A Hotel is a Place…”The Captain of the Snug”

By Jake MacDonald

Everybody who frequented the Oak Bay Beach Hotel had their favorite room, and for Joe Smith, it was the cozy bar known as The Snug. “The ambience of the place was mind blowing,” he says. “On a stormy night the logs in the fire would be crackling, and the windows would be fogged up, and everyone would be talking and laughing, and it all added up to this powerful feeling of energy and potential. It was just an incredible place.”

Joe Smith knew The Snug better than anyone, because he worked there as the bartender for 22 years. After growing up in Hamilton, he headed for the West Coast in his mid-20s, hoping to find an interesting place to live for his wife and child. When he arrived on Vancouver Island, he fell into the usual round of seasonal blue-collar jobs – logging, commercial fishing, labor, and construction. He was often laid off, and had to rely on unemployment insurance in the off season to pay the bills. “What I really wanted was a job that was layoff-proof.”

He was intrigued by the Oak Bay Beach Hotel. “I just loved the character and style of that place,” he says. “

And I was determined that I was going to work there.”  He didn’t have much of a resume, so he opted for style and persistence. “I would put on a three-piece suit and show up there at least three times a week. My idea was that if I kept showing up and telling good jokes they would recognize me as management material. I bugged them three times a week and finally, after a year, they offered me a job washing dishes.”

Joe says he couldn’t see himself “writing the folks back home” and telling them that his grand plans had ended up with a job washing dishes, so he kept showing up in his fancy suit, and finally the manager at the time, Kevin Walker, offered him a job as a general laborer. “I chopped firewood, hauled trash, cut the grass, you name it. I didn’t really like cleaning the toilets – maybe it’s a guy thing – but I enjoyed everything else and I think I did a pretty good job. One time I drank a bunch of coffee and furiously cleaned and polished the brass rail in The Snug for a couple of hours until it just gleamed. I don’t think it’d ever been that clean before. So the boss was happy with my work and I was happy working there.”

After two years of work as the hotel’s all-purpose “Joe boy,” he began working as a volunteer at The Snug. “My maintenance night shift started at 1 AM, so I would come in at 10 PM and work for three hours in the lounge, washing dishes, bussing trays, and just generally making myself useful. I was doing it for free, trying to learn how a bar operates, and hoping that I might work myself into a job there. Sure enough, after a while a shift would come available and I would jump in there and pick up a shift as a bartender. I don’t even drink, so maybe it was an odd choice of job, but I like talking to people and hearing their stories, and if you’re a people person, there was no better place to work. Boy, it was full of characters. It was like a very stylish men’s club. There were limousines out front, people coming in tuxedos, and beautifully dressed women. Next to the Bengal Room at The

Empress, The Snug at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel was the most stylish bar on the west coast, so everyone was putting on a show, being fabulous – waving those long cigarette holders. I was pretty fast when someone had an unlit cigarette in their fingers. I wouldn’t dream of starting my shift without my trusty lighter.”

He says The Snug had a number of ceremonial routines that weren’t written down but were well understood by everyone who knew the place. “Boxing Day was a big deal,” he says. “People would be in town for Christmas, and maybe they haven’t seen their cronies for a year or more. The bar was packed with people from all over the world. The regulars would expect to have the same seat and the same drink. There was this one barfly who regularly sat at the corner of the bar and sketched the room. He was an incredible artist. He’d capture the faces and the mood of the room just perfectly, then he’d rip off the page and hand it to me. I’ve got a pile of his sketches at home – they make quite a visual history.”

As the bartender, he wore many hats – chief justice, master of ceremonies, confidante, entertainer, big brother, and constant fixture in a place that was loved for the fact that it never changed. “Each season came with its own rituals,” he says. “When spring was coming we’d open those big patio doors at night and a beautiful ocean breeze would waft through. And later in the year we’d get the great sunsets. The best sunsets were in September. The sun would be setting on the San Juans and shards of light would shoot through the purple clouds – it was the most beautiful sight in the world. I wanted to create a drink named after it – ‘September Sunset’. Maybe I still will.”

For more than four years he’s been waiting for the new Oak Bay Beach Hotel to arise from the ashes of the “old girl” he loved. “Kevin Walker has been nice enough to keep me on the payroll,” he says. “I’ve been tearing down, hauling, shoveling snow – doing the same kind of odd jobs I did when I started. We’re trying to use a lot of the original materials so that the new hotel will have the same feel as the old one. There will be many of the same fixtures, and the same furniture. I cleaned seven thousand old bricks to be used in the new building.”

He says there are countless details showing the determination of the Walkers and the others to capture the spirit of the old Oak Bay Beach Hotel. “What gave the old place its magic wasn’t the building, it was the people. And we still have the original team, so I have high hopes for the new hotel, and the new Snug.”

A Video Tribute to Joe Smith

* Update: The Oak Bay Beach Hotel team is sad to announce that our dear friend, Joe Smith, passed away on Tuesday, March 20, 2012. He has touched the lives of so many people and he is already very missed. We love you Joe!




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25 Responses to A Hotel is a Place…”The Captain of the Snug”

  1. Pingback: Oh, Oak Bay.. | VicTaurusGirl

  2. Joan Stein says:

    I am sorry to hear of Joe Smith’s passing. We often stopped into the Snug when we left our work at the end of the evening. He was always so friendly and welcoming – a wonderful person. We were looking forward to seeing him at the Snug again. He came in to see us before we closed the Blethering Place. He was just a very thoughtful guy with always kind and appreciative words. Our last words – “See you at the Snug.”

  3. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to remember ‘Joe” . What a lovely heartwarming storing of persistance and devotion .
    For myself I would often pop into the Snug with Joan our Manageress and Joe would give a smile and wink . We will miss you Joe ………bye for now …..until we meet again .

  4. C & L Papoutsis says:

    We were shocked and saddened to hear of Joe’s passing. Just a few weeks ago we stopped and talked with him at the new hotel site. Many times we were out walking and sought refuge from the rain in the Snug. Joe kept us supplied with crunchy snacks, drinks, and stimulating conversation while we waited for the rain to stop. Joe was the essence of The Snug. He was a great bartender, a good person and will always be remembered. I agree that a plaque honouring Joe should be placed in the new Snug. C. & L. Papoutsis

  5. Captain Steen Jessen,RCN, Ret'd, Master MV Mayne Queen, Swartz Bay Termina/Dr. Gail Ross says:

    The Snug was my “watering hole” since I began as a student at Victoria College in 1962. I remember the bartender of the autumn of 1962, Gary, and the only (the old Snug was “small”) waiter, Irwin, he of the toupee, who turned turned a welcome blind eye to the age requirement.

    Fast forward 20-odd years- Joe was priceless! I and my wife Gail appreciated his sense of humour and his people skills – especially how horrified he was when he learned that we were served eggs Benny without the ham slices one quiet Sunday morning before the old Snug disappeared.

    We send our very sincere condolences to his family and MY express sorrow that I won’t have the pleasure of his company again.

    Kevin – I recommend that a plaque be fixed to “His” bar in the Snug.

    Steen and Gail Jessen

  6. Theron W Watson {Tex} says:

    Sorry to hear of my friend Joe passing away suddenly, I have kept in touch with Joe since the Hotel closed some five plus years ago. I had look forwarded to Joe pouring the first pint and enjoying one or two as well. I thank the Walkers for their good will and gestures over the years.

    Theron W Watson
    Oak Bay BC

  7. Pingback: A Dear Friend Lost – Joe Smith | Oak Bay Beach Hotel

  8. Pat Smith says:

    Kevin, Shawna and staff: The stories and updates on the hotel have been great, thank you. Now there is sadness as you lose an old friend and employee – a gentlemen who sounds very special. My thoughts and prayers are with you and Joe’s family as you grieve. May the Lord Jesus hold you close, comfort you and give you strength as you go through this ‘whirlwind’ time of opening the hotel.

  9. Barry A. Smith MAIBC says:

    Joe epitomized the Snug. To think that Joe will not to be pulling the first pint in the new Snug is heartbreaking. He had waited so long to resume his rightful place behind the bar. I am sure we will all be thinking of him when we gather in the new Snug for that first pint.

    Bas Smith

  10. Maureen (Gilroyed) Slack says:

    So sorry to hear about Joe. The Snug won’t be the same without him. He leaves a very high standard to live up to. He will be missed by many.

  11. Maureen (Gilroyed) Slack says:

    So sorry to hear about Joe, the Snug won’t be the same without him. He leaves a high standard to live up to. He will be missed by many.

  12. Heather Bright says:

    What a shock and such sadness..I have been connected to the hotel since very young and have been going to the Snug pretty well all my (adult) life… Joe has been an icon there and the most wonderful bartender and man.
    We will all miss him dearly and my sincere sympathies go out to his family. I hope that there will be a plaque or picture of Joe posted up in his beloved Snug.

  13. Pam Grant says:

    They don’t make bartenders like Joe Smith anymore.

    What a loss to his family, his friends and to the Oak Bay Beach Hotel –but those of us who were fortunate enough to have known the man will raise a glass to him in the new Snug –perhaps a violet and gold coloured drink we can call Joe’s Sunset –so in a way, maybe he will live on in the bar he loved.

    RIP Joe, and see you on the other side. My condolences to his biological family and to his family at the hotel.

  14. Madge Bowes says:

    My late husband, Norman Bowes would likely have known Joe. So, for him, I send my condolences for all.
    Sincerely, Madge

  15. Madge Bowes says:

    My late husband, Norman Bowes would have likely have known Joe when Norm was working there at the hotel. My sympathies to all, Madge

  16. Zobeida Philp says:

    My condolences to Joe’s family. We moved to Victoria in 1992 from Vancouver and stayed at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel and fell in love with the establishment, especially the pub, because of the warm ambiance and the welcoming smile of Joe at any time of day. We’ll always remember you “Joe”.

  17. Zobeida Philp says:

    My condolences to Joe’s family. He was a fine and uplifting person, always had a welcoming beautiful smile. We moved to Victoria in 1992 and stayed at the hotel and thorougly enjoyed the atmosphere of the pub because of Joe’s lovely smile. We will miss his presence forever.

  18. JIM HOSKINS says:

    Kevin, Shawna, Brian and all Oak Bay Beach Hotel Family !!

    You have lost a family member beyond. Lorene and I remember Joe well and enjoyed him a lot. He used to make Lorene a special “Hot Drink” when we came in on cold nights.
    Our hearts are with you all.

    Jim & Lorene Hoskins

  19. Sue Doman says:

    Kevin, Shawna and the OBBH family — my sincere condolences on the loss of your dear friend. While Joe won’t be able to pour the first pint at The Snug on opening day, he’ll be there in spirit … and he’ll watch with pride as the Grand Lady By The Sea welcomes the world this May, and in the years to come.

  20. Nigel Beamish says:

    I am devastated to hear of the death of Joe. We became good friends over the course of the years. I remember him coming in to apply for work, exactly as he said, three piece suit and briefcase. Before going off to work short-time elsewhere he’d come to the hotel to tell me and just how to get in contact with him if something, anything opened up. Once, on return from one of these sojourns, I told him a position of night security and night janitor was about to be created, he took it saying when he told his mother, which I don’t think he did, she would know that our washrooms would be the cleanest on the west coast, and so they were. The finest of men.

  21. Barry Lusk says:

    Thanks to the Walkers I have been on their report list right from the beginning. I have enjoyed every episode.
    Looking forward to the Grande Opening.

    Best Regards


  22. ANITA BATEMAN says:


  23. Al & Jenn says:

    Yeah Joe!!! We missed you so.

  24. Dr. Brian and Sara Carr-Harris says:

    Thank you so very much for the up dates on the Oak Bay Beach Hotel. I was so interested in seeing and hearing of the Snug. The good old Snug, and I so very much hope it well be rebuilt as it was, so many memories one of them being with Brian before we were actually going out together, also we remember Erwyn (sp?) who also worked at our local Dominion Observatory. I had always hoped to do some drawings of the Old Snug, as it was, Maybe there are some photographs about still and I shall have to find a quiet spot to do the new one, but hope it is identical I hope that we still have a place booked for the opening night of the new Hotel as we are looking forward to that very much . Please keep in touch. Best regards, Sara Carr-Harris

  25. Ann says:

    This story brought tears to my eyes. I long remember that “The Snug” was one of the very first bars I visited with my late husband. We always went there, when we wanted a special spot, and I miss it. I will so welcome it back.

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