Monday, November 1, 2010

Blue Plate Diner, 104th Street, Edmonton

“eating, talking, drinking, good conversation”

It’s 8 pm on a Sunday evening, but the Blue Plate Diner in downtown Edmonton is crowded. There are families with children, a group of young women celebrating a birthday, couples and single people like myself. Everyone is happy and enjoying their food.

A neighbourhood diner
“I’ve always loved restaurants,” says Rima DeVitt, co-owner of the Blue Plate Diner. “I love eating, talking, drinking, good conversation. It changes every day, and it’s so satisfying. I couldn’t imagine a desk job.”

Rima tried several different career options when she was at university, but none of them really suited her. She found her niche when she and her partner John Williams opened their first restaurant. “I love the adrenalin, being on my feet and moving around. I love the people.”

Seven years ago, Rima and John were looking for a larger restaurant that they could own outright and have total control. “We wanted to be on the street, to see people walking by, to have a neighbourhood feel,” says Rima. Drugs, prostitution and empty parking lots didn’t make 104th Street a very attractive proposition, but they saw it had potential. Other people were also interested in the site, but the building owner leased it to them. “He liked our passions and ideas, despite being the little guys with little money,” says Rima. “We bet our shirts on it.”

And seven years later, their gamble appears to have paid off.

An extension of our lives
John and Rima had a limited budget when they opened up, but that has worked in their favour. The mismatched mugs and one-of-a-kind table lamps that Rima had collected over the years add to the homey atmosphere, and the combination of purple paint and chandeliers in a very small women’s washroom made me laugh.

Rima and John are both vegetarians, so the menu is rich in vegetarian options, but that was not the primary focus. “We wanted people to come in and love the food, to enjoy the sensual pleasure of eating,” says Rima. The menu includes a number of all-time favourites. “We’ll never take the veg. burger off the menu; it took us ages to develop. And people would kill us if we stopped offering the macaroni cheese,” laughs Rima.

I had the pozole enchiladas, which are another staple on the menu, because “One reason I opened a restaurant was so I could eat enchiladas whenever I wanted to,” says Rima, who grew up in Arizona. I also really enjoyed the lentil and nut loaf with gravy and mashed potatoes – comfort food at its best.

The kitchen staff compete to come up with the best daily and weekly specials. The wine list changes on a weekly basis with recommendations from local wine and beer stores, and all the wines are offered by the glass – “not just cheap rotgut house wine.”

The Blue Plate Diner strives to offer “real food prepared by real human beings,” and the food is locally sourced as much as possible. John and Rima were founding members of Original Fare and value the connection with other restaurants with similar types of beliefs.

Crazy schedule
Rima loves Blue Plate Diner and hopes that it will be around forever and become an Edmonton institution, “like the Highlevel Diner,” but she is also aware of how demanding it is.

Labour and the cost of goods went up a “crazy amount” a few years ago, and Rima and John wondered if they would survive. “We were working 60 to 70 hours a weeks on this crazy schedule,” says Rima. “We were either at work or with the kids.”

In the last few years, Rima has made a conscious effort to create a division between her work and home life. “I don’t do nights any more,” says Rima. “I’m too old, and I have kids.” Her dreams for the future include taking a little time to travel and explore the world with her children.

Complementary skills
Running a restaurant requires a diverse skill set, and John and Rima appear to excel at sharing responsibilities. “I focus on the front of the restaurant – the atmosphere, music, menus, advertising,” says Rima. “John is more well-rounded. He can work the line in the kitchen if they’re short staffed, and he knows who to call if something breaks. He fixes stuff and order supplies.”

Rima’s people skills are an obvious asset. I had a hard time interviewing her as she was so busy asking me questions! And she went out of her way to drive me to my next appointment.

The Blue Plate Diner has a staff of over 60. I watched Rima working with the staff at lunch one day, and you could tell that they got along really well together. “They’re all really interesting, well thought out and artistic,” says Rima. “It’s a little ecosystem of people who all have their own interests.”

Be sure to visit Blue Plate Diner when you’re in Edmonton. The warm atmosphere and good food will make you smile.

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