Twenty Years Later, Is Donnelly Group Good for Vancouver?
Our editors debate the good, bad and douchey of the city's most ubiquitous pub chain ahead of its 20th anniversary.
June 4, 2019
Love ’em or hate ’em, the Donnelly Group is an integral part of Vancouver’s nightlife scene (and, as we’re still grappling to understand, its hair-cutting scene as well). Since Jeff Donnelly purchased the Bimini (which, today, is no longer under the Donnelly umbrella) in 1999, his brand’s offerings have swelled into over a dozen vaguely British-themed drinking establishments and barbershops, mostly in the downtown core, with a recent expansion into Toronto and sights set on the world of cannabis.
With Donnelly’s 20th anniversary this month, it seemed like a good a time as any for our editors to lock themselves in a room to debate the value of the company’s impact on our fair city. (Foolishly, we did not serve beer—note to selves for our 30th anniversary debate.)
Stacey McLachlan, executive editor: Donnelly Group. 20 years. How would you describe what Donnelly Group is?
Anicka Quin, editorial director: I feel like they’ve changed over time, both in their reputation and what they’re trying to build. I used to think of them as a generic chain of bars that would come in and make everything look the same—and they were known for that. But then they recognized that they needed to create individual personalities for the bars and venues they were opening. I think Clough Club was the first place they approached like that.
SM: It feels so different there.
Lucy Lau, style editor: That one doesn’t feel like a Donnelly Group bar, I agree. But I feel like they waited a really long time before they started giving their venues these personalities, whether that be because they didn’t want to or because it wasn’t a trend yet. They probably didn’t start doing that until, like, five years ago.
Nathan Caddell, associate editor: I’d agree with that. I wouldn’t go somewhere like the Lamplighter, for instance, but I went to the new Railway Club and I feel like they did a really good job with it. It’s hard to fault it. They kept most of the things at the original Railway, but have updated it so that there’s better beer and food.
SM: People were upset when they took over the Railway Club. They were like, “Oh, they’re gonna ruin it.”
NC: For sure, because Donnelly had that reputation, right? But I think they left most of the original Railway things intact. At least, I found that, anyway. And you don’t have to drink PBR there anymore.
LL: That was part of the charm!
NC: Well, that’s true. I think it’s still available. I don’t know!
AQ: And the Railway was a failing bar for a long time, right? It was great, but it ultimately had to close.
Neal McLennan, food editor: It didn’t make money. People talked about how great it was, but then they never went. Now, the lines on the taps are clean. Donnelly has Trash Panda on tap at almost all of their bars. They’ve raised the bar a lot higher in terms of what the average bar needs to carry on tap now. Before they came in, it was fine to have Kokanee and Molson on tap at most pubs. Now there’s this idea that craft beer is a requirement, and Donnelly doesn’t get a lot of credit for starting that. It would be very easy—and a lot more lucrative—for them to get a huge payout from Stella, and have Stella or something like that on tap. But they don’t do that. They push the craft thing pretty hard.
SM: Are people annoyed with Donnelly Group? Do people look down on it? My impression is yes, but I’m not sure why specifically. There are worse options out there. I mean, I’m glad Kelly O’Bryan’s doesn’t dominate the scene. Yeah, that’s right: I’ll go on record and say Kelly O’Bryan’s sucks. Come at me!
LL: You lay off their pacho fries.
NC: Donnelly is associated with this kind of douchey aesthetic, right? Like, bro-y, douchey. And I think if you go to some of their bars, that holds true. And there’s the argument that Donnelly is this faceless conglomerate that takes over other establishments. So I think that’s where the annoyance comes from, but I’m not sure how founded that is now.
NM: They have all these personalities with their bars, but, still, it’s like there’s this branding person sitting in an office who’s behind it all. Real bars have real personalities. They don’t have an executive who says, “Okay, what kind of craft-beer-focused thing should we do?” So there’s this element of Donnelly being managed. On the flip side, sometimes we—the general public—just take these things too seriously. Other than, arguably, Clough Club, these places are just bars. What’s wrong with a bar? Look at the most recent VanMag Restaurant Awards: the Best Bar winner is arguably not even a bar. If you’re with eight or 10 friends, you can’t even go to Grapes and Soda.
SM: You can’t get a pitcher.
NM: Most people go somewhere like the Lamplighter—a big bar. So, in that category, Donnelly is pretty solid. Sometimes we think people hem and haw, and they want the perfect Old Fashioned and are willing to pay 18 bucks for it. But that’s not 90 percent of people who go to bars. Most people just want to go out and have a decently priced beer or a double vodka-soda. And if Donnelly moves the needle on that—and are getting people to order a better craft beer than they would at some other place—then that’s not a bad thing.
LL: I think a big part of Donnelly’s reputation is that, in a city like Vancouver where so many independent businesses have closed in recent years, Donnelly is seen as—like you said, Nate—this big, nameless conglomerate that comes in and takes over these spaces that are being vacated by the little guys. And people were and are upset about that. They want to channel their frustration toward something, and Donnelly serves as a scapegoat. That was easier to do before Donnelly started branching out and giving their businesses personalities. All their venues literally used to be the same thing—the exact same feel, the exact same menu. You could walk into a place and just tell you were in a Donnelly Group bar.
SM: You could smell the truffle oil!
NM: In the restaurant realm, people talk about how Joey, Cactus Club and Earls push out independent businesses. But tell me a good bar that’s gone out of business because of Donnelly. What good bar owner hasn’t been able to make a go of it because of them? I think that argument is truer when it comes to restaurants. Look at a place like the Academic: it goes out of business and Storm Crow comes in and proves that Donnelly is not this behemoth that squashes the little guys. Storm Crow is knocking it out of the park at that exact same location. And they got all of the benefits from the Donnelly upgrades in the building.
NC: But it’s worth noting that Storm Crow does a bar concept that’s a lot better than Donnelly’s.
NM: Well, sure. But I think it also disproves the idea that Donnelly is this monopoly that comes in and crushes these independent businesses. I don’t know of a bar—a good bar—that has closed because of Donnelly, because cool, little bars have such small margins. Look at the Keefer: you could put three bars beside it and it would still do well. And that’s the same with most of the small, high-end cocktail bars around the city. It’s apples and oranges to compare those to Donnelly pubs. Except for maybe Clough Club and Royal Dinette.
LL: Royal Dinette opened around this transition period, right? It opened along with Blackbird, when Donnelly was starting to give some thought to each venue’s brand and personality.
SM: That’s when they started opening barber shops as well.
AQ: Getting back to the Railway Club. For 20 years—or probably more—in this city, people have talked about the demise of live-music venues and how they’re constantly being shut down. So to see a live-music venue like the Railway doing well is great. There’s no money in live music, but Donnelly continues to respect the history of that space. In terms of comparing Donnelly to another pub chain like McMenamins in Portland, I don’t think McMenamins has quite the same bad name down there. But that could be because I’m tourist and I just don’t see it.
SM: You’re just like, “Woo! A school I can drink in.”
LL: To me, Donnelly is kind of like Daily Hive. They both have this reputation that they just can’t shake.
NC: That’s not a bad analogy, actually, because they’re both everywhere.
LL: Exactly! And people hate on them, but it’s like, you’re still reading Daily Hive. You’re still going to Donnelly Group pubs.
SM: Your friend invited you there for trivia, you’re showing up.
NM: We’re saying all these nice things, but if someone called me up and said, “Hey, let’s meet at the New Oxford,” I would be like, “Are you kidding?” That’s the hallmark of someone who doesn’t have much taste. Unless there’s a reason for it, where they’re like, “Look, there’s this whisky I wanna try and it’s cheap there.” I appreciate someone not wanting to pay 19 bucks for a cocktail. I don’t like doing that either; it’s a pain in the ass. But I’m still not at the point where I would frequently go to a Donnelly pub.
AQ: What if you had a group of eight or 10 people?
NM: Well, near me I’d go to Storm Crow. There are other places.
NC: In terms of large groups, Donnelly is a lot more accommodating than a lot of other pubs. I don’t know if I would ever not go to a Donnelly bar.
NM: Oh, I’m not boycotting them! I’d say yes to going the same way I’d respond to someone asking if I want a pint of Carlsberg: “Sure. If there’s nothing else, I’ll have a pint of Carlsberg.” But I’d think, “That’s really what you’re ordering?”
SM: But there are better alternatives.
NC: There are some Donnelly pubs that are better than others.
LL: What’s a better Donnelly Group venue? What’s your fave of the Donnelly chain?
NC: I’d say the Railway Club, but that’s cheating, I think, because it didn’t start as one.
LL: It wasn’t an original Donnelly concept. Does that count?
AQ: I think that counts.
NM: It’s theirs now.
AQ: I like Clough Club, although I haven’t been there in ages.
SM: It feels like a neighbourhood bar. Like a proper, local spot.
NM: A cocktail at Clough Club is 12, 13 bucks, right? A well-made cocktail there is three or four bucks cheaper than one would be at the Diamond. And Clough Club bartenders tend to be pretty good.
SM: And they have great music there, and live performances. And a cool little room in the back.
NM: The Blackbird has an excellent whisky list that’s sort of expensive, sort of not if you know how to navigate it. It has one of the best whisky lists in the city. And it’s a nice space.
AQ: I wouldn’t feel self-conscious about inviting people to the Blackbird. I wouldn’t think of that as low-taste place to go.
SM: I guess there’s a hierarchy, and they’re targeting different people, too, right?
NM: I have not been to a Donnelly bar—Granville Room and Cinema Public House—on the Granville strip. But I wouldn’t go to any place on the Granville strip at any time of day, ever. So it’s not like I’m the target audience for these places. I mean, if you look at their prices and their menu and what you can get there, it’s generally better than what you can get nearby.
SM: There are lots of places I wouldn’t go to before I wouldn’t go to a Donnelly pub.
NM: And I think Donnelly has less stabbings than most of the venues on the strip.
SM: Now there’s a headline. Does Donnelly own any nightclubs?
LL: They used to own Republic.
SM: Oh, Idris Elba met his wife there!
NM: Was he DJing?
LL: This was before his DJ career. But I feel like Republic was a hotspot when Donnelly operated it—around the time when I was in college.
NC: Lamplighter is pretty dance-y, too.
SM: Concluding statements? Is Donnelly Group good for the city?
LL: They’re not hurting the city.
NC: Overall, they’re probably more positive than negative.
AQ: They’re filling a need.
NM: People love to shit on them. Are they douchey? Maybe. Are they the devil? No.