This was one of the few times I used flash when takinng photos for a review. I was dissatisfied with the quality and haven't used a flash since.)
When you're looking for a place to eat in a strange town, ask the locals. Fortunately for Cat and I, these friendly, fuzzy, Canadian gourmands steered us toward the "world famous" White Spot restaurants; advice we didn't regret following. (As a side note, I didn't give the little guy on the left that French fry. He scrounged it from a nearby trashcan.)
Cat's mother is actually from Vancouver, so whenever we go visit her relatives, we always start our trip off by following one of her family's traditions; dinner at the White Spot. After eight hours of travel with only the mediocre offerings from Manchu Wok to sustain us, Cat and I were primed and ready for some delectable grease-burger action.
The White Spot is a Vancouver institution. Starting as a roadside burger stand in 1928, it grew to ten privately owned restaurants in the Greater Vancouver area before being franchised and sold to General Foods in the late 1960s. The company now claims over 60 restaurant locations throughout Canada.
Although it's been called Canada's version of Denny's, the White Spot probably has more in common with Southern California's own In-N-Out than any other American fast food franchise. Like In-N-Out, the White Spot maintains a strict focus on the freshness and quality of their product. Meat and produce for the restaurant chain are raised on specially designated farms with commitments to sustainable agriculture. The buns used in their signature sandwiches are baked in company-owned bakeries, some of which have been supplying the White Spot since the late 1930s.
Unlike In-N-Out, whose menu and look hasn't changed much in the last 50 years, the White Spot has devoted itself to a process of constantly evolving with the times. While it's maintained its signature burgers, hand-cut fries, and triple thick shakes, the restaurant chain has undergone a number of transitions through the years, from hamburger stand to carhop drive-in to diner to sit-down family restaurant. Its menu has also evolved with the addition of a number of modern, West Coast and Asian fusion dishes. The result has been a stylish, friendly, mid-scale family restaurant with top quality food and a nationally (Canada) renowned level of service.
For Cat, stepping into a White Spot is a lot like coming home. Her childhood is redolent with memories of family visits to the restaurants and eating with her parents and grandparents. I think we eat there as much to savor her memories as to taste the food. For me, the restaurant's decor lands right in my comfort zone, with soft lighting, pleasant dimness, rich wood tones, and comfortable booths. Since the White Spot we went to this time is in downtown Vancouver, it's primarily frequented by young professionals and couples. That was perfect for me, since the main thing that ruins my trips to family restaurants tends to be certain types of families with out-of-control children. (This wasn't our only stop at a White Spot during this trip. I'll be posting a "White Spot Revisited" article covering our second visit to a different White Spot, with slightly different results.)
Our server this night was named Gillian. Not only was she friendly and efficient, traits I've come to expect from White Spot staff, she was remarkably patient with my lousy jokes and insistence on taking pictures of everything. Our orders arrived quickly and correctly, our glasses were never empty, and our check was processed with appropriate speed.
Since it had been a long drive from Seattle to Vancouver, I was guzzling Diet Cokes like there was no tomorrow in a desperate attempt to stay awake. Cat, on the other hand, opted for one of White Spot's signature chocolate triple thick shakes. There's a scene from Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, where John Travolta and Uma Thurman end up in a retro diner. Thurman orders a five dollar shake, and she and Travolta get into a discussion about whether any milkshake is worth five dollars. The argument is settled when Travolta is talked into trying the shake and comments, "That's a pretty @#$%ing good milkshake. I don't know if it's worth five dollars but it's pretty @#$%ing good."
Stealing a sip of Cat's approximately five dollar (Canadian) shake sent my mind straight to that scene from a movie I haven't watched in over ten years. It was the richest, creamiest, smoothest shake I've ever had. The texture was unreal. Thick enough to coat the tongue evenly, yet soft enough to be sucked through a straw without causing an aneurism, the shake was a sinful concoction of cream, sugar, and cocoa. The chocolately sweetness was a gentle accent that was all that kept you from free-basing the rich, buttery cream, and this was before you even got to the whipped cream on top. My "sip" took a full inch from her glass. Not to worry, since one shake order came with enough creamy goodness to fill two glasses. It was definitely worth five dollars.
For dinner, Cat ordered their BC Chicken Burger without tomato. A juicy grilled chicken breast was served on a buttered and toasted bun with Cheddar, bacon, lettuce, red onion, and White Spot's famous Triple 'O' sauce. Divinely decadent and full of flavor, this chicken burger exploded in the mouth with a rush of juice and sauce. A Vancouver native told me later that in the 60's, the "Triple 'O'" meant "Triple May-O". Nowadays, their Triple 'O' sauce is a mix of mayonnaise and red relish, resulting in a unique and delightful flavor sensation. The BC Chicken Burger came with a side of their light and creamy coleslaw, and an unlimited number of their hand-cut steak fries.
I opted for the BC Burger. A quarter pound of prime ground beef with bacon, Cheddar, and the ubiquitous Triple 'O' sauce, this thing was a serious grease ball of beefy meat goodness. While I enjoyed my taste of Cat's chicken burger very much, something about this simply hamburger appealed to the primal carnivore within me. Hearty, juicy, and irresistible, it was quite possibly the best hamburger I've ever had. It had a bit more Triple 'O' sauce than I would have preferred, but a bit of judicious scraping quickly fixed that.
Since I was feeling particularly hungry that night, I'd chosen to upgrade my meal with a Western Plate, which meant I got onion rings and a small Caesar salad in addition to the standard coleslaw and steak fries. The coleslaw was just the way I like it; light, sweet, and creamy, but with a satisfying crunch, it blew KFC's coleslaw right out of the water. The fries were a disappointment. Dry and overcooked, they tasted like nothing so much as deep fried cardboard without enough salt. I'd ordered an additional side of gravy, a Canadian custom, to go with the fries, but even that wasn't enough to save them. I ended up leaving quite a large number of them on my plate. The Caesar salad was well seasoned, but nothing remarkable. The onion rings were the killer app of the plate. Perfect, crispy, flakey breading on the outside with melted, soft onion on the inside, they released gentle flavors in my mouth with each crunchy bite. My only complaint was that the bread crumbs were a little sharp, so some care was needed to avoid cutting the roof of my mouth.
The White spot: Fast food comfort fare in a classy environment. I highly recommend it to any of you if you're ever in Canada.
Bill (for two, converted from Canadian to US dollars):
Diet Coke - 2.17
Chocolate Shake - 4.07
BC Chicken Burger - 8.15
BC Burger - 8.15
Western Plate upgrade - 1.80
Side of Gravy - 0.91
Tax - 1.46
Tip - 4.53
Total - 31.24
The White Spot
718 Drake Street
Vancouver, BC, Canada V6Z 2W6
The White Spot claims over 60 locations in Canada. Previous attempts to establish footholds in the US have failed, although there's some hope if you live in a northern border state.