British Columbia·Still Standing

Café tucked above South Vancouver lumber yard still popular after 60 years

The Northern Cafe and Grill, a hole-in-the-wall diner above a hardware shop in an industrial area near the Fraser River, is still going strong with a little help from online reviews that are drawing tourists to the tucked away location.

Online attention is attracting new customers to the Northern Cafe and Grill

It's a family affair at Northern Cafe and Grill where father Jimmy Mah, left, and son Raymond Mah, right, are keeping one of Vancouver's oldest diners going strong. (Matt Meuse/CBC )

The Northern Cafe and Grill is hard to find and harder to forget.

It is somewhat hidden above a hardware store in South Vancouver on a lumber yard near the banks of the Fraser River. A narrow staircase can be found at 1640 East Kent Avenue South that customers have been climbing for over 60 years so they can plop into red vinyl booths and dig into classic diner eats.

The café opened in the 1950s and has had its ups and downs since then, but business has been booming since Jimmy Mah and his wife Connie Mah took over in 2008. The boom has been bolstered by online reviews that started drawing tourists to the tucked-away spot.

"They try it out, they never forget, they always put a good review about my little restaurant," said Jimmy Mah, who said he has not spent a dollar on advertising in the entire 11 years he has run the place.

The Northern Cafe and Grill is located above a hardware store in the Northern Building Supply yard in South Vancouver. (Facebook/Uncle Tim Tim's Adventure)

The Mahs serve classic diner favourites like pancakes and burgers, as well as Asian cuisine including homemade wontons and barbecue pork.

"We want to focus on family-style food so our guests feel right at home," said Jimmy Mah. 

And the diner is a true family affair since Jimmy and Connie's son, Raymond Mah, joined the team.

Raymond Mah worked as a chef in Vancouver for 18 years before coming over to the Northern to help his parents with the business.

"For the first time in a long time I actually get to go to work and not turn on my computer," said Raymond Mah, who used to manage upwards of 40 cooks at past jobs. "Now I just come in, it's just food and service."

Raymond Mah worked as a chef for almost 20 years at other establishments before recently joining the family business. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

Papa Mah is pretty pleased with the arrangement, too.

"I used to see him maybe three times a month and now I see him every day ... I am so happy now," said Jimmy Mah.

The Mah's aren't the only family connection to the café.

The Thomas family opened Northern Building Supply over 60 years ago and the café was the brainchild of founder Bert Thomas who wanted somewhere for his workers to eat near his lumber yard. 

Pancakes are a popular choice at the Northern Cafe and Grill. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

"He started it so they wouldn't leave all day," said Bert's son John Thomas with a laugh as he himself dined at the café.

Nowadays people are coming to the lumber yard just to find food.

Jimmy Mah said online reviews caught the attention of tourists about five years ago and business has not really slowed down since.

"People come in once and they never forget," said Jimmy Mah. "It's an amazing little place."

Jimmy Mah greets customers at the café in August 2019. (Matt Meuse/CBC)

The Northern Cafe and Grill is open Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. PT. It opens one hour later at 8 a.m. PT on Saturday and is closed Sundays.

To meet staff and customers at the Northern Cafe and Grill, click on the audio link below:

Meet the staff and customers at South Vancouver's Northern Cafe and Grill 5:55

Still Standing is a series about the small businesses in the Lower Mainland that have managed to stay open despite the challenges. Listen every second Tuesday on CBC Radio The Early Edition.

If you have a suggestion for a store or business in the Lower Mainland that's been around for a while and provides a specialized service, or has an unusual survival story, please email earlyed@cbc.ca

With files from The Early Edition and Matt Meuse

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