Sober Nights in Nanaimo

The spots, the struggles, the future

Photo by Carrie Davis
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There is a growing community throughout Canada of those seeking out a sober night-life. Whether they’re parents looking for a kid-friendly venue, underage students wanting to enjoy time out of school, they’re in recovery, or they simply have no interest in the booze that usually rules the city party scene. 

As Nanaimo’s population marches past 90,000, and businesses note the growing influx of university students, the need for an accessible night-life for various demographics grows. While some venues are beginning to accommodate this need, there are still hurdles to overcome.

A former staple of Nanaimo’s night-life, Pirate Chips, used to call the corner of Commercial St. and Wallace St. home. Weekend nights would find a line stretching out of the small restaurant as crowds either waited for Nanaimo’s clubs to open up or enjoyed the evening ambiance. But a lifestyle change, and a lease that wasn’t renewed, found owner Angela Nodwell moving the beloved restaurant down to the corner of Front St. and Church St. and changing hours to the current ones.

“When I opened, I was 28 years old,” Nodwell said. “I’m 44 now. Five years ago, I had my second child and my new restaurant within a day and a half. I have a child’s play area. And that’s because, when I had my first child it was like ‘where can we go?’ There’s nothing around here for families. How many White Spot meals can you eat?”

For Nodwell, the change of lifestyle wasn’t just reflected in her life, but in her clientele.

“All of my original customers from 16 years ago are now parents.” 

But Nodwell is still aware of the university population that looks for places like her old site. She notes that one of the main issues facing Nanaimo’s night-life is transit.

A view of Modern Cafe from Commercial Street

“For a university town it’s ridiculous,” she said. “And it’s quite often scary for my staff to take the bus. Or my hours have to work around what the bus schedule is. I gotta let these guys go by this time because that’s when the bus is.” 

Some of Pirate Chips staff drive, and many carpool, but Nodwell said “sometimes I’m giving staff rides home because it’s safer, or it’s too cold to wait. I’ve actually had budgets for my staff, when we are open later in the summertime, to take cabs home. If we have to stay later because we’re so busy and we need to clean up late, absolutely I’ll pay for your cab ride home.”

“I’ve noticed over the 16 years, it used to be just me and Mambo’s. It used to be really dark. But now, if I have an alarm call because someone left a fryer on and I’m cruising down at two in the morning down Commercial St., and I think ‘Wow, there’s lights. There’s people walking around,’” she said. “We have The Vault, Fork’n Pork, Food Koma. We have Mambos still, and Red’s Bakery. It took 16 years to get where we are. And before me, it was just Mambo’s.”

Of those mentioned, The Vault is the only venue currently able to supply more than just food and beverages to their patrons. With marionette shows, local band performances, and open mics, The Vault offers entertainment every night they’re open in a sit-easy atmosphere. But for those looking for places with no alcohol offered, The Vault’s drink menu will be a deterrent. 

Nodwell touched on the lack of late-night amenities and highlighted a particular hole in the downtown area. One that caters to various demographics.

Fascinating Rhythm’s iconic sign glows in the night.

“We need a movie theatre back downtown. You can’t catch the bus, see a movie, and get a bus back home. The system is not there if you live downtown.”

But there is a new player in town when it comes to alternatives for Nanaimo’s night-life, leaning away from the food focus and more into activity. The Board Game House offers an all-ages place to hang out with friends, with a closing time of 11 pm on Friday and Saturday. Owner Tyler Voigt knows that the BG House is used by all ages, but notes that the shop is a favorite with a particular population of Nanaimo’s night-life.

“Our target demographic is primarily college students who play board games throughout all hours of the day,” Voight said. “But it seems that the majority of this traffic does come in the evenings. Sometimes it’s not possible to obtain a table after 7:00 pm, so I would say it absolutely supports these later hours.”

Like Nodwell, Voight noted that the current transit system in Nanaimo plays a role in the accessibility of Nanaimo’s downtown venues.

“If you are familiar with the bus schedules and utilize it frequently, you’ll find yourself planning your day of activities or tasks around the schedule. In my mind, this is not as accessible as it could be and needs improvement,” Voight said. But he does point out that BG House currently operates in a time frame that does work with the current schedule. “I don’t believe it’s been a hindrance to our business operations either. If we were open later than 11:00 pm it certainly would be.”

There is still a lot of growth needed for Nanaimo’s downtown. Parking, public washrooms, and developed accessibility in the area were points that both Nodwell and Voight brought up. They’re also points that circle into conversations when residents discuss the future of Nanaimo’s downtown. Even though there is work to be done, that hasn’t stopped those that find their place in Nanaimo’s downtown from thinking about the future.

“I honestly envision more low-key lounge-type establishments that offer a wider variety of food, drink, and entertainment that fosters a more social relationship building environment,” Voight said when asked what he hopes to see in Nanaimo’s downtown. “It also has to be safe, affordable, and accessible to everyone. We are human beings craving positive interactions with one another and alcohol doesn’t need to be the main reason we stay out late.”