The Next Wave: Darby’s Pub
Transforming an established neighbourhood pub is not an easy thing to do. In fact, if serving up the old formula brings in enough bums on seats throughout the week to make a bit of a profit (because the real money is in the attached cold beer & wine store), then why change? Change may upset the apple cart, annoying your macro-drinking staff and alienating your bread and butter – the regulars whose habits the staff know well enough that they automatically deliver what is wanted. Why take a risk by throwing a monkey wrench in that well-honed machine that has taken a lot of time and money to develop?
You know you’ve walked into one of these places when you have a déjà vu experience that teleports you back to the eighties, only there is no shine on the brass, the floor coverings are looking well-worn, the furniture has stains and nicks, the walls have tape residue from old posters, and there’s a certain stale smell that seems to follow around post-50-year-old blue collar bachelors. You may see a number of the latter who have made the establishment their surrogate living room because it offers the basic things they seek to satisfy them – cheap beer, fried food, women to serve them without complaining, sports on the TV, and companions to argue over sports and politics with. And if the establishment truly does function as a neighbourhood pub, they will turn to look at you, wondering what sort of force you represent to their social oasis.
However, you may have noticed that Vancouver has changed a lot in the last thirty years. Not only do we have quite a few people from outside Vancouver, but there’s a new generation that has reached the drinking age. At the same time, there has been a transformation in technology and media that conditions people to receiving a regular stream of stimulation. Needless to say, the old neighbourhood pub isn’t where it’s at. All the glitz and glitter is Downtown, whose attraction is so strong that it even pulls in packs of pleasure seekers from outside the city, creating policing issues. And with neighbourhood demographics changing in step with property prices, the formula-following neighbourhood pub may be entering a decline into a geriatric ward, unless management recognizes the socio-economic trends and changes accordingly.
Darby’s Pub, one of the first pubs in Kitsilano, has been occupying the southwest corner of Fourth & McDonald since 1981. One of the things that made it a popular spot was its rooftop patio, an attractive summer hangout. However, for the craft beer drinker, it had, until recently, few redeeming qualities. Under new management, they first set out to transform their liquor store into the Kits equivalent of Brewery Creek. Now, there’s no need for Kits beer geeks to go to the east side to get the latest local seasonal or craft import. In fact, they now don’t even have to leave home. Darby’s delivers!
With a regular stream of thinking drinkers picking up quality brew from the LRS, it would be fair to say you might be able to entice them into the pub if the offerings were altered. But you don’t want to try turning it into the Alibi Room overnight. Regulars will be alienated and, let’s face it, Darby’s cannot be the Alibi of Kits because it’s a completely different place. Instead, there’s been a gradual change over the last couple of years that has begun to accelerate under the new, craft beer passionate management. Early attempts included offering craft bottles and cans, and having Meet the Brewer events, but that didn’t signal a whole-hearted commitment sufficient to bring in new regulars. More was needed.
First on the list of improvements was transforming the draught offering from the “something for everybody” (except craft beer drinkers) selection to one that truly offered variety and changed with the seasons. Regulars can still get their macro lager, but it no longer represents the majority of what’s sold. To match that metamorphosis, the pub interior was renovated, offering a visual cue that said, “Things are different now.”
Change has also extended to the kitchen. The dishes are still what you would expect from a neighbourhood pub, only now the emphasis is in using local and sustainable ingredients. The difference in quality is noticeable. Darby’s has even become an Ocean Wise establishment. To emphasize the point, their monthly Eat Local Drink Local dinners showcase a BC craft brewer with a special three-course menu created by Executive Chef, A.J Jackson. So far, these have featured, Red Racer, Phillips, and Howe Sound. I have been to all three and they just keep getting better each time. Driftwood is up next at the end of March. Keep an eye out for this one because you may be in for a special treat.
Needless to say, the “déjà vu” Darby’s is dead! People have begun to take notice, which has reinvigorated the pub with a new energy. Once the bathrooms and patio have been renovated, the transformation should be complete, including the offerings from the bar. Cheers to that!