What was the secret behind the 42-year relationship of life partners Patrice Savoie and Bryan Searle?
Always remembering to say they loved each other.
“We faced a lot of obstacles in our business and personal life,” Savoie said.
“We always learned to say that we loved each other. We might still be mad but we never went to bed without saying: ‘I love you.’”
“It doesn’t mean your relationship is perfect. If you know there is a lot of love in your heart for that person, then I think that person is worth fighting for.”
Since 1983, Savoie and Searle have operated The Elbow Room, the popular breakfast and brunch café located on Davie in downtown Vancouver.
In December, Searle died in St. Paul’s Hospital after a long battle with cancer. He was 86.
Searle’s many friends in Metro Vancouver and around the world are gathering on Saturday, March 17, for a celebration of his life.
Over the years, The Elbow Room has become one of Vancouver’s top destinations for breakfast and brunch. The appeal isn’t restricted to the omelettes and bacon and eggs. It’s also because of the sassy attitude that starts with Savoie himself.
“Bryan always said I was a frustrated drag queen and the Elbow Room was my stage,” Savoie said.
The couple met in 1975, six years after federal laws on homosexuality had been changed for consenting adults over the age of 21. At the time, both Savoie, an elementary school teacher, and Searle, an insurance claims manager, still had to worry about losing their jobs for being gay.
Savoie remembers going in the back entrance of gay bars to make sure no one would see him going in the front.
“You were constantly looking at your back,” he said. “You were afraid of losing your job. It was so different.”
They met in a very gay location: a bathhouse in downtown Toronto. Savoie was there because a friend had ditched him earlier in the evening.
Early in the morning of Nov. 12, after Remembrance Day, Savoie was in a sauna on Bloor Street. A man wearing a suit and obviously drunk came in. Savoie thought the man was so handsome, he parked himself outside his room so no one would go in while he slept off the booze. When he woke up, Savoie went in. The man was Searle.
Savoie admits the attraction was sexual at first. But then their relationship changed.
“We started growing with each other and caring for each other,” Savoie said in an interview in the condo the couple shared.
“Each year we got stronger and stronger in our relationship.”
In 1980, the couple moved west when Searle’s company transferred him to Vancouver. About three years later, the couple bought May’s Room, a 12-seat café at 720 Jervis.
They renamed it The Elbow Room when a friend said everyone had to sit so close together their elbows touched. Savoie worked as waiter. Searle, who always wanted to own a restaurant, continued working at the insurance company that was a few blocks away. It was close enough so he could head over at lunch to help by washing dishes and cooking.
Savoie didn’t start sassing customers right away. It came out of a sense of frustration.
One busy day, the café was full of customers. Savoie was juggling getting coffee, taking orders and writing up bills.
A table of four told him that breakfast was great. They didn’t need anything more, they said, other than the cheque.
“I hear behind me: ‘Excuse me, we changed our minds. Can we have more coffee, please?’ from the table of four that said they were finished. The coffee was sitting there.”
That’s when Savoie lost it.
“For some reason, I said: ‘Excuse me, I was just at your (….) table. I asked you if there was anything else you wanted. You told me no, just the cheque. You can see the coffee there. Can’t you get your arse up to get it?’”
No one at the table got up to get the extra coffee. Instead, they paid and walked out.
And then Savoie said something totally unexpected happened. The other customers liked his outburst. They told him that he did what every waiter and waitress always wanted to do but couldn’t because they’d get fired. But since Savoie was one of the bosses, he could get away with it.
“That’s how it came about,” said Savoie, 67.
To this day, customers are served their first cup of coffee. If they want a second, they get it themselves.
If someone says they’re not used to self-serve coffee, Savoie responds by saying “I’m not used to being a servant, either.”
While Searle didn’t have the same kind of outgoing personality, people loved him, Savoie said.
“The minute people met him, they knew he would be a fun person. Yes, he had a lot of wine and a lot of coffee and brandy, and when he was smoking, a lot of cigarettes, but that was a form of socializing for him.”
“Bryan had a big heart,” Savoie said. “Not just with me but with everybody.”
Over the years, the restaurant has become part of the city’s urban fabric. Last year, The Elbow Room: The Musical played at The Cultch.
For eight months before Searle died, Savoie didn’t work at the restaurant because he was taking care of his partner. Savoie is back at work but only as host on Saturdays and Sundays.
All 140 seats at Saturday’s celebration of life for Searle are reserved. The event will include MCs dressed as drag queens, a DJ and a bar. If people go longer than three minutes with their testimonials, they’ll be ‘vacuumed’: it’s a joke that refers to the couple’s reputation as ‘clean freaks’ who once were known for turning on the vacuum to clean their condo the moment guests left.
The Elbow Room will be closed Saturday for the celebration.
“I know there will be a lot of tears,” Savoie said, fighting back tears.
“I want this to be a happy affair.”
Author: Kevin Griffin