At Trans Am Restaurant, a portal to a pre-Instagram era

People will often refer to small, hidden restaurants as a hole-in-the-wall. There seems to be a belief that the term confers some sort of purity or, dare I say it, authenticity, on the establishment in question. Personally, I think the phrase has become overused; but even with that belief, in the case of Trans Am Restaurant (whether or not it can honestly be called a restaurant is up for debate), in my mind, the words fit.

Trans Am occupies one of five commercial spaces in what is called the Hamilton Bank Building in Port Town. Built more than 110 years ago by a famous local architect named William Whiteway, in addition to shops like Aleph Eatery, The Pie Shoppe, and The Hive Printing, the structure features 43 residential studio units. As of this writing, you can rent Unit #202, all 136-square-feet of it, fully furnished for a very Vancouver-ish $1,000 a month. In other words, in this building, space isn’t cheap. Which helps explain why Trans Am is smaller than my West End apartment.

In fact, the first thing you notice about Trans Am is that if you didn’t know it existed, you would never know that it existed. It’s tiny, and it is barely marked. Standing outside, a centred small logo that covers approximately two percent of a south-facing window and a logo above the door is all that indicates to a passerby that there is actually something inside.

Beyond its burgers, if you have read anything about Trans Am already, you have probably read about its cell-phone ban. It’s what I had come to most associate the bar with before I stepped foot in the place on a Tuesday evening. And on my first visit, it was almost the very first thing mentioned to me by an employee I would later learn is named Dave. “Do you know about our cell-phone rule?” Dave asked me. “Of course,” I say. “Well, we’ve actually upped the ante,” he continued. “We now check phones.”

They had no choice, I learn. They were spending too much time policing their rule, so before I could order anything, I handed in my iPhone in exchange for a unique playing card. The playing cards are their version of a coat check tag. I got a seven of hearts.

At that moment, I was somewhat reminded of what restaurateurs had complained about in the ‘90s when mobile phones were just starting to become widespread. They felt that the use of phones in restaurants was selfish. And oh man, they hadn’t seen anything. In 1999, Danny Meyer, who was the owner of popular New York establishments Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park, complained to the writer Alex Witchel that the use of phones while dining “lacks etiquette, form and propriety.” 30 years later, Trans Am owner/chef Gianmarco Colannino is feeling the same way, and it’s what drove him to implement his ban in the first place. “I love restaurants and I love eating,” Colannino has said to Hanna McLean, the Dished Vancouver Editor at Daily Hive. “But I hated the fact that people go to the bar or are out eating and they’re on their phone.”

In Meyers’ day, people used phones simply for talking. Colannino is fighting a much larger battle. Phones are not for talking anymore. The talking app just takes up space. Devices today are primarily built to power our obsession with sharing, swiping and Liking photos on Instagram. Thinking about this new reality, it’s worth considering that perhaps Collalino’s phone ban is not just philosophical or values-driven. It is, perhaps, more than likely rooted in practical considerations: Keeping people off of their phones limits Trans Am’s exposure and appearance on the digital feeds of Vancouver’s well-known cadre of food bloggers who would almost certainly overexpose the place, fuel a stampede of new guests, and strip it of its novelty. The place has only 13 seats, people.

You can bet that Colannino is worried about this. When Alex Gill of the Globe and Mail introduced herself to him and mentioned the possibility of writing a review, Colannino reportedly moaned, “It could ruin everything.”

Fortunately, everything has not been ruined. As I enjoyed a modified Brooklyn cocktail and waited for Le Burger—one of only five menu items—I made mental notes of the interior design and decor and tried to find an appropriate word for everything I was seeing.

There is hardly any lighting inside; there was paint splashed across the east/left wall; an exposed copper pipe; gold letters that spelt VIP; a Frigidaire fridge; the words BALLER WINE written across a small chalkboard sitting above a case of said wine; a sign that read Punch: $5.00 with a fist drawn in fluorescent marker in the style of a graffiti artist; a collection of unique kitchenware strewn across the bar; and a mini version of the Capitoline Wolf, a bronze sculpture depicting a scene from the legend of the founding of Rome…

How have other patrons described the place? “I enjoyed the room with rail cars out back shaking the building’s foundations,” wrote one person on Yelp. “Traffic in front rushing by the windows and old LP’s playing on the turntables filling the room with comfortable nostalgia.” Someone else said that the “bartender was wearing a cat vest and the cocktails were peerless.” On the cocktail front, I can vouch.

“Either you get it, or you don’t,” proclaimed another fan. “Sexy, ironic and homey. Keep it to yourself before the secret it gets out to the hungry masses.”

The word I settled on is: original.


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