Nick Hopkins

A return to the Blethering Place

New owners bring in Ken Agate to help restaurant survive in a tough market

Oak Bay restaurateur Ken Agate retired from the industry after closing his popular Blethering Place restaurant almost three years ago, but he couldn’t completely leave the business that he was involved in for 30 years.

Agate has been working for the past few months with owners of The Oaks Restaurant and Grill, located in the same spot his former restaurant and tea house was, to bring back some of the things that made the Blethering Place a popular destination. There have been decor changes and additions made to the menu as the restaurant slowly brings back its former British flavour.

“You’re always going to follow the industry that you’ve been involved with all your life,” Agate said. “I have always had an interest in Oak Bay, restaurants in Oak Bay and in particular, this corner.”

When Agate closed his restaurant on Oak Bay Avenue in January 2011, the West Coast-style Oak Bay Bistro opened, but closed its doors in August 2012. It was followed by a short-lived supper club. The present Oaks Restaurant has been in business since November 2012.

Agate, who is being compensated for his guidance, said the other two restaurants failed because there is too much competition in Oak Bay for high-end restaurants, with solid reputations. He feels his restaurant did well because it was different; an affordable place where people wanted to hang out.

“The niche was the tea room,” Agate said. “I think people would like to have more of a drop-in place. A place to talk with coffee, tea, desserts, scones. Light, inexpensive items and (the option to order) more filling things.”

Agate lives a few blocks away from his former restaurant and is a regular patron at the Oaks. A few months ago, Oaks Restaurant co-owner Nick Hopkins asked Agate for help to make the Oaks as popular as the Blethering Place once was.

“We started about a year ago and everything was going really well but we want to gain back the customers Ken had here,” Hopkins said. “The Blethering Place was an icon in the community. The building is (also) an icon, everybody knows it.”

Hopkins said Agate has been providing direction for the restaurant, which he has been busy implementing. In the last three months, the “flashy” wallpaper was removed to give the restaurant a more homey feel and new items have been added to restaurant’s standard fare. The restaurant has also rebranded itself as the Oaks Restaurant and Tea Room.

“There is a tea and dessert menu now … we now have all-day breakfast and we brought back brunch,” Hopkins said. “We are also doing a lot more events here now.”

The restaurant now airs Coronation Street every Sunday morning from 7:30 to 10 a.m., something Agate recommended. For New Year’s Eve, Johnny Vallis will entertain patrons with music covers from the 1950s and ‘60s. He had been a regular entertainer at the Blethering Place for 10 years until it closed.

While Agate spoke highly of the restaurant and its offerings, online reviews haven’t been as kind. The Oaks currently has a 68 per cent positive rating out of 34 reviews on Urbanspoon, a well-known restaurant review site. TripAdvisor, another online review site, has a 58 per cent positive recommendation out of 17 reviews for the restaurant.

Hopkins acknowledged there were problems with service when the restaurant first opened. He said he and his business partner, Isa Hosein, were hands-off owners originally, but that has since changed. Hopkins can now be found working away in the kitchen.

“We’ve been here a year and we had lots of growing pains,” Hopkins said. “I’m sorry that some people had a bad experience and felt this was not the place for them or the place it should be, but I ask them to come back and give us another shot.

“We had managers in place before but now as owners, we’ve taken over managing.”

Agate said he has heard nothing but positive reviews in the last few months.

“I always go looking for that stuff so I can help them,” Agate said. “Everything I’m hearing is that they like it.”

Hopkins said there was talk about having a grand reopening, but he’s too busy, so he’s counting on word of mouth and the restaurant’s website to inform the public about the changes. He added that he is grateful that Agate is willing to share his knowledge and experience.

“I’m trying to recreate the Blethering Place and bring it to the now,” Hopkins said. “I’m not Ken and I can never be Ken. It’s about what I can do with my team to make it the spot people will think of to bring visitors, family and friends to.”