The beef burger and fries at Paul’s Diner by Fol Epi are comfort food, but exotic enough to be worthy of the Agrius-level price tag, writes Monday restaurant reviewer Allan Reid.

ALLAN REID: Paul’s undergoes a culinary face lift

The team behind Fol Epi/Agrius revamping dated motel restaurant in its seventh decade

Paul’s Motor Inn is legendary.

Founded by Paul Arsens of Laurel Point fame, Paul’s Motor Inn and Diner has been serving itinerate travellers, small budget tourists and locals since 1956. Familiar, friendly service offered in modest comfort have been the mainstays of success. Long-time regulars are accustomed to sitting in booths around a central kitchen with waitstaff wandering back and forth along a reserved service corridor between, taking orders and delivering food over the booths’ low inside walls.

Monday restaurant reviewer Allan Reid

It is an unusual layout that reduces servers’ daily steps and removes them from the jostle of arriving and departing customers. Recent renovations have hardly changed the model.

Paul’s Diner formerly offered the staples: breakfasts of eggs, bacon, ham, sausage with toast or maybe pancakes; lunches of mostly sandwiches and burgers; dinners of meatloaf and liver-and-onions. Comfort food. But the fries and the patties were frozen, the condiments were the stock restaurant variety and the quality that Victorians have come to expect in recent years was lacking.

Then came Fol Epi and Agrius.

The main entrance, facing Douglas Street, opens to a small and almost glamorous little bar where one can savour a solo meal, unwind with a glass of wine or a good scotch, enjoy a pleasant conversation with a friend, or just gossip with the waitstaff. Tufted black leather stools stand before a stainless steel counter, and a ubiquitous mirrored wall displaying a selection of import and local spirits, such as Sheringham’s award-winning Gin (distilled in Shirley, just west of Sooke).

But the bar interrupts the old service corridor, having replaced a row of booths, and that mirrored wall hides not just the kitchen, but the diner to either side where the sophisticated silvery freshness vanishes into remnants of well-worn time. It is a jarring transition. A coat of white paint slapped over the old yellow panels may brighten but it does not confer the sleek smoothness promised by the bar.

A bit of old-style wainscotting, also painted white, fails to cover evidence of booths removed, adding to the aura of crude workmanship that permeates the place. Booths remaining are the same old faux-wood veneer, sometimes chipped, and smooth red leatherette that was. The feeling is less nostalgia than a celebration of decay. The contrast with the bar and entrance could not be greater.

The menu still offers the same diner staples, though Debbie, our waitress who has been working at Paul’s for years, insists that the food is much better than it was. I order the beef burger (there is only one) with half-fries and half-salad ($17) and a coffee.

The coffee comes first. It is strong, bitter and distinctive. Not just better than I expected: this is good coffee. The salad is simple, just a pile of delicate curly lettuce, but fresh and well dressed. The fries are cut in-house and boast a crispy skin surrounding a soft and hot centre. And surprise! House made ketchup that is dark red and slightly pulpy and very pleasing.

The burger delivers a thick and juicy patty cooked just shy of medium and covered in melted mozzarella. A fresh Fol-Epi black sesame-seed bun, crisp and tangy dill pickles, more of that delicate lettuce and a Thousand Island-like house dressing complete the burger. This is not the most exotic burger in the city but it is mouth-watering, comfort-food worthy – these days – of its Agrius-like price tag.

Paul’s Diner by Fol Epi

Paul’s Motor Inn, 1900 Douglas St.

250-590-6586

— Allan Reid, Monday Magazine columnist

Read other reviews by Allan Reid:

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Down-home biscuits amazingly filling

REVIEW – Boom + Batten: Taste and style with a view to die for, sometimes

VORACIOUS: Local vegan restaurant a nice surprise for omnivores

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Downtown treasure offers quality, from pizza on up

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