When a Tofino Food Tour approaches the Schooner Restaurant in Tofino, the first thing we point out is the stern of the boat coming out of the back of the building. Jack Bruce built that and he built the rest of the boat that you get to see inside. The Bruce family are smart, forward-thinking business folk that also happen to make some incredibly tasty food that people have been eating for a very long time.
Coming up on November 8th there is going to be a big party at the Schooner. It’s been 50 years that the Schooner has been owned by the Bruce family. Jack Bruce retired from the Schooner in 1986. He is turning 90 this year and the family wants everyone to come out and eat, drink and reminisce.
Tofino Food Tours wanted to hear all about the food, family and history of the big red restaurant in town. We sat down with current Schooner owner Mare Bruce and found out everything we could about this famous, historical, culinary Tofino institution.
Tell us about working and growing up in the Schooner Restaurant. What did you do?
Mare: “I was 12 when my parents bought the Schooner and I grew up working. I started cooking breakfast then I worked as a server in my late teens. I worked as a bartender. I cleaned. I did everything. I bought the Schooner when I was 32. When I started, people had coffee with their dinner. Now people have cocktails and drinks. We were the first restaurant in town to put in a bar.
I learned to cook from every chef that ever worked at the Schooner. I also learned by talking to chefs in restaurants that I visited all around the world. 40 years ago, I visited a small French restaurant in France that had a dirt floor. I had never had mussels before, except for in Tofino where we had them boiled in salt water. It was never anything special to me. I can still picture the restaurant in France. I had Mussels Meuniere. It was mussels and white wine, cheese, and French bread. It was one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth. I took note and now that’s how we do our mussels to this day.
When I toured in Masais, France I had my first bouillabaisse. I remember looking at this flat bowl filled with a whole fish and a beautiful golden broth and tomatoes. It was delicious. I brought that recipe with me too. I lived in London, England for a bit and I had never seen a leek or an avocado before. When I grew up here, the Tofino Co-op only had potatoes, mushrooms, onions, and carrots for fresh vegetables. Everything else was canned. I didn’t know you could have corn without it being creamed. I learned to love cooking and I still love cooking. I’m always thinking of the next thing I will make… or the next thing I will eat.
One dish guests absolutely love eating at the Schooner is a dish you created – Halibut Bawden Bay…
Mare: “I’ve made 110-thousand Halibut Bawden Bay. Well, maybe not 110-thousand. But I’ve made thousands. In the summer we make on average about 60 a night. The Halibut Bawden Bay was put on the menu in 1987 and it is our biggest seller. It hasn’t changed at all except that we removed pine nuts because too many people are allergic. We sell more Bawden Bays then we do burgers or fish and chips. I have people come back year after year for this dish.”
The Schooner Restaurant once was a hospital at the RCAF Base at Long Beach during World War II. It was moved to its current location on Campbell Street by the Freemasonry of Tofino after the war. How did your family end up with the Schooner?
Mare: “My mother Gloria was a very enterprising woman and she wanted to buy it but she was the worst cook. When I was a child, she would put on this big pot of a whole beef tongue, add cabbage, onions, potatoes, and carrots and it would boil all day long. I’d come home with some friends and we would walk in and go, “What is that smell?” and not in a good way. Or I would have a friend over for dinner and say, “Mom, what are we having for dinner?” The answer – stuffed heart. She did make good bread though.
My father Jack was a good cook. He worked as a backhoe drive for Gibsons and he was also a fisherman. My parents were broke but bought the Schooner for $8000 in 1968. They invited everyone in town to come to a potluck. They charged everyone a dollar and used the money to buy the food to start stocking the kitchen. I really like to think my parents were at the forefront of building tourism in Tofino. They built the boat out the back and into the downstairs restaurant that everyone wanted to see. They realized that when the road to Tofino fully opened in 1972 and the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve opened that people would begin flocking to Tofino.
In the upstairs dining room of the Schooner Restaurant, there is a copy of a menu from 1972. Mare brought it over to us and indicated this was the year tourism had just started.
“My dad used to go out in a rowboat and get the crabs on Long Beach for the restaurant. At that time you could keep the shell of the crab as a souvenir. In 1972 you could get a halibut or salmon steak. No one does that anymore because it has bones in it. She pauses and then remarks, “I grew up in the restaurant industry and the restaurant industry grew up right along with me.”
We’ve heard the stories around town and we tell our Tofino Food Tour guests about the ghost that haunts Schooner. You believe the ghost is a friend of your family?
Mare: “When we moved here from Quadra Island, my mom brought Morris with us. She found him in a ditch there. He was a young logger who had been hit in the head. He had a plate in his head and he had no equilibrium. On Quadra Island, mom owned a taxi service and she picked him up when he was crawling home drunk. He couldn’t stand up because of his head injury. So my mom told him, “ If you don’t ever have another drink in your life, I will let you come live with us and look after my children.”
After that, Morris never took another drink and became part of the family. He lived with our family until he died. He was rough and tumble kind of guy, but he adored my mother. I would come home from school and he would be making chowder. He always smoked and had a large amount of ash hanging off his cigarette. We always joked that was what made the chowder taste so good.
We believe Morris is still in this restaurant even though he passed away a long time ago. It’s only downstairs that we have the encounters. We’ve had things fall of off shelves and pots would bang together for no reason. We would have tablecloths neat on the tables at night and the next morning they are crooked. He was a trickster when he was alive and he still is now.”
You mentioned Morris and his smoking, one thing a lot of people don’t know is that the Schooner Restaurant was the first restaurant to be smoke-free in B.C.?
Mare: “ It’s funny how you think about how restaurants have changed over the years. When we started doing this, there was an ashtray on every table. I thought it was disgusting. I remembered thinking we must stop this, so we split the restaurant in half for smoking. It was unheard of the time. I remember a man came in and got really upset with me because he wanted to sit at a non-smoking table and I said no. The following day, my family agreed there was no more smoking in the Schooner. We were the first restaurant in British Columbia to be non-smoking. We lost business because of it but we were taking a stand for our servers and our patrons that didn’t smoke. That was in 1987.”
Along with being the first to be non-smoking, you also defy the mantra that your menu must change every year. Explain to us how you keep this restaurant traditional.
Mare: “Back in the day we would come up with a new menu every year. We would have to send it away to the printer. I would feel that we had to change the menu every year because I would go to Vancouver and I would want to keep up with all the latest trends. But then my customers would keep saying, “I came back for this dish and it’s no longer on the menu.”
I learned that not every food trend is great. Tourists come here and they don’t want what they can get in the city. If people want fine food, they would go to The Pointe restaurant. People say, “the Schooner never changes” and that is fine because we are still here while other restaurants come and go. We must be doing something right. We have kept true to ourselves. We are not trying to be something that we are not. When you walk in you know what you are going to get. You know what the food is on your plate.
Your sons are continuing the family legacy at Schooner. Gray and Whaylon both have integral roles in the business, as does Whaylon’s wife Jess. You are likely not to retire soon, but what would you like to see happen in the future?
Mare smiles and laughs, “ I don’t know what will happen, but for now, I know we will continue to work hard and play hard. I can’t predict the future. I’m just having a great time with what I’m doing now.”