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Bubble Gum With Bill a Fitting Image : Corvette Diner Serves Up the Food of the '50s

April 23, 1987|DAVID NELSON

The obvious way to introduce a new Hillcrest restaurant named Corvette would be to mention the vintage car that occupies a place of honor in the eatery's cavernous main dining room.

This hunk of chrome with a fancy paint job would seem the image that best reveals the soul of this carefully engineered temple to neo-1950s gastronomy, but there is a better one: Bazooka bubble gum.

Classy joints sometimes offer chocolate truffles with the bill, but Corvette brings Bazooka, one piece for each guest. The pink, sticky stuff is wrapped in a small comic strip, the same as when barbers handed it out to well-behaved youngsters in the 1950s, and the message would seem implicit: This is kids' stuff, and so is Corvette.

Corvette bills itself as--brace yourself--a diner, which means that it is yet another entrant in this newest national dining craze. (Will diners last? Tune in next year.) A certain mix of elements is required to make the modern diner authentic. These are mostly icons of another age, such as the presence of meat loaf on the menu, saddle shoes on the waitresses, and gravy stains on departing guests' shirts. The genius who decided to package and peddle a style that flowered and withered during the Eisenhower era to an audience largely born after Johnson's election deserves his fortune, if not necessarily applause.

The restaurant describes its offerings as "simple food for complex times," an attractive motto. There is no denying that the menu is simple; in its most elaborate mood, it offers an Omaha shell steak, but mostly it hawks such long-forgotten lunch counter fare as chicken-fried steak, franks and beans, hot turkey and beef sandwiches, and the inevitable bevy of burgers. Of course, the suddenly inevitable meat loaf stars on this list, both hot with mashed potatoes and gravy, and as a cold sandwich with french fries.

So how was the meat loaf? Sorry, can't answer that. Just because someone decided to beatify an everyday dish, and one rarely made well outside the home kitchen, into a symbol of the days when Japan imported goods from us, doesn't mean that one is honor-bound to try it. "Mom, the flag and apple pie" seems an adequate motto for this country.

The dishes that were sampled led to the conclusion that Corvette serves perfectly adequate food, and given the fact that most dishes cost less than $6, that seems to be a perfectly adequate achievement. In any case, Corvette's prices, style and menu certainly have made a hit with the public; even though the two rooms seat nearly 300, waits are common.

The chicken-fried steak is not bad, provided one doesn't have access to a cook who makes this dish at home. Fried until crisply brown, the crumb-coated slab of tenderized beef has a certain appeal, enhanced or marred by one's opinion of the starchy yellow gravy that sauces both it and the accompanying mound of mashed potatoes. (The second-ranked icon of the diner movement, the mashed potatoes, are fresh and properly textured, and admirable for their stomach-filling abilities.) The kitchen sprinkles this dish and others with a superabundance of paprika, yet another dinerish mannerism that serves the twin aims of gastronomy and nostalgia; the paprika both sparks flavors and brightens pallid plates, which is why cafeteria and lunch counter cooks always have been so enamored of it.

Since this restaurant is under the same management as Rory's, the likable, '50s-style burger palace on Mission Gorge Road, hamburgers take up a full tenth of the five-page menu. As at Rory's, they are named for idols of the Elvis era, such as Annette, Dion, Eddie, Dee Dee and Kookie. The Brenda, a towering combination of meat, bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato and relish sandwiched inside a sesame seed bun, is successful if not brilliant. Because the hamburgers are outsized and messy, it is as well to leave pretensions and formal clothes at home. Most guests seem to do this.

In the case of a sandwich called Pauline's Fav (as in "favorite"), it seems apparent that Pauline is an easily pleased young woman. The time-honored style of the sandwich is appealing; it consists of ham, turkey breast, swiss cheese and cole slaw, layered between slices of pumpernickel, the whole finally toasted on the grill. But the ham seemed of the rolled, prefabricated type, which spoiled the experience.

A pair of rolls stuffed with hickory-smoked beef brisket in barbecue sauce came off better, although the sauce could have used more oomph . Among other sandwiches are a reliable tuna salad; a Denver of fried egg garnished with sliced green pepper and onion; a jumbo red hot (dog) flown in from a sausage-maker in Nebraska; a grilled vegetable sandwich, and a grilled chicken breast on a bun. In addition to mashed or french fried potatoes, all sandwich plates (as do most others) include a pile of perfectly adequate green salad, to be moistened with any of four thick dressings from the lazy Susan that the waitress plops on the table with diner-ish aplomb.

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