An Ode to the Topanga Cafe

Fire took down the 40-year-old institution this morning. And while it never racked up the awards, there's something about its unchanging nature that will be deeply missed.

July 5, 2018

By Melissa Edwards / Photo: Topanga Cafe

Early this morning, I woke to stinging eyes and the smell of smoke drifting in through the window and thought, “What have we lost this time?” Twitter, as it always does, provided the answer first: we’ve lost the Topanga Cafe, Kitsilano’s unchanging, 40-year-old house of refried beans, rice cooked to the plate, and enchiladas that fall somewhere in the range of “tex” to “mex.”

It feels odd to eulogize a place when I can literally still see the smoke rising, but it’s hitting me hard to see yet another landmark from my early years in this city come down—this time by fire rather than bulldozer. Topanga’s was here when I first moved to Vancouver in 1988—and in almost every detail exactly the same now as it was then, at least up until about 4 a.m. this morning. At least half a dozen of my friends worked there in their teens and 20s, and I (probably alone among them) still go there with my husband once in a while. Or went there, since now, like so many other hangouts from my younger years, it’s gone (along with its building-mates, an appliance store that I have never seen a human person inside, a reflexology spa that I’ve been told is great but never tried, and some upstairs apartments that Facebook tells me was home to local actors who are friends of friends).

And it was actually on my last visit to Topanga’s when I spotted the boarded-up windows of the House Gallery across the street, which was the place in 1994 for crushed velvet goth gowns with bell sleeves, lace-up bodices and cheap trim.

Even though Topanga’s wasn’t cool and the food was far from authentic or award-winning (in fact, on one recent visit with a houseguest it was embarrassingly bad), I liked the feeling of being in a space that was exactly as I’d known it for three decades. The saddest thought might be the loss of what was up on the walls: several dozen framed versions of the menu that customers had arted up over the years—the line-drawn black-on-beige desert scape changed into wild sunsets, space scenes, snakes-and-ladders homages, tornados and trippy op-art, all produced by a community of locals who had a gifted hand with crayon. In our 20s, my wanna-be artist friends and I often tried to draw a menu good enough to make it onto that wall, but the reality was that canon that closed long ago. And now they exist only in pictures on Yelp.

Customers who illustrated their menus had a shot at getting them framed for the Topanga wall. (Photo: Yelp)

The restaurant is a loss that follows many others in Kits—though most were places I admittedly didn’t go to very often anymore. I had the Hollywood Theatre, where $2.50 Tuesdays used to keep me entertained as a poor college student, until a few years ago. Benny’s Bagels, my 3 a.m. teenaged coffee hangout, closed some weeks back. And it was actually on my last visit to Topanga’s when I spotted the boarded-up windows of the House Gallery across the street, which was the place in 1994 for crushed velvet goth gowns with bell sleeves, lace-up bodices and cheap trim—amazingly long-lived but now sold, shuttered, and about to be demolished. Topanga’s, flanked on both sides by big blocks of condos (one of which had the balls to name itself after the record store it razed and replaced), felt like a stalwart, just busy enough maybe to ride the real-estate storm out for a while. And maybe they would have, but now we won’t know.

Topanga’s very Cali-Mex take on the baked burrito. (photo: Topanga’s)

So Topanga’s, I’ll miss you. I’ll miss your swooping font, your crayon menus, your cute tiny glasses of sangria, and your cake stand with the random chocolate cake that I never tried. I’ll even miss the annoyance of forgetting that you’re closed on Sundays. I probably won’t miss your taco salad because that was never very good and I don’t know why I kept ordering it, but I will always love you for being a comfortable, familiar, and friendly part of my city and my neighbourhood—and a rare, place-based connection to the past.

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