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DINERS : New-Style Eateries Bring Back Old-Fashioned Looks of the '40s and '50s

August 21, 1987|ROSE-MARIE TURK

They have names like Trixie, Lulu, Bee Bop and Deelux. They chomp on bubble gum, pull pencils from beehive hairdos, look you in the eye from behind rhinestone frames and shout above the din: "Hey, doll, I'm not waiting all day for you to digest that menu. Let's get that noodle working before I bruise those pretty blue suede shoes."

Welcome to the nouveau diner.

As appreciation for sassy waitresses and meat loaf gathers steam around the country, more and more "new-concept diners" dot the horizon--offering food, music and clothing borrowed from the golden oldies.

Take your pick of the gimmicks. Ed Debevic's in Beverly Hills and Torrance features wise-cracking, '50s-dressed waitresses and soda jerks who must audition for their jobs.

At Edie's Diner in Marina del Rey, where walls are smothered with memorabilia, the blue-plate special is served authentically on blue plates and the waitresses dress in white, almost like '50s nurses. The customer count, according to general manager Gary Culotti, is "close to 10,000 a week. That's a lot of people for an 88-seat diner."

At the tile-and-chrome Rose City Diner in Pasadena, former Rose Bowl queens autograph their photographs, customers blow colorful toothpicks through straws into the ceiling and owner Sal Casola says the gigantic beehive wigs worn by waitresses are groomed by a specialist.

There are carhops on roller skates at the All American Burger in Westwood, which caters Monday nights to motorcyclists and Thursday nights to vintage-car buffs.

Business has doubled since the inception of the Thursday event, according to owner Craig Ouzounian, who sells clothing along with the hamburgers and fries, as Chuck Berry blares from a 1956 Seeburg High Fidelity jukebox. Customers can buy $8.50 "Cruise Night" T-shirts, and soon, Ouzounian says, he will offer custom-designed, eagle-decorated leather jackets.

At Johnny Rockets on Melrose Avenue, time is frozen in the '40s, right down to a malt-shop staff dressed in peak caps, black ties and khaki trousers. The successful concept belongs to Ronn Teitelbaum, a Coty-Award-winning menswear retailer who began his new profession by taking "a year and a half off to practice cooking."

Teitelbaum says that six more of his childhood-inspired malt shops will open during the next few months, including one in London.

At the Ruby's Diner locations in Balboa and Mission Viejo, waitresses wear candy-stripe uniforms, aprons and "bandettes" on their heads.

"When people walk in the door, I want them to feel it's 1947," says company President Doug Cavanaugh. "I want them to immerse themselves in the details. Everything is authentic down to the gum-ball machines and the cash register."

Employees, he says, are discouraged from wearing "anything out of character. A lot of the kids get into the mood. They'll buy period jewelry and wear their hair in the proper style. We don't allow any slightly punk look," he adds. "We're All-American as apple pie."

On the last Sunday of every month, customers are encouraged to roll up to Mister G's Greasy Spoon in Covina in old Chevys, poodle skirts, ponytails, T-shirts, blue jeans and white socks. The entertainment includes hoola-hoop contests, doo-wop singing and lots of looking at the vintage cars in the parking lot.

Owner Karin Smith says she and her husband originally thought they would attract teen-agers. But the people who seem most interested in the homemade pies, music on the vintage Seeburg and walls filled with memorabilia "are recycled teen-agers," Smith says, "people who were teen-agers in the '50s. They can't believe the place. They almost have tears in their eyes."

There's a Wurlitzer jukebox and a Hamilton Beach malt machine at Patrick Terrail's Hollywood Diner on Fairfax, a combination French bistro and American diner. The crowd is an eclectic mix of actors, advertising executives and senior citizens.

"People can wear a tux or blue jeans and feel comfortable," says Terrail, the former owner of Ma Maison, who incorporated nostalgic touches of the '40s, such as big-band sounds and Art Deco tiles and chairs.

Rich Melman, president of the trend-setting Ed Debevic's restaurants, says his diners, which are named for a fictitious bowling champ, are set "in 1952. We're real specific."

With the highest-priced meal costing $4.95, Melman says success is dependent upon volume. "In Chicago, we're serving about 24,000 meals in one week. We're starting to get close to that figure here."

Food is the chain's first priority, according to the company president. "But the emotional tie, people reliving the past, is the frosting on the cake."

To make the frosting stick, employees follow a strict dress code. Their pseudonyms, worn on name tags, must be approved. Waitresses use the name tags to anchor colorful handkerchiefs in place "directly over the heart," explains Ingrid Berg (a.k.a. "Toots"), who has appeared in television's "Days of Our Lives."

Shoes have to be generic, so nothing as obviously '80s as a Reebok or Nike label will cloud the '50s horizon.

Michael (Bruno) Bunch, who jokes he is "an actor struggling to be a waiter," tried out for his Debevic's job in greased hair, rolled-up jeans, a plaid shirt and a sweater wrapped around his waist.

His accessories, he recalls, included "a yo-yo and sunglasses, and I was chewing a big wad of bubble gum. Bubble gum is a big part of the job."

Now that he has the job, Bunch goes to surplus stores and thrift shops to buy clothes so outlandish that "I wouldn't be caught dead wearing them anywhere else."

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