I once read about a Londoner recalling his boyhood years in the early 1940s. The city was under almost daily assault from Germans rocket attacks and bomber raids. Normal life--school, work, leisure--was completely disrupted. He remembered the air raid sirens, the blackouts, the bombed-out streets, the shelters stuffed with terrified humanity, the victims.
A commiserating friend said he felt sorry that the Englishman had missed out on a happy childhood.
"Are you kidding?" replied the Blitz survivor. "It was great. I haven't had as much fun since." Then he got serious. "After all, it was my one and only youth."
That remark is full of insight. From an adult perspective, being young is as good as it gets, no matter what the surrounding social conditions. That's why my parents would tell me they were never happier than during the Depression, when as kids they slept three to a bed and didn't know where their next meal was coming from. That's why Baby Boomers like me remember the '60s so fondly, even though the country was being torn apart. That's why aging Generation Xers have begun resuscitating The Brady Bunch and disinterring disco. And that's why, 20 years from now, today's teeny-bopping adolescents will be at Tower Records buying Brandy's Greatest Hits, volumes 1 to 3.
America's poignant pining for the good old days inspired the restaurant industry's recent diner revival. Walk into Angel's Diner & Bakery or 5 and Diner, two '50s-themed local models, and you expect to see Archie, Jughead and Veronica sitting at the counter, sipping malts and talking about the prom. Both places aim to give customers old enough to remember the good old days a blast from the past, when blue plate specials were cool and The Catcher in the Rye was hot. And for those too young to remember, they offer an hour or so of vicarious nostalgia, an escape to a simpler time when no one discussed fat grams and school boards didn't put Heather Has Two Mommies on the third-grade reading list.
Using music, setting and food, these diners do everything they can to get us to willingly suspend our disbelief and send us back to our youths, real or imagined. It's not a bad idea. I just wish the journey could have been a little tastier.
Angel's Diner & Bakery in Mesa is part of a growing national chain operation. It's got the sharp, stylized '90s-meets-'50s diner look: vinyl booths, polished chrome trim, neon edging and old-fashioned napkin dispensers carrying the message "Drink Coke." Above the counter is the company motto: "Good Food and Good Feelings." Well, one out of two ain't bad.
I couldn't shake the feeling that the kitchen help spends most of its time ripping open 25-pound frozen bags and cranking can openers. Take the appetizers, with their cutesy names like ringolas, mozzarolas, flying hog wings, buck skins and Mexola zappers. But what's in a name? The onion rings, mozzarella sticks, chicken wings, potato skins and cheese-stuffed jalapeos are institutional, deep-fried snoozers. Would June and Ward have taken their boys out for munchies like these? I can't see it.
I don't think they'd have been thrilled with the soup or salad that comes with the blue plate specials, either. The chicken noodle broth won't remind anyone of the soups Mom stirred and simmered all day. And the greenery is just as unexciting.
When read off the menu, the blue plate specials give you a warm, homey feeling. That feeling lasts until they're actually set before you.
Best of the lot is the pot roast, sliced meat with an identifiably beefy taste and texture. The meat loaf is hunky, but it's got an odd, mushy sponginess that Mom's never had. At $8.99, the rib eye steak sandwich is the most expensive item on the menu. If all ten ounces had been as tender as the six ounces that actually were, this wouldn't be a bad option. But almost half the steak consists of inedible gristle.
Chicken pot pie can be a great dish when it's done right. The degraded version here, though, seems to have come directly from the recipe file of a school cafeteria. There's nothing appealing about it, from the cubed chicken pieces, tiny bits of peas and carrots and gelatinous gravy to the highly resistible pastry crust topping. You're better off with something less complex, like the mound of linguini buried under a mound of melted cheese.
Angel's gives you a choice of two side dishes with the blue plate specials. Several of them are more than palatable. They include a veggie-of-the-day zucchini in marinara sauce, skin-on mashed potatoes, fresh steamed broccoli and carrots, crunchy coleslaw and a fresh fruit blend of melon and pineapple. Avoid, however, the deep-fried okra pellets and French fries that tasted as if they came out of the fryer during the Eisenhower administration.