Say the word diner and you might think of swivel stools and counter service, Formica tables and French fries, milkshakes and grilled cheese, and bottomless cups of coffee.
The food might not be all that great; in fact, it’s often the stuff of greasy spoons. But it hardly matters when you find a spot that feels like pure comfort, where you can hang out and people-watch amid unpretentious surroundings and fill your belly with sustenance and your soul with a little warmth.
My favourite spot is long gone: with its Chinese-Canadian menu, pale-yellow booths, and tables for one, Kits Café served up the best hash browns with eggs, brown toast, and glistening bacon; the server/owner knew my order off the top of her head and brought a cup of coffee and would always plop a handful of creamers on the table.
A diner is not, on the other hand, a place you expect to find herb-adorned martinis, Ocean Wise seafood, and vegan dessert options. Unless you happen to be visiting Trevor Bird’s Fable Diner at Broadway and Main. It’s not reinventing the diner so much as morphing the classic experience into an updated, very Vancouver version of casual dining.
The former Top Chef Canada competitor’s first restaurant, Fable Kitchen, is steadfast in its farm-to-table philosophy and continues to be one of the city’s best. Its recently opened sibling has the same focus on regional, sustainable, seasonal foods, everything that discerning locavores love, only it’s served up with generous portions of whimsy and fun.
Fable Diner is in the historic Lee Building, where a diner has occupied the space since 1949. Light inside, with oversize off-white subway tiles, a brick wall painted white, blond wood, teal seats, and some funky patterned wallpaper, it has the same big windows for you to watch the world go by.
One of the first things you might notice when you step in is a real milkshake machine. They serve them up right, with the extra in a stainless-steel canister. Flavours change regularly, but on a recent anonymous visit there were peanut-butter-and-chocolate and pumpkin-pie shakes, both with caramel-streaked glasses.
To start, we sipped on a vodka Fabletini—with elderflower liqueur, cranberry juice, and rhubarb bitters, the colour of a purple gemstone offset by the deep green of a large basil leaf, the flavour neither too sweet nor too strong—and a Moscow Mule, a special, made with mint-infused vodka and ginger-lime syrup.
We also overate because there were too many dishes we wanted to try. Having had the chickpea fritters with curried mayo at Fable (such a hit there, it makes sense to offer the appie here), we opted for the golden-and-red-beet salad with pea shoots and salted yogurt; a handful of puffed rice gives the bright dish a playful crunch.
A peppery ranch dressing and a few pickled jalapeños come with the crispy, tender fried chicken, while the roast-duck pancake is a must-have: the poultry is perfectly moist, while the whole textural thing sings with flavour thanks to bacon, kimchi, Kewpie mayo (a popular Japanese condiment), scallions, flat-leaf parsley, and more of that puffed rice.
Meat lovers should pass on the Reno’s Burger (unless you happen to be an oversize kid who never outgrew a taste for all things plain) and go for the real deal instead: the FD Burger, made with beef from a local farm. Add some cola-fried onions for full diner effect. (Real children, meanwhile, have a plain-burger option on their own menu, which also includes a spiral hot dog and grilled cheese with fries, unless you want to substitute broccoli simply cooked on the flat top in a way that even little ones will like.)
“Ketchupless” cottage pie is basically shepherd’s pie in a mini skillet with all the seasonings of ketchup minus the sauce; and salmon is amped up with chorizo succotash, jalapeño yogurt, and ancho chili—comfort food on a stormy night for the health-conscious foodie in your group.
The health-conscious can stick it, though, when it comes time to order dessert: the lemon-meringue parfait, served in an old-fashioned glass dish, has chunks of pie crust throughout, while the sundae of the week (say, chocolate fudge with brownies) has a mountain of whipped cream on top, as it should.
The condensed wine list is pure B.C., with a couple of nice selections from the Cowichan Valley. The service is more Fable than diner: you don’t have to flag someone down for water refills; it’s a team approach by friendly staff members who take pride in the place. Prices range from $8 for that plain burger to $22 for hanger steak, while alcoholic bevvies outside of wine run from $6 for a sleeve of local draft to $10 for most cocktails.
The diner just started serving breakfast during the week, and its all-day menu includes hash and eggs and French toast. Expect lineups for weekend brunch.
Is there anything bad to say? The drip coffee is surprisingly meh. But then, it’s suitably so-so for a diner and somehow still soothes.