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    Blethering Place closing, to be replaced by bistro

    Patterned tablecloths and lace curtains will be taken out
    of the Blethering Place Tea Room and Restaurant -- a 35-
    year-old Oak Bay institution -- when it closes to make way
    for a new bistro.

    Ken Agate, who bought and expanded the existing Blethering
    Place in 1981, is shutting down his restaurant, known for
    its English-style food and decor, on Jan. 30. Agate is
    ending with a celebration of Waitangi Day, a national
    holiday in his native New Zealand.

    New owners Bart Reed and Petr Prusa are aiming to spend a
    month renovating the leased space to transform it into the
    Oak Bay Bistro, featuring a chef from the renowned
    Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino. Prusa is an owner of Floyd's
    Diner and Reed is a partner in the Mocha House, the Beagle
    Pub, and Island Meat and Seafood, all in Cook Street

    Like the Blethering Place, the bistro will open for
    breakfast. Reed expects it will have longer operating
    hours, closing at midnight. The hope is to open March 1.

    For Agate, 66, the sale allows him to turn to another
    chapter in his life. After the doors close, he's going to
    take a few weeks to decide what's next, saying he doesn't
    like the idea of retirement. Agate has retained the rights
    to the Blethering Place name. He also vows to continue
    heading up the popular Blethering Place Car Show, set for
    Aug. 14 along Oak Bay Avenue.

    Despite economic ups and downs, "we have been profitable
    the whole time," Agate said.

    Under pictures of Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill,
    customers show up for afternoon tea, and traditional fare
    such as roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, steak-and-kidney
    pie, sticky toffee pudding, all-day breakfast, and live
    music. There's no minimum charge and some customers even
    bring their own tea bags, Agate said.

    He estimates customers have made 3.5 million visits over
    the years to the restaurant, where regulars chat with each
    other and know the staff well. Locals and tourists,
    including tour groups, all come to the Blethering Place.

    This is where the local Monarchist League has held teas and
    the place that news organizations across the country call
    to get reaction to events such as the late Queen Mother
    celebrating her 100th birthday.

    "We've got a wonderful culture," Agate said, adding the
    goal is to "welcome everybody" with special attention given
    to older customers.

    In addition to running the Blethering Place, Agate is a co-
    founder of Tourism Oak Bay.

    Server Candice Carruthers recalls finding $1,000 cash in an
    envelope at her home a few years ago when she was off work
    because of illness. No one ever admitted to helping her
    out, but she's sure the money came from a group of
    gentlemen customers at the Blethering Place.

    It's not clear who is going to miss the Blethering Place
    the most. Agate lives on the upper floor above the
    restaurant but will be moving out. "My whole life is tied
    up in these walls," he said. "I feel guilty almost. I feel
    like the vicar that deserts the church."

    Co-manager Joan Stein said, "We have so many special
    customers." She used to be one, until one day 20 years ago,
    she started clearing a table and joined the staff.

    Scotty Gardiner, Doug Henderson, and Dr. Michael Cooper
    meet every Wednesday at 10 a.m., along with other friends,
    for coffee at the Blethering Place. Gardiner has restored
    every one of the restaurant's 138 wooden chairs and will be
    leading the Robbie Burns supper for the 10th time on Jan.

    Agate has led community events to raise money to help a
    child who needed specialized surgery, for guide dogs, and
    for environmental causes. Every year the Blethering Place
    has hosted a Christmas feast for those in need, whether
    they are homeless or alone. "Really, I think I get more out
    of it than them," said Agate.

    He is planning to help the 18 staff members find new jobs.

    As for the future, Reed said the new owners plan to install
    a bar and create a slightly eclectic but comfortable
    environment with the permitted 136 seats.

    The foyer, now a gift shop, will feature high-top tables
    and bar stools creating more of a lounge area, allowing
    customers to drop in for a drink and snack, as well as a
    meal if they wish, he said.

    "In my mind, it is one of the premium locations in

    Reed favours local, organic food and said the menu will not
    be as large. Chef John Waller has been dazzling the owners
    with his creations already.

    Oak Bay has been called the place behind the tweed curtain.
    But Reed disagrees with those who see Oak Bay as stodgy,
    saying he hopes the bistro will "make things a little bit
    more fun."

    Oak Bay Mayor Christopher Causton said that while the
    Blethering Place has been a draw for visitors, the village
    as a whole has become a destination. "Ken has been a really
    good owner there and has been a good corporate supporter."

    Causton welcomes the bistro, saying it will bring more
    people to the village in the evening.