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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Swing Shift

August 05, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

Late at Swingers on a Wednesday afternoon, the front booths emptied of the lunchtime Cherokee drivers and the back room not yet occupied by the guys who show up for $2 happy-hour pitchers of Rolling Rock, the stereo pounds out Big Daddy Kane, the curbside teems with old Valiants, and half the males in the restaurant--goatees, tribal tattoos, groovy pirate earrings--kind of look like they play bass or something for Tool or Alice in Chains.

In the booth behind you, eating scrambled-egg burritos, is the band headlining the Roxy tonight; behind them, by the Day-Glo cows, a couple of aspiring screenwriters are working on a draft. Over there in the corner, the skank in the ripped T-shirt: that's a zillionaire record tycoon, looking doleful as he eats a low-fat muffin. If you can conceive of all the types of dudes who might possibly be conducting business breakfast at 3:30 in the afternoon, you will have pegged the clientele to a tee. As of early August, there is no cooler place in town to scarf a veggie sub, a bowl of gazpacho, a banana-orange smoothie that has been transformed, with amino acids, into something called a thermite bomb . . . on the menu, pregnant and lactating women are warned off the thermite bomb.

The coffee shop at the Beverly Laurel Motor Hotel used to be a well-traveled dive, the kind of place whose Yellow Pages blurb advertised its proximity to a bus stop--a living, Special K-serving chunk of the Kennedy era a couple blocks from the heart of the Fairfax district. Even before it became Swinger's, that coffee shop was a fairly cool hang: The cheeseburger was as good as it needed to be, and the mid-afternoon clientele then seemed, if I remember correctly, to be made up almost entirely of Soviet-emigree cab drivers having a tea or two between shifts. I always hoped that the motel would add a few Ukrainian dishes to the menu--there are a lot of great regional delicatessens in the area, but really no sit-down counter restaurants to speak of--but the concessions to its customers seemed to be limited to a few bottles of imported Soviet mineral water.

Now that the space has been chopped, channeled and sanded down from an aging motel coffee shop to a new-wave aging motel coffee shop, the bubbly Russian water is gone, but it is still possible to look out the window and see a peroxide bouffant piled halfway to the sky, a gleaming '65 Cadillac with less than 35,000 original miles on it, a woman walking three poufed and powdered poodles of ascending size. This particular ironic take has been done a trillion times in South Beach Miami, but is still pretty much a novelty here.

What is on the correct motel-coffee shop menu in 1993? Well, hamburgers and cheeseburgers, of course, and club sandwiches, a Cobb salad, and breakfast all day, except the bread is a little better than you might expect, and you can get "veggie burgers" and "veggie clubs" too, if you are so inclined, done up to coffee-shop standards--better than Denny's, less inspired than City. The fries are the skin-on kind, cooked in cholesterol-free canola oil, and the desserts are mostly fat-free. Even the chili, more wan perhaps than one would prefer, is meatless.

There are big bowls of perfectly adequate penne and farfalla noodles, dosed with megablasts of garlic; the omelets tend to be stuffed with things like sauteed smoked salmon or chili; the gravlax--good gravlax--is cured in-house. The grilled chicken sandwich includes a chewy French roll and garlicky basil mayonnaise. Say what you will about the MTV generation: Sometimes they eat pretty well.

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