Bland of Plenty

The Landmark Restaurant, 809 West Main Street, Mesa, 480-962-4652. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 3 to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Our waitress recently relocated from Florida and her teenage daughter isn't pregnant. It's a relief, because it seems many of the girls in Florida are nowadays, and it is so easy to fall in with the wrong crowd. Tonight's soup, she adds, is split pea.

Wow. We had heard that the service was friendly at The Landmark, but we hadn't expected it to be quite so personal. Still, by the end of the meal, we're rooting for Linda's daughter, happy that she finally found the perfect sky-blue dress for her winter dance and amused that she considers "salad" to be a plate of croutons soaked in ranch dressing. We feel like we know her.

Boardinghouse breach: Stove or no stove, The Landmark Restaurant's not so hot.
Lokey
Boardinghouse breach: Stove or no stove, The Landmark Restaurant's not so hot.

While anywhere else such intimate conversation might be intrusive, at Mesa's historic-themed Landmark, it's expected. This legendary restaurant -- it's been a Mesa staple for nearly 20 years -- after all, prides itself on the neighborly exchanges of an earlier era, when friends gossiped over backyard fences and moms cooked dinner every night.

At The Landmark, you're old friends. Really old.

If only the turn-of-the-century menu charmed in the same way. It's true that "old is new" now, with a return to TV quiz shows, retro wear and '50s-style decor. But some things, like The Landmark's antiquated cuisine, are better left out of style. Sure, it's home-style Midwestern cooking, but such bleak food is why I left my family's table the day I turned 18.

Be forewarned: despite its proud proclamations of offering "uniquely American cuisine," The Landmark is little more than Luby's in a party dress.

I can appreciate the comfort this sanctuary of gabled roof, liver-colored brick and plantation shutters must bring to the nostalgia-hungry. Built in 1908 as a Mormon church, the site has been home to the original Mesa Community College campus, meeting headquarters for Boy Scouts, and weekly dances with ice cream socials hosted by the Ladies Aid Society. These were the days when young women did time in home ec instead of under house arrest.

Inside, the restaurant is a haven of tapestry walls, elaborate flocking, plush carpet and gold chandeliers. Victorian china and antique clocks cluster on shelves between lace-curtained windows. Tablecloths are white, burgundy napkins are linen, and cherry-wood furniture glows with years of careful polishing. It's beautiful, but nursing-home antiseptic. Fresh flowers and candles would do wonders.

The Landmark certainly knows its customer. By 5 p.m. on any given day, the place is packed with geriatrics ready to feed. Some children attend, seen and not heard as if stuck in a time warp. Pretty little girls in velvet frocks fold their hands in their laps, and slick groomed young gentlemen pull out their mothers' chairs, tugging uncomfortably at their first neckties. These diners are solid citizens of the middle bracket. They've been around, and they know the niceties of a well-set table, yet have neither the taste nor the pocketbook to appreciate the real stuff. Nobody blinks when, at meal's end, servers inelegantly lay tinfoil across the table, scrape leftovers from the plates and form shiny silver animal shapes.

The setting is so perversely proper, my dining buddy and I are instantly stricken with giggles. The urge to do something naughty is hard to deny. Yet no one would send us to our rooms. Landmark servers are social acrobats, catering politely to the often-demanding retirees while joking with us younger folks.

A party of senior citizens next to us is about to convulse; they've already waited two minutes for their tea refills and are protesting loudly. But here comes our waitress Linda, deftly juggling orders for three other tables, bussing a vacated setting and restoring calm with four piping-hot cups.

Juggling dishes becomes a valuable skill, as my dinner guest and I find ourselves parked in the utilitarian basement dining room one busy Saturday. With two sets of stairs separating the main floor and the basement, visiting the upper-level salad bar is a challenge for us; nearly impossible for an older clientele (although the staff offer to carry diners up and down the flights, piggyback rides are not what we look for in fine dining). Instead, we cautiously balance large salad plates, bread plates and steaming soup bowls to navigate the stairs only to find it's hardly worth the effort.

In fact, the salad offer0ings are nothing better than enormous, filling an entire room centered by an antique gas stove (salad bar is included with entrees; $9.50 alone). Yes, the fixings are fresh, replenished constantly. But we're quickly bored with the mundane iceberg lettuce mix, frozen green peas, pickled beets, garbanzo beans and water-logged boiled eggs. Even no-brainers like Southwestern pasta and runny potato salad offend with a gritty texture.

Many dishes are well-meaning but indifferent: fluffy ambrosia, pickled herring, golden hominy (repeatedly boiled corn kernels), chicken rice salad, sweet meatballs, bland German potato salad, lukewarm cinnamon apples, weird pickled watermelon, packaged-tasting cinnamon rolls. Avoid the more exotic items altogether, like Pepto-pink, mushy bay shrimp and out-of-place kumquats and prickly-pear strips.

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