McBarge: The floating restaurant that McDonald’s unveiled at the Expo 1986.
Before the 2010 winter olympics, Expo ‘86 was the biggest event Vancouver had ever hosted. Held to celebrate the city’s centennial, this world’s fair is often credited as launching the city into a major tourist destination. And while several stadiums and other buildings built for the event have served the city’s civic life well enough in the years since, one rusting relic sits forlornly in a nearby inlet, despite ongoing attempts to save it.
The “McBarge”, as it has been lovingly nicknamed, was built as either the world’s first or second floating McDonald’s. In their long history, McDonald’s had two floating restaurants: Riverboat McDonald in St Louis, USA, built as an homage to the steamboat era of yesteryear, and Friendship 500 in Vancouver, Canada. They built the Friendship 500, popularly known as the McBarge, for the 1986 World Exposition on Transportation and Communication. The restaurant was on a 57-metre-long barge that McDonald’s moored in False Creek, which was alongside the exposition grounds. The McBarge was one of the five McDonald’s exhibits at the exposition, and they built it at the cost of $8 million.
Robert Allan Ltd., one of Canada’s oldest consulting naval architectural firms, designed the floating restaurant as a showcase of future technology and architecture, which was the theme of the exposition. All perfect and probably an innovative idea, but in 1986 I was not born yet, so what do I know?
In addition to creating a futuristic floating restaurant, McDonald’s wanted to create a bistro style place that was both elegant and affordable and would attract young people in droves. It seems, in fact, there was a shift in public attitude during that time, in which people were forsaking all things blatantly cheap. Hot-dogs, diners and the Five and Dime were old-fashioned, while Quiche, Bistros and boutiques were the current fashion. McDonalds, a company that prided itself on affordability, was loosing a part of the market and because of this, it tried out a new concept in 1986 of “affordable elegance.” Their flagship restaurant at Expo 86 was built more in the style of a bistro than a McDonald’s.
The restaurant’s interior features included potted plants, wooden floors, merlot-coloured accents, and framed art. The hidden kitchen used a conveyor belt to deliver food to the serving counter. The glass panelled dining areas provided panoramic views of Vancouver, and the staff wore blue and white sailor’s uniforms.
Of course, millions of people visited the World Exposition between May and October, and the novelty of a floating restaurant ensured that the McBarge was always full.
By all reports, the restaurant was a success: while it didn’t exactly make McDonald’s seem elegant, clients enjoyed eating their burgers and fries on the water and watching the Expo unfold onshore. There was even a little boat called the Tidy Tug that went around collecting the plastic wrappers and cups frequently tossed into the water.
The intention was for the McBarge to remain in operation after the Expo, but for a variety of reasons, it was never reopened, and the empty barge remained moored and abandoned where it had been during the Exposition.
In 1988, the Vancouver government sold the Exposition grounds to Lee Ka-Shing, a Hong Kong-based tycoon, and, in 1991, he told McDonald’s to remove the barge from his property. So, McDonald’s relocated it to Burrard Inlet, north of Vancouver.
The barge, remained anchored in Burrard Inlet, did briefly receive some publicity in 2003 when Marvel Entertainment and New Line Cinema used it as the lair of the Nightstalkers for the film Blade: Trinity.
Around 2009, a few local people created a “Save the McBarge” Facebook group. Some of the suggestions members put forward were using the barge as a shelter for Vancouver’s homeless people, as part of a university campus, and, more commonly, for the purpose it was designed for, to be used as a restaurant and bar.
Developer Howard Meakin and his wife Kathy bought the boat in early 2010, and have submitted a proposal to the Mission, British Columbia, city council for a waterfront development that would use a refurbished McBarge as the centerpiece. The plan is to create a destination restaurant complex called Sturgeon’s on the River, complete with several restaurants, a marina, and a seaplane terminal. Despite the plan has had a local support, was mired in bureaucratic red tape.
Since 2015 the dirty and mouldy barge is located to Maple Ridge in the north-eastern section of Greater Vancouver.
In 2017 was presented a project to become a deep-sea museum named Deep Ocean Discovery Centre, with a 4-D theatre and educational exhibits about the history and importance of the Pacific Ocean, indigenous ocean technology and new developments, in addition to stories and experiences of navigating the ocean.
Now It’s vandalized and graffitied, its walls and carpets transformed into a colorful constellation of rust, moss, and bird poop and, despite the numerous redevelopment projects, nothing has ever been done.
Sources: my brother who live in Vancouver, and ststworld.com. Images from web.