibited on a static golden title card that effectively says these animated shorts are the product of a bygone era, influenced by the prevailing cultural attitudes of the time and do not reflect the current views of Warner Bros.

The disclaimer is meant to provide a buffer between the studio and its content, as if to say “we know this stuff is a bit questionable by today’s standards, so don’t freak out on us if you choose to watch it anyway.”

Despite the litigiously conscious disclaimer, I think the decision to continue to air the content is the correct one. To bury the cartoons in some archive would be to gloss over the fact that they existed, to suggest that what we know now can somehow be divorced from what it took to get us here.

I have been to Tomahawk a number of times, principally for breakfast. For the purposes of this column, however, I wanted to try something different, particularly given that the restaurant makes all of its dishes from scratch and sources ethically produced ingredients (like organic beef and eggs) wherever possible.

The Dagenais family thus descended on the restaurant between meal services, around 3 p.m. on a Sunday. The time was strategically chosen; the place was quieter than I have ever seen it and I was able to observe, unhurried and with quiet reflection, the esthetic of the room. Tomahawk is filled wall to wall with art and artifacts drawn from regional First Nations.

The Tomahawk story is well known and oft published: the restaurant’s founder, Chick Chamberlain (father of today’s owner/operator Chuck Chamberlain) opened the eatery in 1926, on the eve of the Great Depression.

Despite offering dishes like barbecued beef sandwiches for 10 cents, cash-strapped North Shore residents sometimes couldn’t afford to dine. In exchange for a meal, patrons would sometimes offer Chick artwork.

Many of these handmade goods remain in the restaurant today and so much of what adorns the rustic diner are authentic and traditional items that help tell the story of the community that it has served for 90 years, contributing to the venue’s unofficial status as an important museum of regional tradition.

Some of the images, symbols and designs, however, particularly those that serve branding and way-finding purposes, may seem archaic and anachronistic to the contemporary observer, outmoded in the same way certain installments in the Looney Tunes oeuvre are today.

But just like Warner Bros., Tomahawk has decided not to temper or shy away from these relics; they coexist with the rest of the artifacts to paint a richer and more accurate picture of where we have come from to get to where we are today. This is what I mean when I say Tomahawk has an unmediated relationship with its history.

My older kids, The Boy and Blondie, both had burgers. Upon visiting, you’ll note more than 20 years’ worth of North Shore News Reader’s Choice Award plaques lining Tomahawk’s entrance, alternately denoting the restaurant’s prowess in the provision of breakfast and hamburgers.

Their burgers are perfect examples of diner fare, simple and classic, not topped with anything esoteric, and made here with organic beef.

My wife DJ had a veggie sandwich, a cold-style sarnie consisting of spinach, Swiss cheese, tomato, roasted red pepper, cucumber and special house sauce on a whole-wheat bun. The sandwich was filling, but not overwhelmingly so, offering a relatively guilt-free centerpiece around which to place fries, included with the dish.

I opted for a house-made beef and mushroom pie served with mashed potatoes with gravy, steamed vegetables and, for no apparent reason beyond rendering an already huge meal enormous, two slices of thick-cut garlic bread.

The pie was generously stuffed with mushrooms sliced into quarters and plenty of cubed beef. The sauce and mashed potato gravy were dark and deeply concentrated, making the whole affair a filling option for the rainy season ahead.

We finished our meal with a towering slice of tart, spongy lemon meringue pie

With juice and/or soft drinks for all, our meal was $70 before gratuity. Tomahawk Restaurant is located at 1550 Philip Ave. in North Vancouver. 604-988-2612

Chris Dagenais served as a manager for several restaurants downtown and on the North Shore. A self-described wine fanatic, he earned his sommelier diploma in 2001. He can be reached via email at [email protected]. North Shore News dining reviews are conducted anonymously and all meals are paid for by the newspaper.