On a fairly nice evening on April 29, 2017, I sat at Okonomi Sushi at 4th and Columbia streets, fielding a couple of messages and calls from people who had promised weeks ago they’d be able to make it to my birthday dinner.
Of the ten people who had said yes to the RSVP, three showed up: my then-boyfriend and one of my mom’s old friends.
For the first time in my life, I learned what it was to feel the sting of a birthday celebration as people didn’t call to say, ‘happy birthday,’ but instead relayed to me they weren’t coming. “It’s too busy. New West is too far.”
At the time, it was painful. No matter how much anyone tells you, no one likes to be forgotten or dismissed on their birthday. It’s one of the reasons why I hate throwing birthday parties or organizing events, and only threw one for the first time in a long time for my most recent cake day.
I was doing my best to ensure the two others there to celebrate with me couldn’t see how upset I was. My boyfriend—now husband, knowing immediately that I was disappointed, patted my lap with his hand multiple times. The gesture brought a choking of tears to the back of my throat, but I was determined not to cry.
Naturally, the restaurant knew about the booking, and knew it was my birthday. I’d been coming to Okonomi since 2014, first getting acquainted with it when I’d come visit New West twice a week and record a podcast. It was close to Columbia SkyTrain Station, and at the time I was a journalism student, so feasting on a bento box was possible for the relatively low price of $13, dessert included. One of the owners, who I’d later know as Jenny, was always the first to greet me at the door. My parents were no longer part of my life, so when I saw Jenny, it was like, I don’t know…coming to visit my mom for a home-cooked dinner. Life was so busy that sometimes this was my only meal of the day. She knew how to make it count.
But back to the birthday: my husband was trying to console me without me crying like a fool. (Folks, it’s OK to cry. I’ve learned a LOT these last five years, trust me.) Jenny came up to our table and asked if everything was OK.
That’s when my boyfriend blurted out, “she’s just upset that so many people didn’t show up to her dinner.”
I was pretty embarrassed Jon had said anything. Come on, dude! I need to be stoic. There are three of us here and I didn’t want to make it seem as if I was ungrateful that at least two people had shown up.
“Oh no!” Jenny said, as she left our table, walking quickly to the kitchen.
“This is so awkward,” I remember saying to Jon.
I was mulling over my next steps for about 10 minutes (do I just pay the bill and go home?) when suddenly I heard a very faint crackling noise from behind me.
Jenny had asked someone to make me a sushi cake. “This! For you.”
I watched as a blue candle flickered above the pile of delicious looking rice, crab, seaweed, avocado, salmon, and tuna sashimi.
I blew out the candle and then I cried. “Thank you,” was all I could manage to say. Jenny rubbed my back, repeatedly wishing me happy birthday before the doors to the restaurant chimed open, notifying her of new customers to be seated.
My memory is a bit foggy here, but we noticed one day that the sign to Okonomi was no longer appearing outside the building at Columbia and 4th streets. We heard through a friend of a friend that they had had to shut down; much of the reasoning I can only attribute to rumours and not confirmed facts, so I won’t repeat them here—but we had heard that they were hoping to open in a new location.
Much later, my husband and I were driving through Uptown New West when we noticed a new sushi place had opened up. I remember screaming in the car with delight when I saw the awning, which read ‘Sushi Well,’ had smaller font on the right-hand side; it read ‘formerly Okonomi Sushi.’
I scared Jon, who had been driving me to work, but he promised that we’d go in on a day off and see if it was Jenny.
We were pleased to see it was. She cried. I teared up. I didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye the first time, so this had felt like a do-over. Lucky us.
Very rarely have I understood the tight-knit connection of mom-and-pop shops in the community, but there is something so ridiculously different—and beautiful about it—in New West. My mom didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up in Burnaby, and we literally ate every meal at home, with the exception of the odd visit to McDonald’s on Cassiar in Vancouver, or the Burger King at Metrotown. By the time I made enough money to actually take us somewhere for dinner, she had no interest in really going out—in the throes of the early stages of Alzheimer’s. I only have crystal clear memories of two places comparable to the ones I made at Okonomi/Sushi Well, and those were at Double One and Suzette’s Cafe, both restaurants in Burnaby.
In New West, I’ve been spoiled for choice: I can watch a train bring me food at Greens and Beans. I know Anny’s is authentically French Canadian, and while the poutine and the maple twist cones are scrumptious, so are the burgers. I know that Hyack Sushi has the exact same menu as Sushi Garden; I often visited Sushi Garden when I was studying at BCIT. (There’s a recurring theme of comfort food here, I know.) I once had the beginnings of a very uncomfortable internal dialogue at Pho Pho You. The lady at Flavor Balance once let me purchase cakes after closing, because I had a hankering for cake. The woman who runs Co Chau listened to me for nearly 15 minutes after I talked to her about their delicious skewered prawns, when we compared notes about the cooking techniques in Vietnam and the Philippines.
Never have I ever had such care and kindness the way I have had at so many restaurants in New West. I’ve undoubtedly had tens of thousands of meals where they get you to place your order, put your food in front of you, then hope you move out posthaste so they can serve the next customer. At every small business I’ve had the pleasure of eating at here? Completely different. There’s an episode of Somebody Feed Phil where they go to Montreal and one of the restaurants serves tepid coffee, in a bid to get customers to get out so they can serve more. I have never had that experience in New West. Every place I’ve been to serves up hot tea or refreshingly cold water, along with a smile and a dose of good conversation.
Over the years, Jenny and Ian have pretty much become part of our family. Like clockwork, she finishes my husband’s orders (tiger prawn roll, yam tempura roll…) and he’s had all but one of his birthdays there in the last five years.
And yes, while these are businesses—that are meant to make money—they are nothing without their people. We knew this development was coming for a while now, and Jon and I expected a closure would soon be announced when we saw the development board go up in May. We knew it’d be tough when it happened. We know things are changing and housing is very much needed in our communities, but sometimes it can be hard to say goodbye.
At least this time, we can make sure Jenny and Ian have our phone numbers.
Thank you for everything, Sushi Well. We hope to see you reopen again, soon.