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Going down-market? Get the diner vibe right

You know times are tough when one of Vancouver's most celebrated restaurants is uprooted by a shrinking violet.

Aurora Bistro was an early victim of the recession. After the award-winning, regionally focused eatery closed last fall, owner Jeff Van Geest departed for Diva at the Met (where he is now restaurant chef) and the Main Street lease was quickly scooped up by new proprietors, who pruned the space back to the self-consciously less lustrous Wallflower Modern Diner.

As the recession continues, we can expect to see more local rooms being closed or re-branded as lower-priced offshoots.

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Across town, the West End's fine-dining Parkside Restaurant underwent a rustic Italian makeover and reopened last month as L'Altro Buca (modelled on the original La Buca in the Dunbar neighbourhood). And just last week, it was announced that Gastropod in Kitsilano will shut at the end of April to make way for a refined yet affordable Thai restaurant named Maenam.

Unfortunately, Wallflower isn't the hardiest hybrid at this downsizing party.

The shell of the room hasn't changed much. The new owners, Matt and Lisa Hewlett, have extended the pale-wood bar, added a few high tops and adorned one black-and-white wall with hand-painted daisies, yet it still feels sparse and unfinished.

Save for a scattering of rockabilly memorabilia - a flying eagle perched above the bar, a collection of the Smugglers concert posters in the corner - it doesn't really look like a classic diner.

And what's with the Kate Bush Hounds of Love soundtrack? The music casts a dreary cloud over an otherwise brisk and sunny weekday lunch.

Oh, right. This is a "modern" diner, which must somehow explain why the menu acts like a catch-all for every type of comfort food imaginable: from duck spring rolls and blackened halibut to fried chicken and Maui ribs, with lots of healthy wraps and vegetarian options thrown in for good measure.

Portions are large, and prices are fair, but these are by no means the best bargains in town.

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Take, for instance, the mixed green salad. For $7, the only size available, I expect a bit more than standard plastic-clamshell micro greens, shaved carrot and hothouse tomatoes. At the very least, the kitchen could have provided enough poppy-seed vinaigrette to coat the lettuce.

Soup of the day ($5) is potato-bacon, a creamy rib sticker with big hunks of spuds, but scant fat or flavour. When I try to crack some pepper over top, whole corns fall out of a lopsided table mill.

The blue-plate daily special is a pizza sub. The green plate ($11) is a bowl of pesto pasta that consists of droopy bowties pickled in a briny caper-and-olive solution under a rubbery sheet of cheese. It looks like it's been reheated more than once.

My flexitarian friend is impressed to find a Boca burger on the menu (the tastiest vegetarian patty on the market, she claims, but almost impossible to find in Canadian grocery stores).

And the homestyle Wallflower burger ($11) on a whole-wheat bun, made with Grandma's secret recipe ("a blend of beef, pork, seasoning and love") hits the spot.

But please tell me these aren't fries. We tentatively poke at the brown mound. It has a strange waxy sheen that looks as if it's been soaking in tepid oil for the better part of the last decade.

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I can't believe the kitchen would serve something so wretched. Or that our server, who has been otherwise quite capable and quick to top up our tea and coffee, doesn't say a word when she clears the soggy mess that we've left practically untouched.

If Wallflower doesn't step up on the food front, it won't just be stuck on the sidelines - it could very well wither into tumbleweed.

The owners may want to take a wander down Main Street, all the way to Railtown, to take a peek at Deacon's Corner, recently opened by the company that owns the neighbouring Latin-themed Cobre.

Now here's a modern take on an old-fashioned diner that seems to be doing just about everything right.

On Wednesday at 1 p.m., there's a 10-minute lineup of customers snaking along a low-slung row of leatherette booths.

The room is clean and simple with lots of chrome, black chalkboards and framed photos of crumpled cigarette packs. There are cushioned swivel stools to sidle up to at the lunch counter and the Rolling Stones are pumping out of the speakers.

The manly gruffness fits the well-executed formula of a Southern-style greasy spoon that serves all-day monster breakfasts with corned-beef hash, biscuits and gravy, huge stacks of griddle cakes and hickory-smoked ham steaks.

The Country Fried Steak breakfast, at $11.50, is one of the priciest platters (after the Hungry Man Steak and Eggs, which tops the menu at $13.50). But it's an enormous dish that comes with three eggs, toast (or buttermilk biscuits), crispy shredded hash browns and thick country gravy. The steak, pounded thin and breaded in seasoned flour, tastes like a tender breakfast schnitzel. I find it weirdly delicious.

A pulled-pork sandwich ($10.25) is slathered in crunchy coleslaw and served with thick-cut fries that are crisped to golden perfection. A side of Mac and Cheese ($3) is made with sharp cheddar.

Service is unapologetically slow. The menu doesn't offer much for non-meat eaters. And it's too bad the kitchen closes at 3 p.m.

But it's great to find, especially in these thorny times, a decent-value restaurant where everything appears to be coming up roses.

The Wallflower Modern Diner: 2420 Main St.; 604-568-7554

Deacon's Corner: 101 Main St.; 604-684-1555.

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