People pass the mic around, and it stops at Tine Tennessen, former bar manager at the Highlevel Diner. She recounts the night thieves broke in through the ladies’ room -ceiling and blew the safe open, then cleaned out the contents.
It wasn’t funny in 1983. But, all these years later, the crowd of current and former staff and shareholders, who are celebrating the Diner’s 30th anniversary, are laughing, including me. I worked there, on and off, in the 1990s after a friend got me the job.
Pretty much everyone who has worked at the Diner has a friend who got him or her the job. “If I like you, I’ll probably like your friends,” says co-owner Kim Franklin. And the place has employed no fewer than seven sets of siblings, plus a smattering of parent-child groups and a few sets of cousins. “Right now we have six guys who’ve been friends since elementary school,” says Franklin. “They’re roomies attending university, brothers in the best sense of the word.”
Thirty years ago, Franklin was the day supervisor at The Creperie, itself a testament to staying power. Her co-worker, Jon Christoff, invited her to invest in his new venture – a healthy eatery just south of the bridge. Another Creperie co-worker, Leslie Cripps, bought shares through a contribution of furniture. And they lured former co-worker Coralie Cairns back from a kibbutz in Israel.
Over the years, faces have changed, and Franklin has taken on new partners, notably Chinh Hong Vu (known as Hong, or Mr. Hong when the occasion warrants), an unflappable host and the guy who can fix anything that breaks during dinner rush. Debbie Parker, a 15-year veteran, and Adam Stoyko, a red seal chef from NAIT who stayed on at the Diner after his apprenticeship, are now the major shareholders.
At once nostalgic and at the forefront, the Diner was one of the first spots south of the river where you could get a cappuccino, or a smoothie – called a “frappa” at the Diner – with brunch. It’s the place k.d. lang would hit for a veggie burger when she was in town. It’s where staff and customers have met spouses, argued with and consoled each other and celebrated milestones.
Once decked out in hand-me-down carpet rescued from the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald’s ballroom, and still sporting the original hand-me-down tables and chairs, the Diner maintains its shabby-chic appeal.
A few items on its menu have been there for 30 years, including now-retired cook Boisan Mah’s prodigious cinnamon buns, that the Food Network opted to feature in a recent episode of You Gotta Eat Here. It’s a nice accolade, but Franklin feels most successful when she sees patients from nearby hospitals come in to chill, post treatment. “It’s great that they think of the Diner as a place of warmth and comfort,” she says