Monday, January 31, 2011

Blethering Place serves its last cup o' tea

Eating at the Blethering Place was like visiting your dotty aunt for lunch. Photographs by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 31, 2011


The Union Jack has been lowered over the Blethering Place Tea Room for the final time.

The banner flew over a landmark restaurant in Oak Bay, a municipality whose borders are teasingly described as the Tweed Curtain.

The Blethering Place, where tour buses stopped and the Galloping Gourmet recorded two episodes of his television cooking program, served its last scone and poured its last cuppa on Sunday.

After three decades of helping convince American tourists that Victoria is an outpost of Merry Olde England, the owner is closing the doors. The city’s “favourite faux Tudor tearoom,” as it has been called, is to be replaced by new owners who have in mind a modern bistro.

“It was an oasis,” said Ken Agate, the 66-year-old proprietor who lives in an apartment above the restaurant overlooking Oak Bay Avenue, the local High Street. “It’s not about being fine dining. It’s about being comfortable and welcome.

“It wouldn’t matter if you sat here all day. You can bring the baby. You don’t need a reservation. You don’t even have to eat.”

The restaurant has been packed this week, as old-time customers returned to sample such dishes as Welsh rarebit, shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, and a breakfast item billed as “eggs Benedict Arnold.”

While online reviews of the cuisine can kindly be described as mixed, the room earned accolades over the years from travel writers for the Seattle Times (“beloved and venerable”) and the Los Angeles Times (“lots of local ‘old ducks’ chattering away”).

Diners sat in a room filled with such bric-a-brac as dolls and lesson books, toffee tins and biscuit boxes, packaging for blancmange and mushy peas. A portrait of Winston Churchill shared a wall with two Union Jacks.

The decor consisted of “oak panelling, lace curtains, seersucker tablecloths,” the New York Times once noted, while the clientele “look as if they have emerged from the background of an Agatha Christie mystery novel.”

Tea was served in pots covered by crocheted cozies. It was like eating at your dotty aunt’s place.

Mr. Agate bought the restaurant on a whim. He saw the tea room, thought, “I could do that,” and walked in to buy the business. The owner declined, but that very night Mr. Agate got a call from the owner’s wife. Over time, Mr. Agate expanded the space to take over an adjacent grocery and realtor’s office.

He had not been a restaurateur before taking over the tea room, though his family had dairy expertise. Mr. Agate was born in the Fijian coastal village of Navua, where his father introduced ice cream to the tropical archipelago. He grew up in Palmerston North on New Zealand’s North Island, where an early job at a department store led to work as a traveling salesman. He married a hairdresser and eventually owned three salons, which were sold to finance a relocation to Vancouver Island.

He took over the restaurant on the first day of 1981, when, as he puts it, “I got into the beautiful rut of the Blethering Place.”

The tea room took its name from a Scottish word for “voluble senseless talking.”

One day, he spotted among the diners Graham Kerr, the popular cook known by his television audience as the Galloping Gourmet. Mr. Kerr had begun his media career in New Zealand, so the two hit it off, and soon after two episodes for the chef’s syndicated program were taped in the tea room.

The tea room shared a block with such businesses as the Penny Farthing pub and the Tudor Sweet Shoppe, which contribute to the neighbourhood’s sense of British heritage. Yet, Oak Bay’s exclusive Uplands neighbourhood was designed by American landscape architect John Charles Olmsted, while other subdivisions were planned according to principles outlined by American sociologist Clarence Perry.

The Union Jack that once flew over the restaurant, shredded by winter winds, has found a home in Washington state. A vexillologist in the city of Battle Ground, north of Vancouver in Clark County, collects distressed banners. The Union Jack is tattered by weather, not war, an appropriate keepsake for Battle Ground, which takes its name for a site on which an anticipated battle did not take place.

The Blethering Place, where tour buses stopped and where Graham Kerr taped two episodes of The Galloping Gourmet, was a landmark on Oak Bay Avenue.