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.
Sandwiches seem to be more reliable than the blue plate specials. Both the juicy burger and the Philly cheesesteak, filled with lean beef, lots of cheese and grilled onions and peppers, are two satisfying ways to fill up.
Angel's prides itself on its homemade desserts, and unlike the appetizers and most entrees, they actually taste homemade. There's nothing subtle about the sweet German chocolate cake, a huge slice gilded with a two-inch layer of frosting. Chocolate satin pie is nicely done--the chocolate cream filling doesn't have the waxy taste and texture that ruin inferior models. And it was only after I sucked up every last drop of the chocolate malt, thickened with three scoops of ice cream, that I remembered I no longer have the metabolism of an 18-year-old.
A word about service. I watched the on-the-ball manager checking with customers at every table, as well as doing his own rug sweeping. Too bad the rest of the staff didn't share his sense of duty. Our food server slopped food all over the table, and she and other employees didn't get around to replacing missing silverware, refilling water glasses or clearing dishes. We finally stacked up our dirty plates and marched them over to the counter ourselves. Ugh.
Angel's Diner & Bakery brings back everything from the good old days except reliable food and service. Welcome to the '90s.
5 and Diner, 9069 East Indian Bend (Scottsdale Pavilions), Scottsdale, 949-1957. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Like Angel's, 5 and Diner puts more emphasis on the sizzle than the steak. This diner, whose second Valley spot opened up about ten months ago in Scottsdale, is high on concept, but not quite so strong on performance. Instead of figuring out how to take the restaurant national ("Franchises available," says the takeout menu), the operators ought to concentrate on monitoring the quality of the fare.
They certainly have got the fantasy-'50s diner look just right. The place gleams. Iridescent red vinyl booths, old-fashioned dinette tables and posters of '50s celebrities set the mood. So do perky waitresses, bedecked in white shirts and black aprons, who carry bus-driver-type change holders around their waists.
Nor do the proprietors overlook too many chances to turn an extra buck, from the souvenir stand (5 and Diner tee shirt, $12) to the jukebox at each booth. If you want aural nostalgia, it will cost you two for a quarter. (The waitresses will give you change.)
But with nothing priced more than $6.99, the food at 5 and Diner won't break too many bank accounts. And some of it is quite tasty. However, there are too many lapses that make eating here less enjoyable than it might otherwise be.
Best things first. That could be the basket of onion rings we used as an appetizer munchie. (There's no appetizer list.) These rings are thick, puffy and fresh out of the fryer.
It could be the pork sandwich, a big, breaded pork cutlet served on a mayo-lined hamburger bun. It could be the flavorful Polish sausage, served with hot sauerkraut and an out-of-place dinner roll. It could be the Reuben, which sports decent corned beef. And it could be the rich pecan pie.
Several dishes fall into the taste category one step below--call it routinely serviceable fare. This is food that goes down without making any particular impression.
Among these are meat loaf, submerged under a tidal wave of salty brown gravy. It's kind of squishy textured, but you'd be too if you were under this much liquid. The routinely serviceable list includes the Phoenix burger, a third of a pound of ground beef topped with melted cheese and the world's mildest green chile. And it also includes the Cobb salad, which features real bacon and some grilled chicken breast.
But some items are without any redeeming gastronomic value. The roast beef dinner is a horror, processed-looking and -tasting meat that will persuade even heretofore enthusiastic carnivores to consider the virtues of vegetarianism. Macaroni and cheese, meanwhile, is utterly tasteless, and the portion's small, too. The side of home fries sat in enough oil to lubricate a fleet of buses. And the mixed veggies that come with dinner look just like the ones I refused to eat in my youth.
There are other disturbing tendencies. Instead of butter, 5 and Diner gives you those little containers of "spread" that tastes like it was fashioned at Chernobyl Farms. The god of shelf life is not the deity that restaurants should be worshiping. The menu also claims, "We make our famous Dressings Fresh and Tasty." If that's the case, I wonder why the kitchen so effectively disguises them in Kraft packets? And neither the onions I ordered with my burger nor the blue cheese promised in the Cobb salad ever showed up.
5 and Diner shows flashes of talent. But before it's ready for the national big time, it needs to work on its act.