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Save on Meats: a real diner and so much more

For me, there is a certain nostalgia associated with the diners I grew up with.
Bright lighs on the outside, and accurate diner-decor on the inside. Save-On Meats is located at 43 W Hastings St in Vancouver.

For me, there is a certain nostalgia associated with the diners I grew up with.   By diners, I don’t mean my dining companions, but those little hole-in-the-wall establishments most likely run by a very tired looking cook in a stained apron, and perhaps an equally exhausted looking member of the family doing front of house. Sometimes it was a long-suffering wife, and sometimes it was an irritated-looking offspring pressed into service for the family business. Often, there was cigarette smoke hanging in a haze over the few worn fake leather covered banquettes, where stained typewritten menus rested in little metal clips beside the jukebox controller that was affixed to the wall in each booth. Three plays for a quarter, and every song at least 5 years old. There would be a pale green Hamilton-Beach milkshake machine on the counter beside the drip coffee machine. A row of stools at the Formica lunch counter, some with tape on them to cover the rips.  Sometimes, there was “Chinese” food. The tomato soup was proudly advertised as “Campbell’s,” and the Salisbury steak always seemed to be on special.  
As a child, I would sometimes walk to the bank where my mother worked, and occasionally on her break, she would take me next door to the timeless Parkcrest Diner (which was still there last time I looked).  For my mom, the renowned anti-chef, this was an opportunity to stay out of the kitchen and ply me with a hamburger, shake, and fries, all for the princely sum of a buck and a half or so.  For a little boy (I think I was one, once…) there could be no greater happiness, unless that burger was later followed by a viewing of the Wonderful World Of Disney on our old black and white set.  
In my teenage years, these diners were the kind of place we fled to when we skipped school: testing the proprietor’s patience by seeing if that bottomless cup of coffee was truly bottomless, ordering one side of fries to share between five people, and demonstrating our new found maturity by endlessly smoking (mostly bummed) cigarettes.  
Sometimes, on a family drive to Chinatown for a special dinner (one not ordered from the Dragon Inn) or to visit my Uncle Tom (who did not live in a cabin, but in a very upscale house on the West Side), we would cruise down the neon wonderland that was Hastings Street. In the ‘60s, there was neon everywhere. In fact, at one point Vancouver had over 19,000 neon signs – second only to Las Vegas.
 There was Helen’s Fashions, The Smilin’ Buddha, The Aristocrat,  The Balmoral Hotel, and a most curious sign with a pink neon pig and a dollar sign. This was and is the iconic Save On Meats. It operated as a budget butcher shop for a very long time, and their slogan was “We have meat that ye can eat.”  One would hope so…
The original butcher shop opened in 1957, and the wee sandwich counter in the back was famous for its burger.  Then Save On closed in 2009, and lay dormant until it was remodeled, re-imagined, and reopened a few years ago by a new owner.   The original space was divided in half, and the butcher shop is now joined by, you guessed it, a diner!  And it’s not any old diner. The new owners have taken great care to not only refurbish the space, but also to be inclusive neighbors in the Downtown East Side. This appears to be a diner with a social conscience. They hire people that other businesses might deem “at risk,” and have a hot food distribution policy in place that helps feed the homeless in Canada’s poorest neighborhood.  For a couple of bucks, you can buy a hot meal token and either distribute the token to a deserving individual yourself, or have Save On do it for you.  I think that’s pretty cool.
But make no mistake, this is a real diner!  There are stools at the lunch counter. There are booths lining the battered brick wall. There is a milkshake machine, and it is the correct shade of green. Enthusiastic and youthful tattooed and pierced servers are friendly and efficient. In fact, there is the faint aura of “hipster” in the place, but I choose to ignore that.  Laurel and I have taken our kids there twice now, and they love it. The fun part is that everyone can build their own burger from a list of ingredients.  You simply write your name on a form, and the check off the toppings you want for your personalized burger. You get a certain number for free, and then there are tons of reasonably priced add-ons.  All burgers are doubles by default, and you can load them up with pickles, lettuce, blue cheese, bacon, avocado, and a plethora of other toppings.  The onion rings and fries are good to boot.  
Now the Downtown East Side is not what normally pops into mind for a family dining venture, I’ll admit.  However, we used it as a great teaching opportunity for our young ones.  On our first trip, after walking through the DTES on our way to check out Save On, it became obvious to our progeny that there was a need for a hot meal program, and we were really happy when they both enthusiastically voted to spend some of their own money on a hot meal token to be distributed later. Good parenting moment…
So if you’re in the DTES and feel peckish, look no further.  In fact, if you eat here for lunch, there is a good chance that dinner will be unnecessary!  It ain’t fancy, but it’s a pretty good burger value. The patties are hand made, the buns are decent enough, and the toppings are generous. While your cardiologist might not be happy with you, you can take comfort as you eat that the person who cooked your meal might not otherwise be able to get a job. If you choose to buy a meal token (which you can request, and it will be added to your bill), you can feel like you’re making a slight difference to someone less fortunate. For parents looking to give their kids an interesting and tasty experience, I can strongly recommend this place. If you don’t want a burger, there’s always a daily soup (not Campbell’s), sandwiches, corned beef hash, and of course, the Salisbury steak, which may or may not be on special…