Cafe Reviews

Diner 50 in Phoenix Offers Midcentury Nostalgia and Tasty, Classic Food

Diner 50 is a funky ’50s-themed breakfast and lunch diner situated amid the drab, sun-bleached junkyards and industrial work yards of 19th Avenue and Buckeye Road, a slice of town where concrete and chain link fence are the prevailing features of the urban landscape. The diner is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it — the boxy building with the pastel blue-and-yellow storefront is set back away from the street, and at first glance, you might confuse it for one of the neighborhood segundas (secondhand stores) or sundry stores, many of which have been painted in bright neons or dusty pastels.

Pay no attention to the bars on the windows and the bare weedy lots surrounding the restaurant. If you recall that famous moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s black-and-white Kansas dramatically gives way to a Technicolor fever dream — well, that’s the sort of effect at play when you step inside Diner 50 for the first time. The grit of its surroundings dissolves, and gives way to a colorful space that feels something like a temple to ’50s-era American pop culture.

In the restaurant’s main dining room, black-and-white checkered floors, pastel blue walls, bright red accents, and a curved countertop make for a bright first impression. Most places would settle for a few portraits of Elvis and Marilyn on the wall to evoke midcentury nostalgia. You’ll find that here, certainly, but you’ll also find an entire vintage kitchen setup, complete with antique stove, along with dozens of glossy black vinyl records lining the walls and hung from the ceiling tiles, where they dangle like wind chimes.
There’s an adjacent dining room, too, with big squeaky booths, tables outfitted with vintage radios and telephones, and a ’60s-era pool table. The dining room offers a lot to take in — the assortment of vintage bric-a-brac and furniture and kitchen appliances have been carefully assembled and arranged over the course of almost four years, which is about how long Diner 50 has been serving this part of town.

The decor is a throwback, sure, but the food is even more so. The restaurant’s slogan is “Eat Retro,” and that’s far from an exaggeration.

There are all the classic breakfast offerings, including thick, fluffy, Frisbee-sized buttermilk pancakes, which, soaked in butter and syrup, become so good they seem to melt on contact.

There’s a rib eye steak breakfast, which comes with a well-cooked cut oozing butter and served with a couple of eggs and your choice of either home fries or hash browns. Both are good, but there’s something about the big bundle of crispy hash browns that makes it nearly an indispensable side dish.

There are all manner of specialty omelettes, but you’d be wise to ask about the semi-secret Mexican breakfast menu. You won’t find it written down anyplace, but the kitchen regularly whips up a wonderful plate of chilaquiles. The soft, stewy slices of tortilla are bathed in a very good and savory red chile sauce. There’s also a delicious and hearty breakfast burrito, if that’s your thing; the oversize bundle of buttery eggs and bacon are like two meals wrapped in one thin, fresh flour tortilla.

You can’t really call yourself a breakfast diner without biscuits and gravy, and Diner 50 delivers with biscuits that are flaky and meltingly soft. The gravy is salty and thick, and the plate is loaded up with your choice of either bacon or sausage, in case the biscuits and the gravy weren’t rich enough for you.
Breakfast is served all day at Diner 50, but most of the lunch contingent is usually chowing down on the kitchen’s hot sandwiches and burgers. There are more than a dozen sandwich options, both hot and cold, but the kitchen seems to have a special fondness for chicken. The grilled chicken, which comes with a nicely seasoned and very juicy chicken breast blanketed with Swiss cheese, is a standout.

There is a good Cuban sandwich, too, a sort of pig-lover’s delight layered with juicy pork loin and ham, and nicely accented with pickles and spicy mustard. And if you love an old-school French dip, the one here is a little lean on the sliced roast beef. But it’s thoughtfully seasoned and heaped with slightly sweet, rich bundles of flattop-griddled onions.

Burgers are simple — no hipstery aioli sauces in sight — made with chunky, thickly built patties that have been nicely charred. More often than not, they come topped off with bacon strips and grilled onions.

There’s a pretty good Mexi Burger, which comes capped with grilled, smoky poblano pepper strips and crispy bacon. While there aren’t any sloppy joes on the menu, you can get pretty close with an order of the chili burger, which comes topped with a ladleful of drippy, oniony homemade chili. The chili is not particularly surprising or exceptional in any way, but it’s well seasoned and has a homemade, old-fashioned appeal that is hard to pass up.

All sandwiches are paired with fries, which are notable because they are hand-cut in the kitchen. The fries lean to being less crispy and more chewy in texture, but they are nicely seasoned and about as fresh-tasting as a basket of fries will ever get. If you have a thing for onion rings, it’s worth splurging for them here. They’re thickly battered, with a nice herbal seasoning, and served extra hot and crispy.
Even though Diner 50 closes by early afternoon on most days, don’t miss the small menu of dinner entrees, which read like they might have been cribbed from the pages of a roadside diner menu, circa 1959: Liver and onions, chicken-fried steak, pork chops, and yes, homemade meatloaf, are served daily at Diner 50.

Liver and onions may not be your bag, but the chicken-fried steak hits all the right notes: the gravy is salty and rich, the chicken juicy and nicely breaded to a pleasantly light crisp.

And the meatloaf — it’s thick, beefy, and very juicy, the old American comfort-food standard that you forgot you loved. Or maybe it’s something you never loved, but could learn to love at Diner 50. It’s paired with chunky, extra-peppery homemade mashed potatoes, which depending on where you stand on the matter of mashed potatoes, you might find too thick or too spicy. But if you can handle the pepper, they are fresh and good. Either way, though, you’ll probably concede that the meatloaf is pretty good — and even more so when you shake on a few dots of Mexican hot sauce on top, which is how your server might suggest you eat it.

In a part of town where the dining options are mostly limited to Jack in the Box drive-thrus, Diner 50 is kind of a thrilling outlier. The owner of Diner 50 is a bubbly young woman who goes by the name of Miss Styles, who you might spot greeting guests and taking orders. Miss Styles says that her diner is a point of pride in the neighborhood. Young kids, she says, tell her that they want to work here someday, and the restaurant has become a popular lunchtime destination for local area workers, who enjoy going someplace where the owner knows them by first name. Diner 50 is the ultimate throwback, you might say, and that’s not a bad thing.

Diner 50
1002 South 19th Avenue

Hours: Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Chicken-fried steak $7.75
Biscuit and gravy meal $6.99
Grilled chicken sandwich $7.49
Mexi Burger $7.49

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Patricia Escárcega was Phoenix New Times' food critic.