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A raw history of the Whistler restaurant scene The uncensored, unadulterated version



When Chris Quinlan asked me to write a brief, very brief, history of the restaurant scene here on behalf of RAW - that's the Restaurant Association of Whistler, such a clever acronym - for their upcoming guide that soon will be required reading in 6,000 hotel rooms, the first person I thought to call was Florence Petersen.

Florence, our resident keeper of all things historic, started as a weekender at Whistler in the mid-1950s. As usual, she didn't let me down.

To build on her stories, I then phoned Paul and Jane Burrows, who now live in Salmon Arm but whose links to Whistler wind back to the early '70s. To check names, dates and the like, they hauled out old copies of the Whistler Question , which they started, and old phonebooks. Alta Lake, as Whistler was still known in the 1970s, took up two and a half pages, less than Pemberton, which in itself tells a story. But more to the point, they told a lot of good tales.

And therein lies real history, for as we all pieced together "the good ol' days" of restaurants at Whistler - my own stories go back to 1980 - the more we laughed and egged each other on, remembering those amazing, sometimes bewildering moments that can only happen when people of all sorts and all sorts of people get together over a beer or a bottle of wine and some good food. And sometimes stay up way past their bedtimes.

The whole story, of course, is bigger than the sum of its parts. Maybe you can meet me at a local restaurant one day and I'll tell you all about it... In the meantime, here's a raw glimpse, with a toast and many thanks to Paul and Jane and Florence.

* * *

Something happened in the early days of restaurants and eateries at Whistler - something about the mixing of haute cuisine and funky burgers, weekend warriors and local characters, red-checkered tablecloths and elegant wall sconces that's been distilled into the dining experience ever since.

If a restaurant is where you buy food and drink to "restore" yourself, then Whistler's first was Rainbow Lodge on Alta Lake. Lodgers had home-cooked meals included. Those who forgot their lunches on the "picnic trains" rolling up from Vancouver in the 1950s - no roads back then - could buy sandwiches and salads once they got here.

After that, it was the cafeteria and lounge at L'Apres, opened in 1966 by Leo and Soula Katsuris to feed the Garibaldi Lift Company's hungry workers, who were putting up Whistler Mountain's first gondolas at Creekside.

You pushed your food tray along the rails in front of the hissing steam table loaded with institutional fare, and yelled out your order to the cook. Breakfast was 85 cents.

When the lounge opened you could get calamari, pizza and burgers to go with your after-ski beer. You might have heard Paul Burrows himself playing his guitar and belting out some pretty funky songs, or you might just as easily have run into Pierre and Maggie - Prime Minister and Margaret Trudeau - up to ski with their boys in tow. Justin would pop in years later just to say hi to Leo.

After last call at L'Apres - later reincarnated as Dusty's, home of the famous but motley stuffed horse named Dusty and many an infamous BAREback ride - you headed up the highway to Al and Tony's where the honour system ruled and the essence of beer wafted up through the floorboards. If we're not there just let yourself in, said Al and Tony. And so you would, for more fun and beer, and maybe a bowl of chili and tunes cranking out of the jukebox.

With the '70s came the start of the restaurant flurry. At Rudy's Mountain Holm Steakhouse, later shortened to "Rudy's Steakhouse" and located where Nesters Market is today, Rudy reigned supreme. He worked the room like a politician the week before election, greeting regulars, really greeting good-paying regulars and generally making everyone feel like a queen or king on their big night out.

If you sat at the table next to the single-pane glass window, you'd get as good as a sunburn from the blowtorch blast of flames char-grilling the steaks. It was cherries jubilee, please, for dessert and maybe something special if it was your birthday or anniversary.

Sandy and "Puddy" Martin ran the Christiana Inn, which could pack you a lunch to take up the mountain. It was down a nasty little road - if it was snowing you'd never get out. European-style dining and telephones in all the bathrooms hallmarked the Cheakamus Inn, where you could try your first avocado. If a storm crashed the power, you'd be served by candlelight. Baron of beef, prime rib, baked potatoes with all the trimmings and iceberg lettuce salads in wooden bowls - it was all first-class all the way.

The Keg was the first purpose-built restaurant and oh, if those beams could talk. Nestled in the woods near Alta Lake, it was a hotbed of good food and sometimes wildly good times, where the movers and shakers of Vancouver rubbed shoulders with the "wild men" - and women - of Whistler. People would fall down the stairs drunk; very important people would fall down the stairs drunk. Someone - likely more than "one" - piddled in the fireplace. Someone else chased a woman (playfully) with a branding iron because that's how you got your steak rare.

Contemplate what those beams have seen next time you need municipal services, for the building was sold for a dollar to the RMOW and, in a beautiful bit of irony, moved up the road to become the current municipal hall.

The '80s set the stage for Whistler Village, with the first cluster of buildings, restaurants and eateries centred on Village Square. Another twist of irony - it was all built on the old garbage dump. Jack Cram opened Stoney's; Russell's gave way to the iconic Araxi; and if you needed a quick burger or deli sandwich extraordinaire, Tapley's Pub and Gourmet Bakery were the order of the day. In the funkier part of town, Jan Systad opened the first consciously healthy eatery in the old logging cookhouse at Mons.

Hungry customers never looked back. Whether you were after Indonesian meatballs, a good bowl of porridge or herb-crusted rack of lamb, wherever you went, locals mingled with visitors in a dynamism fuelled by good food and good drink. That, happily, has been the passport to any great resort experience to this day.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who sometimes wishes she had a time machine.