The American Diner: '50s Style, 100% Good

Posted: December 11, 1988

Midway through lunch at the American Diner, my tasting partner and I began to realize that we had a problem. It was his first visit, my second, and we liked everything about the place. That's right. Liked everything.

Any restaurant this new - and the diner was a mere five weeks old at that moment - should have some conspicuous rough spots. Where were they?

By the time we'd finished our mugs of coffee, we'd decided that the labels on the restroom doors should be changed. Skirts and Shirts probably sounded cute when the owners had their stainless-steel '50s time capsule on the drawing board, but as we watched, we saw two young people puzzling over which door was his, which hers.

That said, I'll get to what works here, starting with the way American Diner looks, which is authentic right down to the lucky dollar bills posted over the cash register, the neon "Air Conditioned" sign at the entrance, the '50s juke box, the old Zenith radio behind the counter, the drum-size layer cakes in the windowed case. There were even pickup trucks in the parking lot.

What isn't authentic is the lighting over the tables - inconspicuous, high- tech spotlights that make the food look wonderful, like something from the page of a gourmet magazine. Old-time diners didn't have such lighting. If they had, more of them probably would have survived.

American Diner's food is what happens when you tell a motivated, classically trained chef to do honest American food and he likes the challenge. It's diner food the way it should have been, but rarely was, back then.

Example: the fish cakes that were a blue-plate special the night of my dinner visit. The two cakes were big and crisply coated.

The filling was shredded white fish held together with a subtly flavored white sauce. For color and a bit of theater, there was a small puddle of pureed red pepper that looked terrific next to the perfect grains of yellow rice and the bright green broccoli.

You have to feel pretty adventurous to order lamb or steak in a diner. We ordered both and were glad we did. The leg of lamb at dinner was perfectly cooked, with thin, natural gravy.

The slightly rare London broil at lunch had good beefy flavor and decent mushroom gravy. There were broccoli and chunks of unpeeled potato, delicious

from oven-roasting with the lamb. The London broil arrived with a chubby, fried mashed-potato cake and buttery yellow squash slices.

We'd begun the meal with soup served in big white bowls with wide lips to catch the splashes on the way to the table. The chicken soup was thick with fat noodles and shreds of real chicken. The good Manhattan clam chowder had potatoes and tomatoes and thyme and, yes, real clams.

Fried ravioli, a dish that is loved in St. Louis but is little known in this part of the country, was another treat. The ravioli skins were fried firm for a nice contrast with the soft, bland cheese fillings. The sauce was thick and buttery.

But the big hit of my American Diner samplings was the fried onion rings, listed modestly on a back page of the menu under "side dishes." Made from huge, sweet onions, the tangle of rings was hot and so glossy that we reached for some paper napkins to blot the oil.

But there was no excess oil to blot. The lightest of coatings had been fried so perfectly that the rings would almost pass a white-glove test, and they were so crisp that they snapped like potato chips.

Chili was another happy surprise from the side-dish column. Judiciously spiced, made without beans, accompanied by two squares of very good cornbread, it was easily the best I've tasted locally.

The diner's menu is in constant flux as its owners try to find the right mix. At the time of our visits, however, the choices included traditional breakfast dishes served at traditional hours plus sandwiches, burgers, light dishes and platters available throughout the day.

American Diner meals reminded us of how nice it is when human hands and not machines chop vegetables. Thanks to a nonmechanized kitchen here, the carrots, onions and cabbage in the homemade vegetable soup here were chunky and odd- size. Smaller pieces cooked soft, with larger ones staying slightly firm to the tooth. That gave the soup an appealing combination of textures. In the same way, the odd bits of hand-cut french fries that came with my beefy lunch burger got very brown and crisp, which, to my way of thinking at least, made them more interesting.

Desserts include a terrific banana cream pie made with wonderfully oozy and unctuous cream filling, fresh bananas, flaky pastry and real whipped cream.

Apple pie, just like Mom made, was glossy-crusted and overfilled with firm, cinnamon-sweet apple chunks. A vein of cinnamon gave just the right amount of spice to a solid, buttery coffee cake. Old-fashioned rice pudding arrived with

maraschino cherry and cinnamon dusting.

Service, by one of the partners, kept water glasses and coffee cups filled and food arriving at a hunger-satisfying but not hurried pace.

AMERICAN DINER

4210 Chestnut St., 387-1451.

Open: Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to midnight; Friday, to 3 a.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3 a.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Price range: Sandwiches, $2 to $4; platters, $6 to $8.50.

Credit cards: None accepted.

Nonsmoking section: No.

Facilities for handicapped: No.

Atmosphere: Classic diner with some subtle improvements.

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