Formica Follows Function

New Yorker Family Restaurant / SunnySide Cafe

After an exhaustive search, I was selected to sit in for Howard Seftel during his well-earned vacation on the basis of two criteria. First, I was willing to do it. Second, and this was the clincher, I eat on a daily basis. But since a large portion of my diet consists of food prepared by teenagers with name tags--a sobering thought--the question remained: What sort of culinary establishment might I, having the discerning palate of a post-hibernation wolverine, presume to judge?

Then it occurred to me. As a movie critic, I was best fitted to review the classic eatery of the cinema--the coffee shop. In its way, the coffee shop is as integral to American film as the saloon.

Think about it. For every movie scene you can recall that's set in a fancy restaurant, you can probably think of a dozen set in gritty working-class chow houses--12 Alice Doesn't Live Here Any Mores for every My Dinner With Andre. This probably has something to do with the relationship between such restaurants and another classic motif in American storytelling--the road. A coffee shop is a perfect place for plot-weary characters to pause from the action for a bite to eat and a few minutes of character development.

Details

New Yorker Family Restaurant, 8002 North 27th Avenue, Phoenix, 995-8787. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Goulash special: $3.25
Greek omelet: $4.60
Baklava: $1.50

SunnySide Cafe, 101 East McDowell, Phoenix, 256-7019. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Breakfast and Lunch, Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Liver & onions: $4.75
Fish sandwich: $3.95
Slice of pie: $1.75

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It was in a coffee shop that Harry first came on to Sally. It was in a coffee shop that Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs planned their hideously fated heist; and it was in such a setting that Jules and Vincent, in the same director's Pulp Fiction, discussed the seeming miracle by which their lives were spared.

In The Sting, Robert Redford romanced a hash-house waitress who turned out to be a hit woman. In Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo, it was from the drudgery of her similar waitress job that Mia Farrow escaped into the movies. It was with cockney waitress Bette Davis that Leslie Howard fell in love in the 1934 Of Human Bondage; and it was with New York diner waitress Bridget Fonda that cop Nicolas Cage shared his lottery winnings in It Could Happen To You. In My Cousin Vinnie, Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei struggled with the two choices on the menu of an Alabama greasy spoon--"Breakfast" and "Lunch."

It was after thwarting an attempted robbery in a coffee shop that Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry uttered the immortal line "Go ahead, make my day." Hoffa postulated that if the paranoid union leader had gotten out of the car and gone into the truck stop, instead of sitting in his car, he might not have been assassinated; and had Marion Crane pressed on to the "big diner about 10 miles down the road" that Norman Bates mentioned in Psycho, she just might have avoided all that unpleasantness in the shower.

But it's Barry Levinson who made the ultimate film of the genre, logically titled Diner. The key setting of this gem was the Fells Point Diner, a Baltimore Pullman-car eatery where a bunch of young men--Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Daniel Stern, Steve Guttenberg, Timothy Daly and Paul Reiser--sat slinging the bull and putting off adulthood.

So, where can we in the Valley go to indulge in the same pastimes? Understand, I'm not talking about the likes of Angels, 5 & Diner or Ed Debevic's. Such places are fun in their own rights, but they're coffee shops only in a self-conscious, "retro" sense. They're really theme restaurants, with prices to match. The type of authentic beanery that I want to talk about is best exemplified by New Yorker Family Restaurant, at the corner of 27th Avenue and Northern.

The name is a non sequitur. There's little of the Big Apple about this place, which opened as Guggy's in the early 1960s. Country-western music plays over the loudspeaker, and the service, against New York tradition, is friendly, attentive and personable--so much so, indeed, that it puts the unctuousness of servers at many trendy places to shame.

Although a framed poster from the magazine hangs near the cash register, this is not Harold Ross' New Yorker. You wouldn't see John Cheever or Saul Bellow or John Updike in the booths, although, populist that she is, Pauline Kael might enjoy herself here.

So will most people--the dishes are good, except for those that are delicious, the portions are hearty and the prices are about as low as you can find outside of fast food. The steepest price I've ever paid for dinner here ($6.95) was for the souvlaki--well worth it for the lemon-tangy chunks of marinated pork tenderloin over rice. Other Greek options, including gyros, are on the menu daily at New Yorker; and while most of the pies are brought in, the excellent baklava is homemade. The peach cobbler and the mildly sweet but not cloying rice pudding and tapioca are also good choices for dessert.

Breakfast can be had all day. The Monterey Omelet, which balances chili peppers with Monterey Jack cheese, is one of the better fast-breakers, and the Greek Omelet, with fried tomato and feta cheese, nicely combines New Yorker's expertise at breakfast with its ethnic specialty. You can also order a single pancake, a peculiar but surprisingly agreeable side dish with a morning meal, and particularly good for kids.

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