Monday, October 17, 2016

History of the Drake Hotel (1948-1974) & Beer Parlour (1954-1974)

History of the Drake Hotel and Beer Parlour



The Drake Hotel and Beer Parlour in 1961 City of Victoria Building Assessment Photo.

There has been a drinking establishment on the northeast corner of Johnson and Store streets since Hugh Foster opened the Lager Beer Saloon in 1860 and possibly a few saloons before that too. In 1870 the slogan for the Lager Beer saloon was, “The Best of Everything for the Refreshment of the Inner Man.” And from those pioneer days right up to March 1917 when owners of the Grand Pacific Hotel, Bargetto and Milanesio, closed the bar and sold off their hotel, each establishment at that location did a roaring business.

The corner of Johnson and Store streets continued to have an operating hotel there through the years where only the names changed. In 1948 the Rex Hotel had been there for a number of years when Mr. J.C. Brownlee became interested in the place for his new hotel. Brownlee had just completed a career in the Royal Canadian Navy and was looking for a change of pace and could afford to follow his dream of leasing or buying his own hotel. Brownlee signed a ten-year lease on the property and spent over $32,000 renovating the Rex Hotel. The job took six months and on March 29, 1950 the newly renovated hotel opened with a new name, the Drake Hotel.

This article will look at the history of the Drake Hotel, and specifically at the Drake Hotel Beer Parlour, the first beer parlour to open in the City of Victoria. 

Customers who remembered the Rex Hotel were thrilled when they entered the newly renovated Drake Hotel. It seemed that no expense was sparred as everything looked new and clean. In addition to all new beds and furnishings in the rooms, Brownlee added the Tic Toc Cafe which was located exactly on the corner of Johnson and Store streets, and managed by Brownlee’s brother, G. Allan Brownlee. The modern new diner with its horseshoe shaped counter, could accommodate up to 40 customers at a time and was opened from seven in the morning until midnight.


Brownlee proudly showed off his new Drake hotel by conducting a tour that included a Colonist reporter and potential customers who walked through it shortly after it opened. At the same time he ran an ad in both the local papers that read: Seeing is Believing - Visit the Drake Hotel and inspect our rooms. Everything is new and clean. Rates start at $4 per week - Corner of Johnson and Store Streets. The guests at the Drake Hotel spend their evenings enjoying excellent TELEVISION programs. Why don't you move into a nice furnished room at the Drake Hotel and quash those dull evenings, low weekly rates. Everything is new, clean and quiet.”

These early years for the Drake appeared to be their best. Things only improved when, on the afternoon of Friday September 17, 1954, the Drake Hotel opened the first beer parlour in downtown Victoria. 

Prohibition in BC began October 1, 1917 which legally ended the wholesale and retail selling of liquor. Prohibition turned out to be a great flop, and proved to be impossible to enforce and three years later the majority of voting British Colombians voted down prohibition, instead supporting government control. Government liquor stores opened, the first opened on Yates Street near the Dominion hotel in June 1921. But beer-by-the-glass was another issue.

In 1924 another plebiscite was launched asking BC voters if they were in favour of beer-by-the-glass in their region, city or town. Most areas voted for beer by the glass, but some like Kelowna and Victoria narrowly voted against the plebiscite. The first beer parlour licenses were issued in March 1925, and places like the Halfway House and the Gorge Beer Parlour were licensed, while inside the city limits of Victoria, only Clubs, like the Royal Canadian Legion and the Army, Navy and Airforce Club (different set of rules) were licensed. It wasn’t until 1954, when the first cocktail lounge to open in BC (can you guess which one that was?), opened in the Strathcona Hotel, that beer-by-the glass quickly followed. The Drake beat out the Westholme and the Kings hotel by two months.

The following page is a rare and significant photograph, although not as clear as I like, of hotel owner and Managing Director of the Drake Beer Parlour Jim Brownlee and his Head Bartender, Cecil Clark waiting for the first beer delivery at the first beer parlour in Victoria. Meanwhile, what this photograph doesn’t show, is the great throng of curious customers with their noses pressed to the large windows of the brand new beer parlour, anxiously waiting to be one of the first served at the Drake. I was not quite eight months old at the time, or I would have been in line. But fortunately, my time at the Drake would come; it would just take another sixteen or so more years until I would be served my first beer in a beer parlour – and that took place at the Drake in 1971 when I was at the tender age of 17, more about that coming up.

The beer shipment finally arrived and when the doors opened allowing an excited crowd in to claim their seats in the first beer parlour. A new day dawned as the last vestiges of prohibition that had lasted for 37 years in Victoria, was swept away with the unlocking of the beer parlour doors.


The newest beer parlour in town was initially very small and could only accommodate few people. But a few years later it was enlarged, adding a second level and expanding eastward along Johnson street. The place was packed on opening day which lasted from the time the doors opened until closing. The beer parlour hours were set from 10:30 in the morning until 11:30 pm, with an hour closing at suppertime, from 6:30 to 7:30 in the evening. The idea behind closing during the dinner hour was meant to force customers, especially the married men, to go home. But many just decided to wait in their cars and drink from a case of beer until the doors reopened an hour later.

The early beer parlours in BC were very spartan, offering no entertainment, no food and a host of rules that were strictly enforced. From 1925-1954, one could not purchase anything in a beer parlour except draught beer. Initially there wasn’t even snack foods allowed. The reasoning for this according to the BC government, who were in charge of enforcing the rules and laws governing beer parlours, was that they did not want a return to the wild and open shenanigans of the old-style saloons. All really one could do in a beer parlour at this time was to sit (couldn’t stand or walk with a beer in hand) and drink beer.

By 1954, the Drake Beer Parlour opened, which saw the strict rules for behaviour in beer parlours relaxed somewhat. Snack foods and eventually cider and BC wines were also offered along with draught beer. The beer was supplied by only one of the big three or four brewers at the time and there were no other choices of beer other than whatever brand was the ‘house beer’. The beer parlour you drank in was either supplied by Labatt’s, O’Keefe’s or Molson’s. As the regulations relaxed, customers found they could have more beer choices, but that took years. I believe the Drake was a ‘Labatt’s Blue house’. And of course the beer parlour was separated into a Men’s side and a Women and Escorts’ side.
The separation of the sexes in beer parlours came into law in 1942, during World War II. The idea behind it, which seems silly today, was a genuine attempt by the Federal Government to keep servicemen separate from women, thereby lessening the chances that the military men would not end up in bed or worse from sexually transmitted diseases. The small Drake beer parlour had separate sides until the regulations allowed for the ‘mixing’ of the sexes in beer parlours in 1964. Although many beer parlours, like the Gorge, continued the practice well into the early 1970’s as requested by many of their married male customers.

Cecil Clark was the head tap man at the Drake. He came from Duncan and had worked at the British Public Schools, a very old Club that goes back to at least May 1926, located at 1218 Langley Street, before being hired by Brownlee for the Drake. Experienced tap man and waiter, Peter Moteck, formally of the Colwood, then the Halfway House beer parlours, had been working in beer parlours for years and brought his knowledge to the new Drake. Moteck helped Brownlee and Clark get the Drake beer parlour going, then moved on to work at the Westholme beer parlour when it opened (same day as the Kings on Yates Street), in November 1954. The two experienced waiters when the Drake opened was, Earl C. Pearson, formally of the Army and Navy, with Jack White, formally of the Halfway House. Jack would later work as a waiter at the Royal Olympic Beer Parlour that opened on Johnson Street in 1956.

By 1960 the Drake Hotel and Beer Parlour had a new owner. The beer parlour had been enlarged and a balcony adding more seating was constructed. The room was still divided to prevent mingling of the sexes, which seemed unnecessary by then. The ladies could invite whomever they wanted from the men’s side to come and join them, and this happened often. But if the men became unruly or rude, then they could be just as easily uninvited and a waiter would escort the man either back to the men’s side or out the door. On occasion, a few of the women would invite men over to their side of the beer parlour and have him spend his money on them then ask him to leave. The wacky liquor regulations allowed for some bizarre behaviour.

My first visit (and probably my only visit, if my cloudy memory recalls), was in 1971. I worked at the car wash behind the Colony Hotel between Gorge Road and Douglas Street. The car wash is still there but the Colony Hotel has long gone. I was a wide-eyed 17 year old innocent that had never been to a beer parlour, let alone had much experience drinking any alcoholic beverages. One Friday afternoon as our crew was getting off work, the manager asked us if we wanted to have a drink at one of the beer parlours. I told him I was underage (which he knew) but urged me to come along and “have fun.” The six of us arrived at the Drake beer parlour and the car wash manager picked out the seats and order 12 beer – two for each of us. We sat down and the waiter, whose name may have been Cye (spelling) Shaw, a long time waiter at the Drake, arrived at our table with a tray filled with beer which he started putting on the table. He chatted with my buddies as he seemed to know them all until his eyes fell on me. “Hey kid, how old are you?” he asked in a rough voice. I was shaking like a tree in the wind that would bend but not break, I didn’t say a word. The car wash manager, I believe his name was Helmet Vegal (sp), said, “Oh don’t worry about Glen, he looks young for his age and besides, he’s with us.” That seemed to be enough for the waiter and I was served my first beers. I was very happy to drink a beer with my friends and quite relieved that I wasn’t asked for my ID. I got to see the Drake from the inside and the round of beers cost $3.00 (20 cents times 12 beer plus tip).

In its latter years the Drake beer parlour was commonly called the “Dirty Duck”. Denise Titian, mentions on Flickr: "My aunts would hang out at the Drake about 1969. They used to call it the Dirty Duck. I remember having to call information for the number as I couldn’t find a listing for The Dirty Duck."Over the years the place became run down and began getting a bit of a reputation. By the late 1960’s until the Drake closed in 1974, there were a few fights, rather commonplace for many of the street-level beer parlours in downtown Victoria. To some it was a place to be avoided, while to others, it just meant that the place had character (and characters).
The Drake had two pool tables and had hot food and snacks. I recall in that the Drake had at least one metal palm tree as a decoration and by the time I went there, the separate entrances were no longer in use.

The last owner of the Drake Hotel and beer parlour was Ed Tomczk, born in Victoria. He took over the business when his father died. The Drake Hotel and beer parlour closed in 1974.

The Drake will forever be remembered as the first beer parlour to open in Victoria. Through the years the hotel owners supported local charities and sports teams. They even had their own hockey team. The Drake Hotel operated for twenty-three years, and the beer parlour for only twenty years, but ask any old-timer (like me) and most have fond memories of their time spent in the ‘Dirty Duck.’