I Spent the Night at This 24/7 East Van Diner, and Here’s What I Saw

Twelve hours in Duffin's Donuts gives a glimpse into the culture of East Vancouver.

February 22, 2019

By Ayesha Habib / Photo: Ayesha Habib

Outside regular daytime hours, the 24-hour diner finds itself privy to the activities of night-time drunkards, early-morning risers and all those in between. It is where one can find themselves eating a full meal at three in the morning, disjointed from the rest of their sleeping city and sharing an unnamed secret with the other misfits still awake. In Vancouver, the few 24-hour restaurants—mostly drunken havens like McDonald’s and A&W—can be found in central nightlife districts like Granville or Main Street, catering to the patrons of nearby clubs and bars. But on an unassuming intersection in East Vancouver lies a family-owned 24-hour diner unlike the others.

Duffin’s Donuts, which stands at the corner of 41st and Knight, has been in business for 30 years. As real estate developers wage war on establishments like Duffin’s all over the city, this little donut shop is resilient (though not invincible: Duffin’s moved to its current location after rents were raised at its original Main Street home). Under husband-and-wife owners Tony Chhuon and Paula Sim, Cambodian refugees who arrived in Canada in the ’80’s in the wake of the Khmer Rouge, Duffin’s carries forward the East Van legacy of immigrant-owned businesses.

Duffin’s boasts an extensive menu, from all-day (and night) breakfast to over 20 subs.

Still, Duffin’s remains an oddity in many ways. Most notable is its unusual menu assortment: Fritou’s fried chicken (a Quebecois franchise) is offered right beside batches of spring rolls, American-style burgers, Vietnamese bahn mi, Mexican tortas and tamales, Salvidoran pupusas and, of course, an array of the shop’s eponymous brightly-decorated donuts. The eclectic cultural mix is almost poetic.

What accounts for the cultural mesh of a menu? According to a Vancouver Courier interview, a trip to Sim’s parents in Los Angeles in 1986 introduced the couple to the dominating latin-inspired flavours of the area—influenced, no doubt, by the immigrants that had found homes there—as well as the success among Cambodian migrants opening donut shops down in California at the time. Sim and Chhuon returned to Vancouver with plans to combine these two recipes for success: a donut store with so much more. 

Urged by a curiosity towards this peculiar diner, I decided to spend a Friday night at Duffin’s, from its busiest to its quietest hours, to scrape together a sense of the place. How has this diner survived so long in such an otherwise quiet location? Who would I find there in the dead of night while the rest of the city sleeps? How would they be different from the patrons I observe during the busy hours? What would I see that could provide a glimpse into the overall nature of East Vancouver’s nighttime culture?

The signature red-and-yellow sign still advertises discontinued menu items.

8:00 p.m.

I arrive to a scene of hectic buzzing: conversation and order calls fill the air with noise as a fried-grease sort of smell wafts in and out of the throng.

The queue to order stretches across the room already. The fried chicken seems to be most popular tonight, closely followed by a box of half-dozen donuts. The room is unobtrusive in an old-fashioned way, with a setup that elicits a surge of nostalgia, from the white-and-red checkered tiling to the cream-coloured wooden tables. 

The crowd is as varied as the menu. In the corner a group of jean-jacket clad young adults mingle, exuding a sense of authoritative coolness that diminishes everyone else in comparison. A Spanish-speaking group carb up before a night out. Single mothers and fathers treating their excitable young children to junk food are peppered among the tables. A lone man chats animatedly into his earphone speaker, swinging his legs in his seat.

A rotating array of fresh donuts fill two separate display cases.

9:00 p.m.

Stylish fashion choices, surprisingly, is a common theme of the night. Streetwear has hit East Van with a force: puffy windbreakers, tapered sweatpants, Supreme hoodies, a Hugo Boss fanny pack worn across the chest, camo thigh-high stilettos and a floral silk durag are paraded around me as I sip on my Jarritos— a fruit-flavoured soda imported from Mexico.

Next to me, a boyfriend obligingly, and patiently, takes pictures of his girlfriend sitting across from him.

The lone man, now finished with his phone call, asks to join me. His name is Juan*, a construction worker who moved to Vancouver two years ago from Guatemala. Aided by Google Translate, he says most of his coworkers only speak Spanish so it’s difficult for him to practice English. He likes Vancouver, but he’s lonely. Music is a comfort however, with Camila Cabello and Ed Sheeran among his favourites.

11:00 p.m.

Tony, of Italian heritage, joins me. He used to own the dispensary next door and has tasted most of the menu, calling Duffin’s “the most reliable comfort food on the east side.” He laments about the difficulties of operating a dispensary in a post-legalized cannabis world as he digs into his fried chicken before dashing off to smoke a joint with his friends.

I peer behind the counter into the back kitchen, where the cooks have been assembling sub-style sandwiches at top speed. On the other side, bakers work on preparing donuts—sliding in a fresh selection at regular intervals to replace the rapidly-vanishing donuts.

The restaurant has three separate entrances/exits.

12:00 a.m.

Like clockwork the stroke of midnight brings in a crowd, a little wilder than before. Laughter and drunken rambling permeates the room through rowdy groups of boys jumping on each other. One yells to a friend across the room, “He’s tweaking, man, he’s tweaking!” about a third friend, who eats a chicken burger with shaking hands.

A group of teenagers are having a conversation about creativity in the age of social media, talking about going on ‘Instagram fasts’ to get away from the toxicity that the social network has culminated. Behind them, a boy adoringly strokes the hand of a girl sitting opposite him, while she scrolls through her smartphone, not looking up.

1:00 a.m.

Arguments, drunken complaints and lots of swearing. Two friends bicker whether they should get to-go or dine in, one complaining to the other that he was too drunk and needed to go home immediately.

Someone in the corner booth is going on a heated rant, all I can distinguish are the vehement f-words scattered throughout the monologue.

“I just don’t give a f—k anymore,” he yells at his friend, “Just f—king leave me here.” His friend leaves.

2:00 a.m.

Amar, behind the counter, offers me an espresso shot. He’s currently studying in college: he one day wants to write about environmental issues for National Geographic.

Fresh donuts are dipped into the display case, even at this time of night. Though, as there hasn’t been a quiet moment yet tonight, I assume these donuts won’t live to see daylight.

Duffin’s has its own (usually full) parking lot.

3:00 a.m.

A surge of people fill the room, drawn in by drunken cravings for carbs and grease to end their Friday night.

A balding punk with his remaining hair dyed blue and spiked up in two parts on either side of his head devours a piece of fried chicken. He drunkenly compliments a passing customer on their stylish jacket, and then feeds another some of his food before wishing me a wonderful evening as he leaves.

Tired as I am, I can’t help a feeling of giddiness. All senses of proper social etiquette are melted away by the presence of alcohol; boundaries vanish as conversations bleed across tables.

A girl calls out a compliment to another woman leaving the restaurant. She has red lipstick smudged around her mouth, smiling coyly up at the guy she’s with (who also has a curiously red-tinged mouth).

4:00 a.m.

There is a quiet lull as the ebb and flow of people trickle to a stop.

Some of the staff leave and are replaced by new faces: the first signs of a new day.

I finally get a piece of fried chicken, mostly just to stay awake. I order a single breast piece, which is handed over in a little bag with no utensils. Eating it, I realize why it’s been such a popular choice before going out: there is something primal about ripping meat off the bone with your teeth that it seems a perfect precursor or encore to a night of reckless alcohol indulgence and the debauchery that follows. The fact that it was only three dollars helped too.

5:00 a.m.

As dawn approaches, the early risers intermingle with the last dregs of the late night-ers. An old man sits scrolling through his smartphone, white donut powder around his mouth the only evidence of his breakfast. A middle-aged woman flips through a newspaper, sipping on a coffee.

Next to them, a group of boys play pranks on each other, laughing hysterically.

A fresh batch of fried chicken is placed into the display.

Archetypal red-and-cream coloured diner booths line Duffin’s interior.

6:00 a.m.

A young woman gets out of a cab outside. I hear her tell the staff that her cab driver harassed her; they advise her to call the police. The cab is still outside.

Half an hour later, the cab drives up to the window of the restaurant, he stares at the woman. She joins my table and he drives away fast. Through tears, she tells me he had made her uncomfortable during the ride: blocking the back doors so she had no choice but to sit up front, speaking about threesomes and grazing her leg. She had told him to drop her at Duffin’s because she didn’t want him to know where she lived.

She reports the incident with the cab company; the operator on the phone told her she shouldn’t have been so trusting.

She sits with me for about an hour, telling me how a friend was once beaten up in the parking lot outside. It had been three in the afternoon and no one had come to help him.

She leaves to get some sleep.

7:00 a.m.

The dark sky turns to a faint blue, growing lighter in a smooth gradient towards the horizon.

A group of old men sit in the corner, laughing jovially and chatting in Cantonese. The smell of coffee and sausages wafts through the air. A new day has started.

When the sky turns bright enough to fill the room with daylight, I decide, finally, to leave.

Little has changed in the restaurant’s interior over the years.

During my vigil, I felt like a lens of a camera, recording the characters before me, each of whom provided only a glimpse into the myriad of stories within this city. I stood witness to the loneliness of a man away from his home, the ambitions of youth, the vulnerability of being a woman in a cab alone and the other unknowable stories that walked by me.

In many ways, Duffin’s seemed a symbol of East Van itself, where immigrants have historically settled, where modern and tradition bleed into each other and where gentrification fights against a robust culture that refuses to be wiped away. On a night at Duffin’s, one can seemingly step into the past, find dishes from differing parts of the world and sit amongst a varied crowd—old and young, single and families, innocent and mischievous, drunk and sober.

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