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Behind Bars: Big Bad John’s puts the quirk back into the bar experience

Throwing peanuts, falling spiders, and bras hanging from the rafters – Big Bad John’s has it all.
At Big Bad John’s, guests can throw peanut shells on the floor, or hang their bras from the rafters. (Dave Van)

Part of the Strathcona Hotel, Big Bad John’s (BBJ) is no ordinary bar. Just the crunch of the peanut shells underfoot alone make it unique. And then there’s the trio of fake spiders that drop down from the ceiling to say hi to the guests when the bartender’s feeling playful.

This quirky vibe beats at the heart of BBJ, which emerged in 1962, when the John Olson-built Strathcona Room — B.C.’s first ever cocktail lounge — was temporarily transformed into “Big Bad John’s Hillbilly Bar” to celebrate the World’s Fair in Seattle.

Patrons loved the transformation so much that it stayed and is still going strong 61 years later. Famous celebrities, actors and athletes now flock to BBJ whenever they’re in town.

Big Bad John's bartender Caleb. (Dave Van)

Duty manager Brendon Norton, who’s been managing since 2016, said BBJ has stayed true to its roots all that time.

“It’s a hillbilly bar where we play lots of country music and it’s very simple,” Norton said. “Not a lot of martinis or anything fancy. You just come in, get your beer or high-ball, enjoy your (free mini-bucket of) peanuts & have a good time.

“We’ll see people with four-foot-high mohawks & also have 90-year-old grandmas. You just have a really big variety of people who come to have fun. And our regulars all get along, so it has that Cheers vibe.”

And how did the iconic ‘chucking peanut shells on the floor’ start?

‘It’s been around for as long as I know,” Norton said. “It fits the unique theme of the hillbilly bar.”

BBJ will play anything from John Cougar Mellencamp and Conway Twitty to Blake Shelton; an eclectic country mix. And every customer gets one special request.

Norton, 38, who’s also a scratch golfer, said BBJ’s mission is to give people a unique, memorable experience. On Sunday nights they also regularly feature local band Uncle Whiskey, who entertain via a fiddle, banjo & guitar.

BBJ’s interior decor features signed photos of star guests, including Baywatch legend Pamela Anderson, on the walls, business cards on the tables, car registration plates, caps, t-shirts and various other memorabilia. They encourage every guest to ‘leave their mark’ — often signing their names on the walls. “It all adds to the experience & culture of BBJ,” said Norton. “The people make Big Bad John’s.”


What’s your signature drink & food?

“BBJ’s signature drink is Triple X. It’s our house lager and our most popular drink. We also have a Five X and drinks of choice, such as a gin & tonic, vodka soda and rum & coke. And for wine, there’s just red or white. And we don’t have a signature food. You can come in and have a burger & fries, fish & chips; chicken or cauliflower wings; a salad, or three types of pizza (I sampled the delicious pulled pork version).”

What makes a great bartender?

“Someone who’s friendly and remembers you & your drink. There’s nothing better than when you walk into a bar & the bartender knows your name, says hello, and has your usual ready. And if you’re brand-new, someone who makes you feel really welcome. Such as our bartender tonight Chris (Bunyan). Chris has (amazingly) been working here for 37 years and is still going strong.”

And what’s been your favourite experience so far?

“When the Raptors won the NBA in 2019 this place was rocking. That really stands out. And you get to meet lots of celebrities, musicians, athletes and actors. We’ve had The Trailer Park Boys in here, lots of Vancouver Canucks, Steve Nash & Dirk Nowitzki from the NBA, and various actors pop in. It’s become an iconic place to visit.”

How would you describe the ideal customer experience?

“People come in, take a seat, and socialize with lots of people as the tables are quite close together. You have your peanuts and get scared by the trio of falling spiders. We want people to have fun & the best possible experience, so we know they’ll come back.”

To learn more about BBJ, visit: