What does it take for a Christmas movie to become a classic? As screenwriter David Berenbaum, who penned “Elf,” notes in “The Movies That Made Us” episode dedicated to the 2003 film, it requires a “big, big heart.” And the Jon Favreau-directed feel-good comedy (streaming now on HBO Max) is certainly not short on that! So it is no surprise that the flick promptly won over audiences everywhere, despite its modest budget and then relatively unknown leading man, Will Ferrell. Playing the role of the perenially upbeat Buddy, a human raised by elves at the North Pole, who, upon learning his true heritage, ventures to New York City at Christmastime to connect with his biological family, Ferrell managed to truly capture the magic of the season, thereby cementing the film’s status as a holiday staple.
Though set in the North Pole and Manhattan, production designer Rusty Smith and his team largely utilized the Vancouver area to create “Elf’s” magical Rankin/Bass-inspired backdrop. It is at Coquitlam’s oft-filmed Riverview Hospital that Santa’s (Ed Asner) sleigh breaks down at the end of the movie. As Favreau recalled to Rolling Stone, “To double for Central Park, we used a grassy field that was on the grounds of a mental hospital. Some of the hospital was closed down and used as a lot. I think they were doing ‘Freddy vs. Jason’ in the same building where we were filming the apartments and Gimbel’s. And one of the buildings, I think, was still open and had patients in it. How weird it must have been for them to look out their window and see Santa Claus and a guy in an elf suit running around with reindeer. It may have been counterproductive to their treatment.” Along with the apartments and Gimbel’s department store sets, Riverview also housed the scenery for the movie’s jail, orphanage and Greenway Press offices, where Buddy’s father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan), worked.
Other Vancouver locales used include the PNE Agrodome sports arena, where the North Pole sets were constructed. The exterior of Jovie’s (Zooey Deschanel) apartment can be found just a few miles west of there at 261 E. Pender St. in the city’s Downtown Eastside area. And right around the corner from that spot at 20 E. Hastings St. is the supposed Big Apple café where Buddy is thrilled to discover the World’s Best Cup of Coffee!
Known as The Only in real life, the now-defunct eatery was a hallmark of the Vancouver culinary world for almost a century! Originally founded by Greek transplant Nick Thodos between 1912 and 1919 (reports vary online), the casual diner was not known for serving any of the four main elf food groups (candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup), but instead was the city’s sole seafood restaurant when initially established, hence the unusual moniker. At the time, Downtown Eastside was a bustling metropolis of offices, restaurants and stores and the café became a regular stomping ground for the many tourists, locals and business people alike who frequented the area. Beloved for serving the freshest of fare, The Only attracted everyone from entertainer Liberace to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, despite its decidedly modest environment.
A 1994 Calgary Herald article had this to say about the cash-only establishment’s bare-bones aesthetic, “Inside, a serpentine counter with 17 worn vinyl stools takes up most of the tiny space, with a couple of booths squeezed in the back. The dingy mirrored walls and even the vintage tin ceiling tiles are covered with layers of custard-colored paint. The tipoff that this isn’t just another greasy spoon is the front window, where fresh halibut, salmon steaks, crabs and sides of Alaska black cod rest on a bed of ice.”
It is those straight-from-the-sea offerings that kept customers coming back for nearly one hundred years.
Unfortunately, in the 1950s, Downtown Eastside started facing a steady decline as businesses began moving west to the more fashionable Granville St., bringing patrons along with them. The Only, then run by Nick’s son, Tyke, managed to remain a neighborhood holdout, though. Then came the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication, which proved the final nail in the area’s coffin. Robert Boyd of Canadian Stories explains, “As a result of Expo 86 and the corresponding construction of the Skytrain line, Hastings Street lost its status as a major transportation corridor. The area went into a tailspin after that. By 1992, drug dealers and homeless people had virtually taken over the area. It was at that point that Tyke Thodos, now reaching retirement age, had had enough. Business had declined dramatically over the past six years, so he decided to close it down.” Tyke sold his father’s landmark restaurant to some longtime employees shortly thereafter. Though the menu and simple décor were left intact, the eatery did not exactly fare well under their tutelage.
According to Yelper Marc D., a 2009 The Province article painted a bleak picture of the place, opening with the question, “Would you like some crack with your cod?” The piece went on to detail a health inspection that “found several cleanliness violations, including cockroaches, rodent droppings, un-plumbed sinks, lack of soap in the washroom and counters sticky with old food” and the site’s subsequent June 2009 shuttering “after Vancouver police testified drugs were being trafficked at the restaurant and that drug residues could have tainted the café’s food.” Santa would so not approve!
Though the Portland Hotel Society expressed interest in renting the site following the forced closure and possibly reopening the eatery, those plans never came to fruition and the locale sat boarded up and empty, covered in graffiti, for over a decade. Then this summer, the final blow was delivered when the city declared the red brick building that once housed The Only “a hazard to public safety” and had it demolished, thereby marking the end of an era in both the Vancouver culinary scene as well its cinematic history. Thankfully, the place remains immortalized for all time in “Elf.”
The Only was featured twice in the movie, though its exterior was altered quite significantly following the shoot, as evidenced by the imagery above. It initially pops up in the scene in which Buddy, after traveling through the seven levels of the Candy Cane Forest, past the Sea of Swirly, Twirly Gumdrops and through the Lincoln Tunnel, arrives in New York and takes in all the sights. While wandering the busy streets, he is elated to come across a sign in the restaurant’s front window announcing “World’s Best Cup of Coffee.” He is so elated, in fact, that he runs in to congratulate the employees and then later brings Jovie there on their date to buy her a cup of the esteemed joe, to which she announces, “It tastes like a crappy cup of coffee!”
For the shoot, the production team covered the restaurant’s mirrored back wall with a brick façade featuring a large menu board. Otherwise, the interior was left mainly true to life, as can be seen in this image from the Vancouver As It Was website, as well as photographs taken by Scout Vancouver when the restaurant was still intact.
Despite garnering only a scant 42 seconds of screen time, “The Only” – and Buddy’s exuberance upon discovering it – certainly left an indelible impression on viewers, one that has this film location afficionado wishing she had been able to grab a cup of coffee at the site and catch a little of Buddy’s irrepressible Christmas spirit in the process.