Waffles and brunch worth standing in line for are just two of the things Medina Café has got going for it. But it’s not just the food that people are addicted to, it’s the new digs, the vibe, the killer cocktails--all of which are what Robbie Kane wants you to take away from Medina. Here, one of Canada's brunch kings gets candid about the craziest things he's seen during morning service, why a dinner menu isn't in the cards for him, his favourite pizza in the city and what he loves about living on the West Coast.
Congratulations on your new location in the Library district! What was your biggest lesson from the big move?
Well, we coined it the Library District, first of all, ha! We were next to the library and when we started our PR campaign, we just started hashtagging it the Library District and it stuck. I have to give all the credit to Shelley McArthur, it was all her idea.
I feel like I’m learning every day. When you move a location, it’s a bit of a crap shoot. I knew that our brand was strong and we have a loyal following, but I was still nervous. We wanted to be consistent; consistency is everything. People came to our new location and while they were sitting in a new environment, they felt the same way. That’s what we wanted.
What do you think it is about brunch that people love so much, exactly?
Brunch is cultural phenomenon. When you walk into Medina, it’s not really Vancouver, it could be New York or Seattle. I like to keep the vibe going; I love rock n’ roll. The fare we offer is different in that it’s Middle Eastern/North African--and the Liège waffles. When we first opened, we just did waffles so we put a serious emphasis on our coffee program. People will travel a long way for good coffee. In terms of front of house, I try to hire the best possible people I can and be in the restaurant as much as I can. It’s a holistic experience. You can have brunch anywhere, but it’s different to go into a place that’s alive.
Why have you never chosen to be open for dinner?
Generally speaking, lunch is eat and get back to work. Dinner is a totally different beast. People have a totally different timeline that can last two to two and a half hours. It just doesn’t really fit with our concept.
Why are interesting cocktails so essential to a great brunch experience?
I think the whole cocktail scene throughout the Pacific Northwest, along with the craft beer scene, is an essential part of any successful restaurant. Particularly with brunch goers who may have been out late, they want a little hair of the dog, whether it’s a mimosa or a Caesar. We do a great Moroccan Maria with fresh tomato juice and a smoked paprika rim with house-made pickles and hot sauce. Vancouver is a cocktail town and people like to drink things that are a little bit different.
In addition to the food and drinks, what keeps people coming back to Medina?
It’s all about the insider experience. Oftentimes, I’m at the door greeting people. I do my best to remember their names, the drink they love, table preferences, their kids’ names. It’s enlightened hospitality. I try to make it so that everyone is taken care of. There’s a restaurant here called Nook that’s a pizza-pasta restaurant; it’s my favourite place in town. They’re so welcoming: “Hey Robbie, c’mon in! Come to the bar, have a drink, the kids are fine.”
They make me feel at home.
On an entirely selfish note, are you looking to expand your business to any other locations or cities?
Yes, there are always plans. I’d really love to do a quick service or casual concept. I’ve been talking about Victoria. My wife really wants to live in Victoria with her retired parents and it’s a gorgeous brunch town. I’m from Toronto and feel that our concept would be really well-received there. But, the issue for every restaurateur is talent. It’s so hard to find great people. I’ve seen so many people try to grow inorganically and stretch themselves thin. I’d love to grow, but not at the peril of any of the great things we’ve got going on right now.
If you weren’t in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I used to be a photographer, so I’d probably be taking pictures.
Do you have a fondest Medina memory?
I have so many fond memories in both locations, but deciding to name it Medina is maybe my fondest because of the attachment to my wife. We originally wanted to name it Gypsy, but one of my ex-business partners was Belgian and “Gypsy” just didn’t fly with him. He suggested “Cul Sec”, which is a “bottoms up!” expression, but literally translates to “dry ass”. I just couldn’t get on board with it. But there are great connotations to the name “Medina” and now I’ve been married to a beautiful woman for eight years because she saw our sign on the street.
What is the craziest thing you’ve seen happen during a brunch service?
Domestic disputes are always entertaining: drinks thrown in people’s faces and women storming out. There are only two occasions in eight years that I’ve asked people to leave. On one particular Sunday morning, a guy didn’t like his meatballs. He was super belligerent: cursing, and disrupting the entire room. So I bought his breakfast and asked him to leave. The whole room stood up and clapped. It was horrible, but good entertainment I suppose.
What’s one of your biggest pet peeves?
There are so many places in hipster Vancouver that give you the eye roll when you walk in with children. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of inconsiderate parents that cause a huge mess and don’t clean up after themselves, which isn’t cool. But, people will call Medina and ask if we’re kid-friendly and I don’t quite understand that question. Of course we’re kid-friendly. If we were a candlelit evening restaurant, then I could understand, but we’re a brunch spot, we sell waffles for crying out loud.
What’s the best review a customer could give you?
That they just had the best experience ever. Not that they loved one thing in particular, the best waffles or tagine or eggs, but their whole experience was outstanding.
What’s your favourite way to wind down after a busy day at Medina?
Go home to my family. It’s not really winding down with a four and a 15 year old, but it’s my favourite thing to do.
Do you have a guilty culinary pleasure?
Pizza. Nook is my guilty pleasure in Vancouver.