Helen Engel has taken her parents, who both use wheelchairs, to many restaurants over the past decade. When her mom died last year, restaurant visits with her 101-year-old dad became even more precious.
She learned the hard way to visit restaurants in advance to ensure that outings are enjoyable. Even with federal accessibility standards, some restaurants can pose unexpected challenges.
“I’ve seen people not check things out and I’ve seen disasters,” Engel said.
She agreed to let me follow her on a recent morning when she visited restaurants on Vancouver’s waterfront to see if they would be good places to take her father.
I have been thinking about the topic since Columbian Editor Craig Brown shared an email from Kim Barbera seeking restaurants to take her mom, who is in her mid-90s. Her criteria: comfortable seating, low ambient noise, food that isn’t spicy, wheelchair accessibility and reasonable prices. Brown recommended Nayhely’s Place and Fargher Lakehouse. I immediately thought of The Diner, a restaurant specifically designed to make seniors feel comfortable.
But what if you wanted to try a new place? Engel was willing to take me along and show me what to look for.
In an initial walkthrough at a restaurant, Engel focuses on the parking area, the doors, the interior layout and the restrooms.
She began at Twigs Bistro and Martini Bar. She noted the five handicapped-designated parking spaces right near the restaurant with enough space between them to get someone in and out of a car or van. A flat surface leads from the parking lot to the door.
She found the restaurant’s front doors easy to swing open and prop with one hip. The door jamb is smooth and flush.
If a door jamb isn’t flush, the person pushing a wheelchair has to hoist it up to push inside. Engel carries a rubber kitchen mat in her car to solve this issue. She throws the mat over the door jamb to create a smooth surface.
She was pleased with the large entry space between the two sets of doors at Twigs, so that a person using a wheelchair won’t be hit with a door closing while waiting for the other door to be opened.
Engel looks out for floors with bumpy tiles. At Twigs, she found the floors inside the restaurant are smooth. She noted ample space between tables to navigate.
Then she wandered around the large room trying to find the best tables. She liked one at the front and another in the center of the restaurant by the fireplace with a good view of the river.
It’s good to have a short, clear path to the restroom, Engel said. The bathroom at Twigs has a wide, straight entryway and a large stall designated for people with disabilities. The sink seemed low enough for someone in a wheelchair reach.
Engel gave Twigs her seal of approval.
“I’m impressed with this place,” she said.
Then she headed to Wildfin, which shares a parking lot with Twigs, along with the other features that Engel liked: a large entryway and smooth floors.
Michelle Whitworth, Wildfin’s manager, told us that the restaurant doesn’t move tables to accommodate wheelchairs. The space will look the same during an initial walkthrough as it will when you visit with your loved one.
Noise can also be a problem for many seniors. Restaurants seem to be getting louder with their large open spaces and lack of carpet and other plush furnishings to muffle sound. Visiting during off hours helps. During Engel’s visits to Twigs and Wildfin between 11 a.m. and noon on a Monday, both places were fairly empty and quiet.
If a restaurant seems suitable after her advance trip, Engel will call ahead to let staff know she’ll be visiting with someone in a wheelchair, and she’ll request the table she deemed most suitable.
“A heads-up in the reservation definitely helps us to accommodate any needs more smoothly,” said Todd MacLean, Twigs’ general manager. “As far as best times to go, Friday and Saturday nights can be a bit crowded, but we will always do whatever we can to accommodate people.”
Engel puts so much effort into restaurant selection because she wants her dad to have a nice time.
“My dad is my best friend,” Engel said. “We have a great relationship. Every time I take my dad out he’s surprised and then he just talks about it for a week later.”