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Dives on "The Drive"

While there are certainly a number of terrible meals to be had, some hidden gems exist that are worth checking out the next time you find yourself on Commercial Drive and in need of a cheap meal or are looking for something a little different.

Souvlaki from Sunrise Pizza, one of the better Dives on The Drive.

Vancouver's Commercial Drive is an eclectic place. Hipsters and seniors live side-by-side with yuppies and the homeless, giving this neighbourhood its unique flavour. Restaurants in the area reflect the diversity of area residents with upscale, fine dining establishments like Merchant's and Absinthe co-existing happily with only-on-The-Drive places like The Storm Crow and The Cannibal Cafe.

Flying under the radar, however, is an interesting assortment of "dives", places that appear so unappealing and/or outdated that most people barely acknowledge exist, let alone patronize them.

That would be a mistake. While there are certainly a number of terrible meals to be had there, some hidden gems exist that are worth checking out the next time you find yourself in need of a cheap meal or are looking for something a little different.

At the far North end of Commercial Drive is J.B.'s Sandwich Bar (1719 Franklin Street, no web site). Located smack dab in between a fish distributor, a chicken processor and the notorious West Coast Reductions rendering plant, the smell outside J&B is enough to keep all but the most determined visitors away.

Stepping inside is like going from Mordor to the 1950's. Menus hand-printed on bristol board line the walls and a stack of magazines so old and faded they are almost unreadable await a trip to the recycling bin. Mike, the owner and chef, is quiet at first but will crack a smile eventually.

Dining options include sandwiches, omletes and a cheeseburger which comes with french fries lovingly thawed in a microwave prior to a quick bath in dirty oil. Stick to the fried rice, which is both cheap and excellent. Be sure to check out Mike's "living room", complete with recliner, side table for the remote, a decades-old television and a VCR (apparently they do still exist) to pass the time between customers.

Moving south across East Hastings Street and up the hill, you will come to Nick's Spaghetti House (631 Commercial Drive, no web site). Serving home-style Italian favourites for almost 60 years, Nick still works in the kitchen every day. His staff keeps the restaurant shockingly clean for a room that's been receiving customers for 5 decades.

Spaghetti, ravioli and other pasta-based dishes are the star attraction here with a pasta sauce that tastes exactly how my Grandma would have made it if she were a) Italian and b) liked to cook. An order of spaghetti with meat balls to go is a great option for those lonely winter nights when you want to shut the door, put on a movie and gorge yourself on carbs.

One block south of Venables Street is Sunrise Pizza & Steak House (949 Commercial Drive), your best bet when you can't decide what you want to eat. Greek? Italian? Seafood? BBQ? Steaks? Pizza?

Sunrise serves it all in a room that is too dated for even a hipster to love. We sampled overcooked calamari and a dry but acceptably flavourful souvlaki before finding a perfectly good pizza.

Not a gourmet, Napoli-style thin crust pie but the kind of chewy, cheesy pizza that marries the salty lowbrow goodness of frozen with the crispy texture that only a fresh-baked crust can have. Don't order extra cheese, though, as the standard pizza comes with enough to satisfy even the most severely afflicted mozzarella-holics.

Across from Grandview Park is Joe's Cafe (1150 Commercial Drive ), the polar opposite of today's trendy coffee shops. No baristas putting soy milk in your latte or hipsters sipping Americanos in here, just Joe Antunes and his son putting care and attention in to making good old fashioned capuccinos and Portugese food.

The hot pork sandwich came on an impossibly soft white bun overflowing with fried onions, a delicious choice for lunch as long as you have no plans to kiss anyone later that day. My dining companion had the excellent daily special feijoada, a traditional Portugese bean stew usually made with beef and pork but here done with fish.

Your fellow patrons will inevitably be 60-year-old-plus European males passionately debating football and watching Bonanza re-runs on the television while outside and around the corner you'll find under-employed locals smoking things both legal and otherwise.

Don't be intimidated or you might miss the most interesting conversation you'll have all week.

Places like these are rare in a city where commercial space is affordable only to well-funded restaurateurs and deep-pocketed casual-fine-dining chains. Places like these represent a living piece of Vancouver's dining history and while you need to order carefully to prevent some quality time spent on the john, a meal or two at a "dive" is the perfect cure to a steady stream of over-hyped, painfully-cool soulless restaurants.

Tell us about your favourite dives in the comments section.

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