Hip, hip, hooray! Today marks the 95th birthday of Harold Cross, the beloved customer who has been dining at Harold’s Bistro & Bar (Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel, 7551 Westminster Highway) for over thirty-five years. After a renovation of the restaurant seven years ago, the hotel decided to name the establishment after their most loyal diner. When asked by management if the name change was acceptable to him, Harold responded, “Ok with me? That’s an honour, for heaven’s sake!”
This kind of modesty is characteristic of Harold who exudes elegance, intelligence, and an infectious sense of humour. “I’m a gentleman. I had no choice,” he explains, attributing his charming comportment to his parents who taught him the importance and value of good manners.
I had the great honour of recently having lunch with Harold, who every day, gets impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, hops onto his zippy scooter, and rides for twenty-five minutes to the restaurant from Gilmore Gardens. Harold made the transition to the independent senior community two weeks ago, after living alone in an apartment for years. So far, he likes his new home, and was off to a new resident meet-and-greet after our lunch together.
Around noon each day, as well as Friday night for dinner, Harold parks his scooter in the spot permanently reserved for him and takes his seat at his usual table.
The back of his chair has a silver plaque that was placed there to mark his 90th birthday. One of his favourite servers, either Cherie, Angie, or Katie, who have been working at the restaurant for decades, greets him warmly and takes his order.
A meal with Harold is a wondrous trip through ninety-five years lived fully and joyously. Born in Vancouver, Harold grew up in the Dunbar area, graduating from Lord Byng Secondary School’s Class of 1940. “I don’t do reunions,” laughs Harold.
Right out of high school, Harold enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and served for five years. “That was just an adventure. I don’t really talk about that. It was a long, long time ago,” he says when I press him for details.
In April 1942, he met his true love, Jeanne, in Vancouver where he was staying in transit for a course on flight engineering. By serendipity, he was the usher and she the bridesmaid at a mutual friend’s wedding. By October, their whirlwind romance culminated in the two getting married. “We had a good marriage. We were very good friends, which I think, more than anything else, is to do with a good marriage,” says Harold. The two were together for sixty-three lovely years before Jeanne passed away. When asked to describe Jeanne in one word, Harold thinks for a minute and then decides, with fondness, on “independent.”
During those sixty-three years, the two lived in Ottawa, Yellowknife, and Calgary, before moving back to Richmond in 1980 after Harold retired. After the air force, Harold took a job with the federal government, thinking initially it would be temporary, but soon finding that he enjoyed the work. His many positions including serving as the Territorial Secretary in Yellowknife where he was personally responsible for the creation of the polar bear-shaped license plates for the Northwest Territories, as well as a host of other initiatives.
He also had the opportunity to meet and dine with the Queen, as well as meet many other famous individuals, like Prime Ministers John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau. Harold was particularly struck by Trudeau’s charm during his visits to Yellowknife. “He was very much a gentleman, which means a lot to me, and very much a people person. He was able to talk to anyone,” recalls Harold. Above his desk at home, Harold has a framed signed letter from Trudeau thanking him for over forty years of exemplary service with the government.
When Jeanne and Harold moved back to the Lower Mainland in 1980, they decided to start a daily ritual of going out for lunch. “When we retired, we talked and said that we would get up and get properly dressed, and do something every day.” They settled on sharing a meal every day at the past incarnation of Harold’s Bistro, in the former Best Western Richmond Hotel & Convention Centre.
Over the years, the two kept on visiting, with Harold continuing the tradition even after Jeanne passed away. “It just became like a second home,” says Harold. He believes that his commitment to having lunch and Friday dinner at the restaurant motivates him to get out of bed in the morning: “It’s keeping me moving, keeping me busy.”
Harold also adores the food at the restaurant. “Everything on the menu is good,” he says. He doesn’t have favourites, but instead likes to order something different every time. He adds though that he really likes the pan seared Fraser chicken with mushrooms and light chicken jus. For our lunch together, he had homemade chicken noodle soup with a shrimp sandwich (not toasted, with the lettuce and tomato on the side).
I had the calamari, which was also delicious.
The 95-year-old is often joined for lunch by friends and relatives (e.g. he has a son, two grandsons, and three nephews). His great niece and great nephew also eat with him on their birthdays. As the inspiration behind the restaurant name, he’s become quite the local celebrity, with reporters, like Squire Barnes, sitting down to chat with him as well. “One of the best parts is meeting the people who want to meet Harold,” he says.
For his birthday, Harold’s younger sister, visiting from Armstrong, will dine with him at the restaurant for a celebratory lunch. He surmises that there will be cake, although he doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth. “I’ll have a bite,” he concedes, with good grace.
When asked for the secret to his longevity, Harold replies, “I have always tried to look forward. I’m a great believer in the power of positive thinking.” Indeed, his ready smile and the twinkle in his eyes are disarming evidence of his life philosophy.
Happy 95th Birthday, Harold!!