If you ever asked Ken Brooks for a side of jam with your toast during his 14-year run as front man at the Lion's Den Café, the odds are he gave you his trademark cheeky answer.
"Would you like raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, Chuck Berry or Hale Berry?"
But If you asked him the same question today, he could only respond with one word: "mama."
A year ago, Brooks suffered a stroke. After years of serving up pocket-friendly meals with a free side of quirky quips, he now sits in a wheelchair during the business hours, unable to vocalize the humour and love that put his restaurant on the map — but his smile hasn't gone anywhere.
With Brooks sidelined, and the kitchen in need of a costly upgrade, the fate of the Lions Den is uncertain. But thanks to friends and family, the pride of Fraserhood isn't going down without a fight.
The heart of a lion
The Lion's Den sits on the edge of Fraser and Kingsway — a bustling corner that's become a hub for foodies. Lineups routinely sprawl outside the ultra-popular Sal y Limon, and right next door, the fine-dining Les Faux Bourgeois continues to rack up awards.
But long before either existed, Brooks decided to open up his own shop — in what was a vastly different neighbourhood.
"There was not much going on around here," said MJ Brooks, Ken's son. "This used to be referred to as another Pigeon Park — it had a lot of the not-so-great things that are in the Hastings area."
Ken named the shop the Lion's Den, after a baby lion named Junior that was raised by one of his friends and even visited the restaurant as a cub. That legendary origin story is one that is regularly told to first-time customers.
Over 18 years, Ken Brooks became the cornerstone for what was a quiet and struggling neighbourhood, says his son.
"My dad was the kind of person who had a lot of love for everybody. He would feed people ... even if they had no money. That kind of love gets noticed in the community," he added.
The restaurant's success was born from the frontline work of Ken Brooks and his wife, Junko Tabane, who runs the kitchen.
But since Brooks suffered his stroke, Tabane has had to shoulder more responsibilities — and business has slowed.
"This is very challenging, financially," she said. "But he always said, 'Junko, it's going to be okay. End of the day, end of the night — we're going to be okay.'"
Tabane cares for her husband on top of running the restaurant. She says that the kitchen is in need of a costly upgrade that, if not completed, could result in daily fines levied by the city that would likely spell the end of the restaurant.
The group has started fundraising to cover the costs of the new equipment and to put towards Brooks's recovery. Tabane says her husband gives her strength.
"He's believed in me. He's always supported me. I was under his umbrella. Now, I have to protect him. I support him, no matter what."
'Have a creative day'
While there's no timeline on Brooks's recovery, he's showing signs of progress: he manages to walk sporadically and communicate.
"When [friends] come in he yells 'Mama!', happy to see everybody," said MJ Brooks. "It's still all love."
Ken's friends and family have all stepped in to fill the void. MJ regularly stands-in for his father, offering the same service, humour, and quips.
The restaurant is hosting a birthday party for Ken later this month as part of their campaign to save his beloved den.
"He treated everybody with respect. He put his blood, sweat and tears into this place." said MJ. "This has been his absolute everything."