The Lion’s Den Cafe

Out from an audition and eager for a spot of lunch before getting on the 2:20pm ferry, I pull into a line of restaurants around Fraser and Kingsway, surely one of them has to be open. Los Cuervos, closed, the Savio Volpe, closed, the gluten free – a bakery only, tiny little cafe maybe Jamaican? not fond of jerks, the coffee place pretentious, Les Faux Bourgeois, closed. I pedal back to the Jamaican joint. It’s full, that’s a good sign: the Lion’s Den Cafe. I peek at their menu: Caribbean Japanese food. Well, never heard of that before, must try.Unknown-1

I sit down at one of the cheerful tiny outside tables. A friendly faced young waiter asks me if I would like a water or coffee and I would like both. He chuckles and says, “Where do you work?” Right, I’m in my “waitress” costume: a white apron over a skirt and high tops. I confess, “I’m an actress pretending to be you.” His face brightened and he asked me about the biz and if he may have seen me in anything. “I play a lot of middle aged women in cardigans” I shrug, remembering that a costumer recently called my hit “cozy”.

I ask him what I should order here and he suggests the curry or the jerk chicken. “How about the Japanese pizza?” I ask. “Oh, it’s very good but it will be a bit of a wait. The kitchen is pretty busy right now. So if you’re in a hurry…” I shrug again. I have an hour I should be fine. “Let’s go for the pizza.” He looks at me a little unsure and then decides to agree with me, “Yes. Good.” And he’s off.

I hear a young man call out a greeting behind me. I turn my head. It isn’t for me, he’s speaking to a Bahamian man in a wheelchair. How did I not notice him when I sat down? He’s ten feet away from me, pulled up near the curve as though waiting for a car. I focus on my phone, on all the people who are not in the vicinity. The young waiter interrupts me gently asking if I want cream for my coffee. Not unless there’s almond milk. “Sorry!” He apologizes sincerely. By then I’ve taken a sip and the coffee is mild and smooth, “Oh no need, good coffee.” He brightens again.  He asks me again about the biz and we chat briefly about the Americans filming here on the cheap, better roles for women and people of colour recently and Vancouver’s independent theatre scene. Then he’s back to the kitchen.

I turn to my coffee and my phone and this time a woman approaches the man in the wheelchair. He’s still here. I guess he’s not waiting for a car. She’s wearing a rough linen apron draped beautifully around her hips. She has that fabulous thick caramel coloured naturally curly hair you see on women who do not look cozy but frisky. She’s sashayed out from the artisan gift shop next door. They know each other. I start to piece it together. This man is a stroke victim. This man used to run this cafe.

I become absorbed in my emails and day book and my Fitbit keeps bothering me to get up and move. Wait a minute, if it has bothered me a couple of times it  means I haven’t moved for a while. I  check the time: oh my goodness, forty five minutes have passed! Where is my lunch?! I was expecting it to take a while but not this long. I peek inside. The kitchen isn’t busy anymore, there are only two tables occupied, what is going on? My friendly waiter looks anxious and starts waving his hands. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it shouldn’t be much longer, she makes everything fresh, everything from scratch…” “I know, but forty five minutes…” “I am so so sorry, do you have to be somewhere?” “Yes, I have to catch a ferry.” “Oh my God, okay, should I pack it to go?” “If it comes out in five I’ll be okay.”

I head back to my table. When I do, another person has stopped to say hi to the man in the wheelchair. Then another. The stroke hit him hard, he can’t seem to move much or say much, but he has a wide genuine smile. This man isn’t only known, he’s loved. Now I feel bad that I’ve been impatient in front of him. But five minutes pass, ten, now I’m in danger of missing my boat. This is dumb. I head back into the restaurant, further in, and can see into the kitchen and notice it is run by one person, a Japanese woman, maybe late fifties. She is absolutely frantic, arms akimbo above her apron, face streaked with panic and sweaty strands of hair sticking to her cheeks. She yells at me from the little peek-a-boo window, “He’s new, he’s new, he should have told you, I make everything fresh, I make it all myself, and it takes time and there have been a lot of people!” Oh my God, this poor woman. The lunch rush was too much for one person and now she’s frazzled and alone. My friendly waiter (who actually has done nothing wrong) bears the blame and hangs his head quietly.

I notice a picture in the bar. It’s a Japanese woman in a beautiful red dress and veil getting married to…the man outside in the wheelchair…a long time ago. They are man and wife. They are young and beautiful and hip, opening up a cafe in a part of town that used to be very sketch.

I can miss a ferry. I lean in and smile sympathetically. “Oh my dear, I see, I see you are all alone here.”

She stops for a minute over the stove, flips my “pizza” like a big omelette. It lands perfectly in the pan. “Yes, yes, if you had ordered the curry – ”  she shakes her head in dismay. “I will next time. But no worries, I can take it to go, I can still make my boat. No rush.” (lie) She confirms what I suspect, “I have to run this restaurant, train new staff and take care of my husband out there…” I nod. “Well, I want to assure you this guy, your new waiter, he’s FANTASTIC. So friendly and great. I’ll be back for sure just because of him!” The waiter brightens and straightens the take out box and napkin bundle into perfect alignment with the end of the bar counter. The owner in the kitchen is surprised by my praise. I head down the little hallway to use the washroom and when I return the Japanese pizza is all packed up and ready to go.

“You have to eat it hot, please, promise you will put it in the oven when you get home?” The chef nods at the box like a mother giving last minute babysitting instructions. “I will” (lie) I pay and tip twenty percent. She comes out of the kitchen and smooths her apron and takes a big breath and smiles. Ah. This is who she is. She presses her hands together and bows. “Have a creative day” she says. I smile back, “Thank you, a pleasure to meet you.”

On my way out I’m too ashamed to say good-bye to the man in the wheelchair because I didn’t say hello. I didn’t even see him in the first place. He was a non-person to me. I had no idea my brain registered disabled people as non-persons.

While driving in vain hope that the ferry might be late, I get plugged up with traffic on Denman Street and have a little unreasonable rage. “Well damn it, damn it, damn it, damn it!” I shout like a toddler. I shout in my car. I knew I was going to shout so I rolled up the windows and put on the air con. I could have just had lunch at home. I could have just shut up and had lunch at the cafe, one or the other. “Damn it, damn it, damn it! F!” I could have said no to this audition that took all of two minutes, a one shot read, three hours of driving. I have a messy house and a guest at home and some kind of f’ing vegan dinner to invent because my kids both watched What the Health. It’s 2:45pm and I haven’t eaten or moved all day and my Fitbit is deeply disappointed in me and I am morally disappointed in myself. F! I THOUGHT I WAS A KIND PERSON!” I bang the steering wheel.

Everyone is heading over the Lion’s Gate bridge. It’s slow as molasses through Stanley park. I flip open the pizza box. “What the hell is Japanese pizza from a Jamaican joint taste like anyway?!” It’s an eggy flour pancake with fried cabbage and peppers and onions and I’m to top it with this sweet soy garlic based sauce. I’m allergic to soy but I want to honour what this woman has made me, so I pour it on. Plus, it smells delicious. I’m not sure if the meal is a hot mess or the most fantastic thing I’ve had in a long time. I fork in the gooey comfort of it at every red light.

While soaring along the Upper Levels, I turn on the radio. I kid you not, a woman is talking about being disabled, needing to walk with canes, and how she receives outrageous discrimination. If I had heard this interview on the way into town I would have cocked my head in surprise. i don’t think of society as being “outrageously discriminatory” towards disabled people. On the contrary. But having just been made aware of my own fault on this point…I listened intently.

Once I get home I do some research on the Lion’s Den Cafe and it gives these people I had just met some names: Juniko Tanabe is the wife, co-owner and chef, Ken Brooks is her husband, the owner, the man in the wheelchair. He had a stroke last year. His only word is “Mama” right now, but he is showing signs of slow recovery. The restaurant has been there for over eighteen years and they need our support or they’re going to lose the business. Here’s their story here.


Of course I did miss my ferry, despite the fact the ferry was late, so I now wait for the next late ferry. I have learned to bring hand weights with me, so I have plenty of time to do my squats and lunges and arm curls in my waitress uniform along the line of cars in the loading dock. Women look up from me behind the steering wheels of their mini vans full of groceries. Some roll down the windows and shout, “What an excellent use of time!”

Once my exercises are done, I open up my kindle, my birthday present from my husband. I continue to read the first book I downloaded, “The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America” by First Nations (Canadian) writer, Thomas King.


It’s fantastic. So witty and warm and accessible and shocking. See, I know I am discriminatory towards indigenous people, largely due to ignorance. Now I have to download something about disabled people. Am I never going to get to fiction?!

My little wise ass voice (don’t we all have a wise ass voice) says to me, “Haven’t you already been living in the fiction of your superiority far too long?”

I toss the rest of my Japanese pizza and keep the box for recycling. It wasn’t too long ago nobody recycled. Oh gosh, remember there was a time I thought men shouldn’t vacuum because that was women’s work? Remember when I thought gay people were mentally ill? Remember when I referred to God only in the masculine and was sure that Indian women were only murdered by Indian men in those dangerous reserves? Well. Right. I guess I can learn.

The sun sets the ocean off dazzling with diamonds and gulls soar overhead. I’m going to hike another 5km today so that I can eat cake. I look down at these knees that give me so much trouble. “Thank you” I say to them. “Thank you” I say to my body and mind. I can be strong, I can move forward with ease. I can head back into the Lion’s Den and rethink.51nWj9+qPIL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_



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  1. Alison

    This is lovely. I used to live near the Lion’s Den, and I really hope Ken and his wife can make it through these tough times.
    A friend of mine writes a blog about her own personal struggles with being discriminated against as a disabled person. It’s not always easy reading, but I’ve learned a lot. Her blog is: http://www.sublimemercies.com/2017/07/ableism-beaten-down-and-fighting-back.html

    1. Lucia Frangione

      Thanks for this, Alison!

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