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Diners: Blasting Back To The '50s

August 17, 1986|RUTH REICHL

As you leave Cafe 50's, a sign just above your head says "Back to the future." As you leave Ed Debevic's, a sign says, "Back to grim reality." They mean it. Mr. G's Greasy Spoon and Johnny Rocket's and Bennie the Bum's may not have such signs, but the sentiments are the same. These new restaurants have all blasted out of the present into a time warp, and each has chosen to touch down in the same period--the Fabulous '50s.

And people are eating it up. Literally. These places are all packed from morning to night with folks of all ages snapping their fingers to the new nostalgia, yearning for the good old days when you stuck a dime in the jukebox and out came songs like "Peggy Sue" and "Chantilly Lace." They are gobbling up meat loaf and milk shakes, crooning over cherry Cokes and eating cheeseburgers as if they hadn't seen them in the last 30 years. It's the day of the diner, and people are crowding into these corny re-creations as if they had just discovered America.

"There's a whole new generation out there who never knew what the '50s were really like," says Richard Melman, who may be responsible for dinermania. Melman's company, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, opened the first Ed Debevic's in Chicago in 1984. The place was crazy (as in "Crazy, man"), filled with wisecracking waitresses and signs saying things like "If you think you have reservations, you're in the wrong place," and "The more you tip, the nicer we are." The menu was filled with meat loaf and chicken pot pie and pork chops, and for dessert there were sundaes and pies with little flags on the top. The place was an immediate hit--with the kind of people who wouldn't be caught dead in an ordinary diner.

"I never thought we'd do legal business over lunch in a diner," says one attorney who says he spends $250 a week in the place.

Ed Debevic is a figment of Melman's imagination, but he gets around; in June he opened a diner in Torrance. It, too, was immediately successful. But it was just the beginning: Ed plans to open yet another diner on La Cienega in January. Melman says it will be even more manic than the others.

But we'll probably have dozens of new diners by then. If you seem to see them popping up everywhere you look, it's not your imagination. The national diner population, which peaked at 5,000 in the '50s and then dwindled to half that over the years, is once again on the rise. Last year it went up 8%. What's going on?

"I think it is part of the growing feeling that this is a good time to be in America," says Patrick Terrail, who will open his own Hollywood Diner on Fairfax Avenue one of these days. "Somehow the Reagan era is reminiscent of the Eisenhower era, and in the '50s we felt secure about America." Secure about America? Is he kidding?

The '50s, you might remember, came in with the McCarthy hearings. School kids had duck-and-cover drills where they practiced hiding under their desks so they'd be prepared when the bomb dropped. Families built bomb shelters in their backyards and stockpiled food. Black people were still riding in the back of the bus, and although Martin Luther King had a dream, not very many white people had heard about it.

It wasn't our shining culinary moment either. One of the big gastronomic breakthroughs of the '50s was the invention of the crinkle-cut French fry. It was during the '50s that we began our national infatuation with frozen orange juice; through the miracle of modern advertising it soon became so popular that you couldn't even get the fresh kind in Florida (it was considered "too sour").

Food was supposed to be "fun" and it was sweetened, colored, filled with ersatz ingredients. Jell-O was very big. Women who had proven themselves competent workers during World War II went back to being housewives, and they amused themselves by making decorative dishes like "candlelight salad"--this consisted of an upright banana with mayonnaise flowing down the side to simulate wax, a coconut wick and a little bit of pimento to look like a flame.

Cookbooks in the '50s were filled with quaint ideas like spelling out "DAD" in cut-up cranberry jelly for Father's Day and then surrounding it with colored cream cheese. (Cream cheese was another big '50s food.) So were TV dinners, which were consumed while watching shows with names like "Father Knows Best."

As far as I'm concerned, the best thing about the '50s is that they were followed by the '60s. And the best thing about all these new diners is not that they have brought the hamburger back (did it wander off while I wasn't looking?), but that they may prompt people to find the great old diners that are still hanging around. After all, there are still 2,500 real diners in America. And while they may not be a blast to a mythical past, a lot of them are serving pretty good food.


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