The Diner Revival is upon us. Fine with me, only I was kind of hoping it would mean a Fountain Revival, too, but the soda fountain is the weakest link at the American Diner and Ruby B's.
True, both places go a little beyond the paltry modern selection of milk shake, float and three sundaes, but they barely give a hint of the extravagant splendor of the old-time fountain. Not only that, their egg creams aren't fizzy enough, their malts aren't malty enough, and--curiously, in light of their insistent '40s motif--their shakes are semi-frozen in the '50s manner instead of being the old-fashioned foamy style.
Despite their virtues, they have a peculiar lack of historical sense. Both places seem to think "blue plate special" means "specialty of the house" or something, rather than a cheap plate of leftovers. They have jukeboxes, all right, but they're full of '50s and '60s tunes (American Diner has the hipper selection).
What they do have a good handle on is sandwiches, particularly burgers, and plain American fried potatoes. For that we can be grateful.
The American Diner is a somewhat uncomfortable room--you get an odd feeling you're being pushed out into the street--but the hamburger and the hot dog are winners. The dog is a real old-fashioned beef sausage on a toasted bun, and the thick burger (bigger than they actually were in the '40s, so far as I can remember) comes in a bun filmed with grease in true 1947-burger fashion from being warmed on the griddle. The potato side dishes include home-made matchstick fries and brusquely done home-fries that qualify as a guilty pleasure, the sort where some of the potato chunks are cooked a shade beyond brown.
I've also had a thin-sliced roast beef sandwich that was classic, but it was actually overshadowed by the unpretentious onion soup that came with it. This soup was loaded with onions that were (for once) thoroughly done, and there was no gross raft of cheese-laden bread floating in it.
But you can't always count on the soup. A day or so later it was the world's blandest beef barley. Not to worry. There's always Annie's Famous Chili con Carne, made in the strong-flavored way that usually shows up in the top ranks of a chili contest: medium hot, dark red, full of cumin, beans and chunks of beef.
The American Diner, 1401 Ocean Ave. Suite B, Santa Monica. (213) 451-9500. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. No alcoholic beverages. Street parking and validated subterranean parking. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lunch for one, $3.30 to $6.70.
Ruby B's is a pleasanter and more diner-like room with its walls obsessively covered by Coca-Cola nostalgia. It concentrates a lot on breakfast, and its specialty is said to be chicken hash with poached eggs and salsa, which unfortunately has not been available when I asked about it.
I can report that the burger, though it's not a huge one, has a good fresh-ground flavor. The chili is perfectly fine in the authentic diner style, made with ground beef, beans and probably catsup.
The potato dishes always have a good potato flavor, but French fries are rather odd. Some fries are limp, others ominously dark and soaked with oil, but most are cooked so hard they shatter if you try to drive a fork into them. The hash browns are big tasty chunks colored with paprika.
In the few weeks Ruby B's has been open there has been a bit of a shaking up in the non-sandwich department--it would seem that linguine and fettuccine don't make it in a coffee shop. A word of warning: A number of restaurants have started making excellent meatloaf, but Ruby B's version is rather insipid. Order just about anything else.
Ruby B's, 10645 Pico Blvd., Westwood. (213) 475-6084. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. No alcoholic beverages. Street parking. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lunch for one $4.45 to $13.40.