Fable Diner had you at the first hook of Bill Withers's Lovely Day. How could anyone not fall for a cozy diner-concept remix that envelops you in lush R&B as soon as you step inside from the pelting rain? Just one look around – at the mom and kid swaying to the music in their booth, at the swivel stools next to an old-fashioned soda fountain, at the plates of tall, home-style burgers stacked between squishy white buns – and you think, yeah, this is going to be alright with me.
So how that did that warm, fuzzy feeling full of sunlight and optimism disintegrate?
Fable Diner, an elevated take on a greasy spoon, is not trying to reinvent the wheel. We've heard this cover song countless times before. To its benefit (or detriment, depending on who you ask), the new restaurant is built on a classic foundation in a landmark location – on the main floor of the historic Lee Building at Broadway and Main Street. Since 1949, a succession of greasy spoons has occupied the space. Most recent was the rundown Reno's Restaurant, a vintage diner with a jukebox and all-day breakfast for $3.99.
Owners Trevor Bird, Ron MacGillivray and Kathy Schleyer (the trio behind Kitsilano's Fable Restaurant) have done an admirable job of updating the crappy-diner concept with a wholesome farm-to-table ethos while keeping the prices somewhat accessible and the place welcoming to customers of all stripes.
On any given day, the booths and counter seats are filled with a wide range of customers – young, old, families, couples, groups of rambunctious teens and solo seniors. The room still feels like a diner, with its teal vinyl upholstery, spacious nooks and long sweep of sidewalk-facing windows perfect for people watching. But it has been spiffed up nicely without getting kitschy in white-painted brick, oversized tile and a floating wooden-slat ceiling.
Reno's loyalists might gripe (and plenty on Yelp have) that the all-day breakfast has tripled in price. But this is not factory-farmed food. The beef in the burgers, for instance, comes from the same collection of small, local farmers that Mr. Bird uses for meatme.com, his consumer-direct beef-sharing side business. The free-range cattle are raised on natural pastures without the use of antibiotics, hormones or chemical-feed additives.
Mr. Bird minces the burger meat himself, which is probably why he can get away with serving his juicy patties on the hot-pink side of medium (even though the menu states that they are cooked well done). The grass-fed patties taste boldly meaty and are seared with a touch of caramelized browning that gently scrapes the soft, white milk buns. Piled high with cold iceberg lettuce and ripe, red, hothouse tomatoes, even the smaller, $8 Reno Burger with a single patty (the Fable Burger has two) makes a substantial meal, accompanied by golden crispy thrice-cooked fries or bright, creamy tomato soup.
The salads are seasonal, not wilted and generic. Right now, the fall feature is lightly salted poached pear on a peppery bed of vibrant-green wild arugula, tossed with toasted walnuts and sticky clusters of blue-veined cheese.
While the menu mainly sticks to diner classics – juicy fried chicken in a crispy cornmeal batter, gooey grilled cheese, hot-fudge sundaes buried under nut-capped mountains of whipped cream – it does get slightly gussied up with wine, beer, craft cocktails and a few "fancy" dishes.
Roast duck pancake, the fanciest of the fancy, is a thick, Western-style pancake made with cornmeal and nicely gritty. It is loaded over top with succulent roast duck, spicy house-made kimchi, a sprinkling of crunchy puffed rice, a scattering of scallions and generous drizzles of sweet chili-infused Kewpie mayonnaise. It's messy and different, but immensely tasty and comforting.
What isn't at all comforting is the service. If Fable were still a dirty diner with $3.99 bacon and eggs, you could forgive a server who doesn't clear the table and goes missing for 10 minutes at a time.
At a vintage diner, you could overlook a plate of poutine that comes with a tangle of fries that are half hot and half cold. You wouldn't give a hoot when the replacement poutine is served without sautéed onions, or when you are later double-charged for the poutine on the bill. Nor would you bat an eye at mac and cheese that is unexpectedly garnished with melted goat cheese – because even though your friend cannot abide goat cheese, an old-time diner wouldn't be serving it in the first place.
Again, if this were just a plain old diner, you probably would not trust the kitchen to make a decent hollandaise on your next visit. Fable, on the other hand, is an upscale diner that specializes in all-day breakfast and has an awful lot of soul – so you do expect more. What you do not expect is for that fancy olive-oil hollandaise to look so anemically pale, feel so feebly thin and taste like sour-lemon candies. It's one of the worst hollandaise sauces – even worse than the powdered mix served at truck stops – you've ever had the displeasure of eating.
Every upscale diner should excel at certain things. That includes service with a smile and excellent eggs Benedict. If Fable Diner could fix these two fronts, it would definitely be the start of a lovely new day.