Memories, modems, and martinis

This is a short piece I wrote for Hungry Zine‘s special edition “Mall Food”, a full issue dedicated to food culture in West Edmonton Mall. You can buy the issue here.

In the year 2000, West Edmonton Mall was at its peak: Phase IV was complete, the dragon in Silver City was breathing fire at regular intervals, Playdium had just opened, and Nickleback played a show at Red’s — when it was still called Red’s, and they were still a local band. These are just a few of the things that made West Ed what it was at the dawn of the new millennium, but one tenant stands above the rest as the most Y2K-coded thing the mall has ever known. Offering a heady mix of martinis, cigars, and high-speed internet access: Bytes Internet Cafe.

The “internet” or “cyber” cafe had a brief moment in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when home computers weren’t a given and dial-up was unreliable. It’s a food and drink concept that doesn’t really exist anymore. Now, we have our phones out, maybe face down on the table if we’re being polite, whether we’re at a humble Boston Pizza (Phase II), a trendy hand-pulled noodle place (Mogouyan, Phase III), or the swanky, Fantasyland Hotel-adjacent L2 Grill (Phase I). Every cafe is an internet cafe.

But in the Y2K era, going online was not just novel, but also a very contained experience. “Surfing the net” usually took place in a dedicated computer room or lab — not the best places to eat and drink, Mountain Dew and Doritos aside. (If you were truly online in this period, perhaps you were sipping an electric-blue Bawls soda, with its 64 mg of caffeine.) Sitting down to check your email while sipping a latte was something special.

On its website, which can only be accessed now via The Wayback Machine, Bytes claims to be Edmonton’s first cyber cafe, and given that they opened in 1996, I’m inclined to believe it. Naked Cyber Cafe might be a close second, and impressively, still exists, though it no longer offers any “cyber” services. 

I don’t think I ever shelled out $6.00/hour to “log on” at Bytes, though. My friends and I, the elder millennials of WEM (though no one called us that yet) were there to unwind after our shifts at Galaxyland, or Planet Golf, or McDonalds, and to debate which of us was the Carrie of the group and which was the Samantha (let’s be honest, no one wanted to be Miranda or Charlotte). There was nothing worth checking in our Hotmail accounts, and no one logged on to MSN Messenger on a Friday night. 

Bytes was also the perfect pregame spot. The balcony was open to the BRBN st. district (then, less confusingly, “Bourbon Street”), directly across from Juice nightclub. At a glance, we could see who was lined up: Were the British army guys in town? American tourists? Or was it dead, in which case we might check out Rum Jungle or Nashville’s?

Dino, who might have been the owner, but was definitely our waiter most nights, graciously tolerated our giggling, serving us “Cheese Bytes” and “Cyber Caesar Salad.” The menu was surprisingly extensive, with appetizers, pizza, soups, stir fries, and sandwiches. Sadly, the “drinks” web page is still “under construction” twenty years later, but I remember that they had a bit of everything, including boozy coffees, hot chocolates, and cocktails. Dino even created an off-menu martini just for us. In keeping with the Y2K aesthetic, it was neon green, very sweet, and made with Fruitopia. And of course, in addition to eating, drinking, and surfing, you could smoke. Talk about a bygone Y2K luxury. My only Bytes-related regret is that I never did try the cigar lounge. 

As the gen Z’ers who are currently reviving all things Y2K might say, the vibes were immaculate.

In WEM circa 2023, you can probably get a decent martini at the L1 Lounge. You can definitely get some deep fried appies or a slice of pizza in either food court. And anyone can connect to the “WEMiSphere” wi-fi network and check their Hot or Gmail. But you can’t experience what it was like to be a regular at a cyber cafe on Bourbon Street, feeling sophisticated, futuristic, and welcome among the customers who were actually there to go online.

Like many early-internet phenomenons, Bytes leaves only a few online traces. A Google search will find several listings on restaurant review aggregators, since the death of the cyber cafe just barely overlapped with the rise of Yelp, but they are ghost listings, with no pictures, no menus, and no reviews. To paraphrase Nate of Six Feet Under, a popular show of the era, you can’t Google this, it’s already gone.


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