The Man Who Came to Diner

Winger's, 3247 East Bell, Phoenix, 787-1732. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

When, exactly, were "the good old days"?
Nobody seems to know for sure, except they were sometime in the misty, distant past. Even though my parents endured crushing poverty during the Depression, they fondly remembered growing up in the 1930s. I know people who think World War II was an exhilarating time. Despite the social upheaval, threat of nuclear annihilation, Vietnam War and annual assassinations, my baby-boomer generation looks back longingly on the 1950s and 1960s. So we shouldn't be too astonished to find that two of the most disagreeable features of the 1970s have resurfaced, rehabilitated. Who'd have thought, two decades ago, that one day we might tune in to disco oldies stations and read about Richard Nixon, statesman?

Even the 1980s, a low, dishonest decade, are far enough away to be idealized by those who lived through them. We've already more or less cleared our minds of the ballooning deficits, greedy yuppies and AIDS epidemic. Instead, we have feel-good memories filtered through The Cosby Show and soothing presidential blather about family values. And it's absolutely certain that 20 years from now, when today's youth recall the 1990s, they won't remember Rodney King, Timothy McVeigh or Kenneth Starr. They'll be getting all warm and fuzzy over Seinfeld, Hanson and Titanic.

Why does the past always seem better than the present? It's simple: Because we were all younger then. Until someone discovers the Fountain of Youth, nostalgia will never go out of style.

The entrepreneurs cashing in on the 1990s' diner craze know this. That's why they've been busy building the kind of places that appeal to the never-grow-old Archie, Veronica and Jughead in us all. To grown-ups, diners are a blast from the past. To young adults, they're retro cool. To kids, they're just plain neat.

Two new diner operations have recently swept into the Valley. Winger's, a self-styled "American Diner," is invading in force, opening half a dozen branches strategically scattered all over town. ("Franchises Available," says the menu.) So far, Chase's Diner has only its one Chandler outlet.

Winger's is the more interesting of the two, conceptually as well as gastronomically. Most diners aim for a 1950s look and feel--jukeboxes spinning Elvis 45s, Formica-topped dinette tables, James Dean stills. But Winger's strikes a more contemporary pose. Several trios of television screens, placed all over the room, play nonstop '80s and '90s music videos. Modern mirrored panels line the walls. And Winger's principal decor motif--vintage model airplanes suspended from the ceiling, along with vintage posters and memorabilia--doesn't fit traditional preconceptions about diner design, either.

It's a little hard to imagine Archie and the gang stopping here after school for a malt. But I can imagine them dropping in for a bite before or after catching a flick at the Bell Plaza 8 theaters, just a few feet away.

They better not ask for a malt. That's because, in one of the all-time, head-scratching menu lapses, Winger's doesn't offer shakes or malts. A diner without shakes or malts? Somebody's head should be rolling at corporate headquarters.

The fare isn't terribly interesting. But some of it is surprisingly tasty. And all of it is affordable.

Meals start with a freebie bowl of fresh-popped popcorn, an offbeat touch. But it shouldn't stop you from shelling out for a platter of Winger's wings, the signature item. These critters are just as good as the menu boasts--crispy, meaty and not oily. They're drenched in a "secret Buffalo sauce" that's sweet and tangy. You can embellish them further with one of four dozen bottled hot sauces displayed on the counter next to the popcorn. I'm partial to the Hot Raspberry Thunder, fruity and fiery, and Thai Tamarind, pungent with a low-heat kick.

Potato skins aren't a particularly creative munchie, but the ones here make up in effectiveness what they lack in novelty. These spuds come drenched in cheese, real bacon and chive sour cream that actually tastes like chives in sour cream.

Don't bother edging into dinner with soup. Our server said the chicken noodle soup was homemade, but this dreary broth sure didn't taste as if someone had been watching it simmer for hours.

Some of the main-dish fare is nicely done. Blackened catfish isn't typical diner food, but Winger's kitchen sends out a model that's moist and crunchy. Vegetable fajitas are competently crafted, a mix of sizzling onions, mushrooms, squash and tomatoes, teamed with cheese, decent guacamole, mild, fresh-tasting salsa and warm tortillas. The one-third-pound burger, served on a cornmeal-dusted grilled bun, hits the mark. And while the ribs aren't rib-parlor mesmerizing, they're extremely tender and meaty.

Some of the main-dish fare is not so nicely done. I couldn't work up any brotherly love toward the Philly cheesesteak sandwich, whose grilled peppers, onions and mushrooms deserved better than the tasteless meat and cheese they accompanied. Blackened chicken Alfredo is a flop: penne pasta and grilled poultry in a thin cream sauce with none of the promised Cajun seasonings. Buffalo shrimp are useless, heavily battered, right-out-of-the-bag crustaceans with zero shrimp flavor. And the Chinese chicken salad, served in a trough-size bowl, is strictly one-dimensional: acres of lettuce with a bit of noodles, chicken, orange, almonds and tomato in a nondescript "Oriental" dressing. I lost interest in this salad after two bites.

The kitchen also needs to pay a bit more attention to its side dishes. Mashed potatoes are uncomfortably thick and heavy, and on one visit our French fries were lukewarm and limp.

Winger's touts its Asphalt Pie dessert, and with reason. It's not very subtle: mint chocolate ice cream in an Oreo crust, heaped with caramel sauce and whipped cream. But it's got basic sweet-tooth appeal. The Chocolate Avalanche, however, doesn't. It's a partnership of third-rate chocolate cake and second-rate vanilla ice cream. The ring of almond-studded whipped cream covers up the inferior ingredients, but can't hide them.

Winger's doesn't always soar. But it does get off the ground often enough to make it a movie-night stop.

Chase's, 2040 North Alma School, Chandler, 855-3663. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to midnight.

Chase's looks just great--gleaming, sleek and shiny, in an art deco-meets-the-1950s way. I love the bright red vinyl booths; the dinette tables with faux Formica tops and cute dinette chairs; the nostalgic, two-for-a-quarter jukebox music, spinning everything from Hank Williams Sr. to Jan & Dean; the sparkling black-and-white tile floors; the signed celebrity photos of Jayne Mansfield, Monroe, Sinatra and James Dean; the Venetian blinds; the old-fashioned counter; and the front page of a 1958 Iowa newspaper announcing the crash of Buddy Holly's airplane.

If the food had kept pace with the decor, I might have been after Chase's proprietors myself to get on a franchise list. Unfortunately, they seem to have spent a little too much time developing the look, and not enough time developing the kitchen.

The menu says the operators are from Buffalo, but you'd never know that from the wings. They're generic, with no distinguishing features. The potato skins are even less appealing. They're nothing like Winger's, just some old-looking, hollowed-out skins stingily filled with a smidgeon of cheese and bacon.

Most of the main dishes have that same kind of institutional flair. The turkey platter reminds me of what you'd find in the employee cafeteria the day after Thanksgiving. The meat doesn't look or taste like it was recently carved off a turkey. And the way-too-salty stuffing had an unmistakable right-out-of-the-box quality.

I couldn't get too terribly excited about the chicken-fried steak, either. An Oklahoma buddy once told me that the only utensil you needed for good chicken-fried steak was a fork. Well, Chase's model not only requires a knife, it requires a rather sharp one. And the dull country gravy didn't provide any back-up support. If it weren't for the buttermilk biscuit, I might have left this platter untouched.

Meat loaf provided no relief. The menu says it's "Shirley's recipe." Well, Shirley needs to work on both texture and taste. The hunk I had wasn't coarse enough, and didn't have sufficient beefy flavor. The side of lackluster mashed potatoes didn't help.

Some day, an enterprising chef is going to jazz up the traditional chef salad and find a flock of ladies-who-lunch fans. However, Chase's chef isn't up to the task. This pile of greenery was a snooze, the usual strips of turkey and ham over lettuce, tomato, cucumber and hard-boiled egg.

Two dishes worked. The pizza burger is a delight, in all its gooey, gloppy, high-cholesterol glory. It's a third of a pound of juicy beef, dripping with mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce, teamed with hot, crispy French fries. The Philly cheesesteak also pushed the right buttons. It's a mass of thin-sliced beef and melted cheese, heaped with onions and peppers on a grilled hoagie roll. The side of sizzling onion rings further brightened my mood.

What's almost as bad as a diner that doesn't offer malts and shakes? It's a diner that makes less-than-stellar malts and shakes. I don't know how you make a warm chocolate peanut butter shake, but Chase's seems to have mastered this dubious process.

The banana split is a better dessert option: three scoops of ice cream, three kinds of sauces, lots of banana and a mess of whipped cream. Boring homemade bread pudding, in contrast, isn't worth the calorie hit.

With its great design and perky, energetic young staff, Chase's has solved two-thirds of the restaurant equation. Now it needs to work out the food part of the formula.

Buffalo wings (one pound)
Veggie fajitas
Blackened catfish
Asphalt pie

Potato skins
Philly cheesesteak
Meat loaf
Banana split


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