The complex history of Bistro Dansk boils down to an inescapable truth: you can go home again.

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The complex history of Bistro Dansk boils down to an inescapable truth: you can go home again.

The Danish restaurant has been a Sherbrook Street mainstay since 1976 and a member of the Vocadlo family since 1977, save for a forgettable period in the 1980s.

It’s where Paul Vocadlo began his culinary career at age 14 and it’s where he returned as the new owner in 1988.

"I started as a dishwasher, peeling potatoes," Paul says. "I caught on more as I (saw) what my mom was doing."

His parents, Joseph and Jaroslava, bought the restaurant in 1977.

Jaroslava was a talented cook who worked as a chef in a castle in the Czech Republic before emigrating to Canada with her husband. The Czech government barred Paul, who was six at the time, from joining his parents in a bid to get them to return to the country. He lived with his grandma and three aunts in a one bedroom apartment for eight years until he was able to reunite with his family.

"It was very poor living," Paul says. "I think that’s why we’re so determined to make it and to give (my) kids what I didn’t have growing up."

Paul and Pamela Vocadlo bought Bistro Dansk as newlyweds in 1988. Recently, daughter Carley, 25, has put aside her real estate career to help out in the popular eatery.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Paul and Pamela Vocadlo bought Bistro Dansk as newlyweds in 1988. Recently, daughter Carley, 25, has put aside her real estate career to help out in the popular eatery.

After five years, the Vocadlos sold Bistro Dansk and Paul went on to expand his culinary skills at Tiffani’s, a former Winnipeg fine dining restaurant that was "the place to go" in the 1980s.

He married his high school sweetheart, Pamela, and didn’t think much about the old Sherbrook Street restaurant until he saw it up for sale in 1988.

The newlyweds were in their early 20s and had little money to their name, but decided to take a leap of faith — supported by a loan made possible by Pamela’s job as a bank teller.

"As soon as we got the loan, I gave my two weeks notice," Pamela says with a laugh.

Their first day open came with an unpleasant surprise.

"We had no customers," Paul says. "I remember my parents always had a lineup, you couldn’t see out the window… but (the interim owners) just wrecked the business."

It took many long days and a glowing review from former Free Press restaurant critic Marion Warhaft, to bring Bistro Dansk back to prominence — where it has lived for the last 32 years.

Paul, 56, and his wife Pamela, 53, do all of the cooking and their middle child, Carley, 25, recently put her real estate business on hold to help out during the coronavirus pandemic.

Pamela and Paul in their early days as owners of Bistro Dansk.</p>

GLENN OLSEN / FREE PRESS FILES

Pamela and Paul in their early days as owners of Bistro Dansk.

"As much as my career could be a little bit bigger… this is also important to me," Carley says.

The restaurant, with its iconic yellow awning and wood-panelled dining room, has been a haven for generations of longtime customers. Marriages have been repaired over sizzling hot plates of schnitzel and regulars have asked for Bistro Dansk as their final meal. One customer ordered soup for all his neighbours in the early days of the pandemic.

"They said, ‘We’re going to keep you guys open,’ and they ordered soup for the entire street and dropped it off on their doorstep just to support us," Carley says.

"We’re so blessed," adds Pamela, her voice cracking with emotion.

Eva Wasney: How has Sherbrook Street changed since you’ve been here?

Pamela Vocadlo: Well The Nook was a Salisbury House, Cousins was always there, but there used to be a Greek place, Impressions Café, Grandma Lee’s Bakery, all those places are just gone.

Paul Vocadlo: Where Food Fare is now, that used to be a movie theatre.

Pamela: And Bella Vista has been here since the beginning, but he’s trying to sell. We used to work so late when it was just the two of us because we didn’t have a dishwasher, we didn’t have anyone to peel vegetables. I would phone my mom and say, ‘Give us a wake-up call at 7 a.m. in case we don’t wake up.’ And one time we ordered pizza from (Bella Vista) because everything was clean and we didn’t want to dirty any dishes. We sat on the basement floor and we ate pizza and rolled up our jackets and went to sleep.

Of its many menu items, schnitzel, in chicken or pork, is Bistro Dansk’s top-seller.</p>

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Of its many menu items, schnitzel, in chicken or pork, is Bistro Dansk’s top-seller.

EW: You would sleep here?

Pamela: Yeah, we did a couple times because driving home was such a waste of time.

EW: How do you guys find working together?

Pamela: That first year was the hardest… we were together like 24/7 and it was a good thing I was working in the front and he was in the back, but now we’re in that little kitchen together. Sometimes your tempers will fly in the kitchen and then there’s so much going on all the time that I forget that I wasn’t going to talk to him for the next hour. But we never take it out of here.

Paul: Yeah, and we never really talk about work when we get home or with the kids. But (we) just work so well together in the kitchen, I don’t even have to say anything. It’s amazing how it works when everyone knows what’s supposed to be happening — it’s so smooth.

Carley: And the customers see it too, because I get people asking me all the time how (three) people can do all of this.

EW: When you do have some downtime how do you like to spend it?

Pamela: Pyjamas and the TV and then we both fall asleep.

A collection of newspaper clippings Bistro Dansk has collected over the years.</p>

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A collection of newspaper clippings Bistro Dansk has collected over the years.

Paul: And for the last 25 years with all the kids we usually close down the restaurant in January for two weeks and we all go for a holiday together. We would all go on a cruise together and sometimes our customers would join us… 99 people came with us one time.

EW: Do you have a favourite vacation spot?

Carley: The Caribbean. We have videos from all our trips and sometimes we’ll get together and watch old cruise videos. Cruising is something we enjoy doing as a family and I will do the same thing with my kids, because growing up those were the best memories.

Paul: It’s the best time ever, so you don’t mind working so hard the whole year.

EW: It sounds like you’ve had to sacrifice a lot for the business.

Paul: People have no idea what you go through owning a restaurant business.

Pamela: They think you’re rich because you have a cash register. If we were rich, 32 years later we wouldn’t still be doing this. You miss a lot doing this. We missed funerals and weddings… Christmas concerts, all those things.

Carley: I’d have friends over after school and… I had one of my friends ask, ‘Do you have a dad?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s just working,’ because he would be here from morning to night.

The eclaire is a popular dessert.</p>

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The eclaire is a popular dessert.

EW: The restaurant started as your five-year plan, at what point did it become the plan?

Paul: Well, we had kids… and the bills kept on coming. And the customers, they became our friends and they’ve seen our kids grow up.

Carley: I remember lots of our customers when I started busing tables at 13, would say, ‘I held you when you were a baby.’ It’s just the relationships with the customers, the kids would come, the parents would come, the grandparents would come and it’s like their family became our family.

EW: What do you think it is about this restaurant that keeps people coming back?

Pamela: We haven’t changed the food much. The younger generation, like (Carley), is always like, ‘You need to update your menu, people aren’t eating those big heavy meals anymore,’ and then our customers tell us not to change a thing.

I always hated the wood panelling, but people are like, ‘No, no, no don’t change it,’ because when they come in the door it takes them somewhere else. They say it’s like being in Europe.

Paul: These pictures, they’ve been here for 40 years. We make all our own spices and breadcrumbs; I make like 200 loaves of bread just for breadcrumbs. Our soups are all made from scratch, we boil the chicken bones in the morning to get the broth… and cut up all the vegetables for it.

EW: What menu item do you guys eat the most?

Every so often, younger customers will recommend updating the menu, and then regulars will say ‘No!’</p>

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Every so often, younger customers will recommend updating the menu, and then regulars will say ‘No!’

Paul: You know what, the schnitzel. Thirty years later you love it just as much.

EW: Away from the restaurant, what is something you like to cook at home for your own family?

Paul: We barbecue lots, even in the winter.

Carley: And you still make a lot of stuff you make here (at the restaurant), like the spicy mushrooms.

Pamela: Sundays are like our family day. We’ll invite all the kids, I’ll make waffles, he’ll make omelets and it’s like breakfast for supper. And we’ll sit around and talk for hours.

EW: Are there any fridge or pantry items that you need to have on hand at all times?

Carley: The (Bistro Dansk) spice blend is in every one of our pantries. Everyone in the family has one.

Paul: Everybody who buys it says they throw out all the other spices in their cupboard. It goes good on fries, chicken, fish… you can put it on everything and it tastes amazing. It’s what we use in the restaurant, too.

The hazelnut pie at Bistro Dansk.</p>

JESSE BOILY / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The hazelnut pie at Bistro Dansk.

EW: What’s another Winnipeg restaurant that you eat at often?

Paul: The Keg is a staple for birthdays and anniversaries and stuff like that, (which) started when we were dating.

Carley: We really like Taverna Rodos, which is a Greek restaurant, we know (the owner) really well and she’s there all the time and has the same standards as we do. Nicolino’s we’re very close with as well, and Monticchio. During the pandemic… we got takeout every single week from some of our favourite local businesses. And they’re supporting us too.

Pamela: A lot of the big places, they’re gonna make it no matter what. But us little guys, we’ve got to stick together. You know there’s families behind those places and that they’re working their butt off the same that you are.

EW: What has been your proudest moment as a chef and restaurant owner?

Paul: To be able to cook for people in Winnipeg and to work with my family. I think it’s the greatest thing if you can do that with your kids and your wife and succeed.

Pamela: It’s our life, it’s not just four walls. We’ve raised three kids here. And the love we get from our customers. It’s so hard (right now), because somebody used to hug us everyday. Places come, places go and some places you remember. I think people will remember us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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