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Lauded for more than 30 years as a beacon of service and satisfying dining for all budgets, Joe Fortes seems to just be getting started

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Story by Tom Gierasimczuk

Few restaurants own a category in Vancouver the way Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House owns “the sensible business lunch.” The reasons for the synonym are plentiful. The $10 (and under) locally sourced blue-pate specials.

The classic big-city sophistication of the room that dares you to close the deal. The service where the wait staff is as impeccably put together as they are attentive. Of course letting the above simmer over three decades only adds to the sublime potency of the place.

“We’re not going to be that culinary destination by any means,” says Scott Garrett, general manager for the past 10 years, with humility that’s all too rare in the city’s halcyon restaurant scene today.

“But there’s so much value we place in treating the same people right, over and over,” he says, unbeknownst to him citing the qualities that made the restaurant namesake the local legend that he became.

From a Barbados-by-way-of-England immigrant to Vancouver, Joe Fortes was a bartender, swimming teacher and the city’s first official lifeguard. Familiarity and predictable, uncompromised hospitality were the pillars that Bud Kanke imbued into his restaurant when he opened the restaurant in 1985 and immortalized one of Vancouver’s most-loved citizens. When the business sold to David Aisenstat of The Keg empire, there was no doubt that the winning formula would be left largely in tact.

“When I started with Joe Fortes,” says Garrett, “I had spent many years working for Walt Disney World in Orlando,” adding that he came to Vancouver after meeting the woman of his dreams at the Canadian Pavilion at Epcot Center. “I wanted to work within that same philosophy in Vancouver— that sense of doing the right things for the guest, no matter the cost.”

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He found it the second a headhunter sent him to 777 Thurlow for an interview. “What many people don’t realize is that we don’t stop the investment at the food, the décor and the wine list,” says Garrett of the no-expense-spared first-impression of the restaurant with its live music, rich mahogany wood and brass warmth surrounding tall glasses of white wine and oyster dishes on crisp white linens over two levels. “Our investment in our people is key—not just in the business, but personally, as well,” he says. The commitment to continual learning stems from Fortes’ early days, in what has become local lore in restaurant employee training.

“We provide monthly service seminars for everyone who works here— from dishwashers to hostesses working the door,” Garrett says. “We have guest speakers come into the restaurant to inspire our staff. Our goal is to ensure our people are focused on what we’re doing together.”

Education is also paid for in an innovative way: employees enroll in personal and professional courses and are reimbursed based on their grades. Ace that bartending course with a 90%, and pay for 10%. But giving back to staff is just the beginning.

It’s the restaurant’s philanthropic endeavours that set the bar for the city’s hospitality industry—a lauded commitment that has only grown under new owner David Aisenstat. Joe’s Gala, for example, benefits the Vancouver Firefighters’ Charitable Society.

And it was the restaurant’s generous involvement in the Brian Jessel BMW Cabriolet Gala a few years back that forged the bond between the two companies. “Brian [Jessel] comes in a lot when he’s in town,” says Garrett. “Like so many of our regular customers, we try to treat him like it’s his first time, every time.”

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The two names that make the Joe Fortes experience

Executive Chef Wayne Sych has been with the restaurant since 2010 and hasn’t stopped innovating in the affordable, local and Ocean Wise space. Watch for his new focus on lunches this spring, with five new dishes under $20.

Maitre D’ Robert “Frenchy” Gagne has been part of the restaurant for most of its three-plus decades. If you don’t know who he is, you soon will by his insistence that you be welcomed like an old friend. To him, dining is an experiential escape from the mundane and he—and his restaurant—deliver

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