The Little House That Could

E_p14_streetThis charming 127-year-old yellow house at 1380 Hornby St. has witnessed much of Vancouver’s dynamic history. George Leslie House was built in the late 1800’s by its first owner George Leslie. It’s a rare local example of the Queen Anne style. Not only is it one of the earliest houses in Vancouver, but it is probably the oldest standing, single family dwelling in Yaletown.

Just before the house was built, the Canadian Pacific Rail Yards relocated to the north side of the False Creek area from Yale, B.C. This is the origin of the name Yaletown. The CPR had train repair facilities located where the Roundhouse is today, and False Creek industry began to boom with a shingle mill, cooperage, cement works and sawmills. Wood would be loaded onto the rail cars. Warehouses were built in Yaletown and many workers had their homes nearby. As a plasterer and carpenter, George Leslie was well positioned to have plenty of work. His family lived in the house for nearly 60 years.

In 1947, the house gains new owners and it transitions into a place of business, first an interior design store and then in 1967, yet another owner creates a dress making shop, named Mano Designs. Together with his wife, Mano Herendy produced thousands of confirmation, bat mitzvah, graduation and wedding dresses. At the time, occasions like these were usually the main reason for going out to dinner to celebrate. That is until the next owner of the house began to change all this.

A young Umberto Menghi turns Leslie House into an Italian restaurant which opens in 1973 as Umberto’s. Having been trained as a chef in Italy, and growing up in Tuscany, Umberto had an appreciation for good food. He served authentic, traditional Italian food in the classic Florentine style. It was lighter and more refined than what people in Vancouver were accustomed to. And as is common in Italy and many European countries, the freshest locally sourced ingredients were used. Even more importantly, he raised the standard of dining which took note not only of great food, but the customer’s dining experience. Enter into an atmosphere of charm, warmth and attentive service, and you wanted to return for the sheer pleasure of eating great food in a rich, inviting setting. Dining out no longer needed to be just for a special occasion. It was always a special occasion to be at Umberto’s.

In 1974, he created La Cantina on the north side of Umberto’s which specialized in fish and in 1976, he opened Il Giardino on the south side of Umberto’s specializing in Tuscan style game and fowl. All three restaurants, beside each other on Hornby, had line-ups and Umberto managed all this with the deftness of a symphony conductor.

Today, it’s becoming de rigueur in Vancouver’s best restaurants to serve only the freshest, locally sourced seasonal foods. Umberto was a pioneer in this respect and influenced some of our better-known chefs and restaurateurs. John Bishop of Bishop’s Restaurant and Michel Jacob of Le Crocodile both worked for Umberto and Bud Kanke, owner of the former Cannery traveled to Europe with Umberto to learn some of the finer aspects of food. These protégés in turn influenced other chefs like David Hawksworth of the Hawksworth Restaurant and Rob Feenie, leading chef at the well-known Cactus Clubs.

All three original restaurants on Hornby St. have now closed. The buildings that housed Il Giardino and La Cantina are now demolished. The little yellow house at the centre of the restaurant action for 40 years now stands alone surrounded by empty lots. It has borne witness to Vancouver’s early development, with small wooden-framed houses like itself situated in an industrial community, to the area’s eventual make-over into a trendy neighbourhood filled with high rises. It has housed working families and businesses, and hosted the many guests of Umberto’s restaurant.

The “little house that could” is now awaiting its future life. A development company has purchased all three restaurant properties with condos in mind. The house is designated heritage and it looks like it will be incorporated into the new condo site but just how remains to be seen. However, if you could survive and adapt for 127 years, you have all the potential to continue to do so!

If you feel moved to have the dining experience described above, Umberto has continued to survive and adapt as well. At 68, he has opened another restaurant in the same block on Hornby called Giardino, and has two more restaurants in Whistler.

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