The coffee in the fat-lipped ceramic mug is hot, strong, regular coffee. Anything else would be an anachronism at the River City Diner, a culinary time capsule. Here, the potatoes have lumps and the mayo is the real thing. No hazelnut or Irish cream decaf in sight. In spite of trying very hard, however, this spanking new suburban restaurant is about as real as the Blair Witch Project.
Dives, road houses, truck stops and diners are slices of Americana that keep us in touch with life when the superhighway was Route 66, not Interstate 95 or the information superhighway. They are altars where we worship comfort foods like Philly cheesesteaks, pot roast, corned beef hash, creamed chipped beef and open-faced sandwiches swimming in gravy.
Some days, downing a plate full of biscuits smothered in milk gravy at 3 a.m. will turn you into a human being again. When I'm having one of those days, I'll wish the old Wright's on North Side was still there or I'll go to Phil's or the Third Street Diner. I'll venture down to the original River City Diner at 1712 E. Main St. in a building where the floorboards creak and where you can see at breakfast who got lucky the night before.
The new suburban River City Diner is a diner in name only. It's a knock-off, an invention, a cute place for the kids, who'll surely want to pick up a pack of rock candy or fuzzy dice in the nifty little gift shop. It's all straight off the page in a Theme Restaurant Manual cross referenced with retro chic, 1950s, blue plate, jukeboxes, Ovaltine.
The best things that can be said are that it is as clean as a whistle and that the wait staff on our several visits has been chipper and friendly. Not a hash slinger among them.
Desserts are the compelling reason to visit. The selection of ice creams, pies, malts and cobblers requires a separate menu. The milkshakes are frothy and milky and our strawberry version was studded with berries. The ample serving of classic cheesecake was substantial enough to go solo without embellishment of a topping. An apple pie fragrant with cinnamon and tart and sweet enough in a thick, deep-dish crust was a hit … la mode with vanilla ice cream, so rich it was yellow in color.
We approved of the vegetable plate possibilities. For a $1.50 each or $5.50 for four, you can build a plate of slaw, green beans, carrots, corn, baked beans, fried apples and others.
Mulling choices off the breakfast menu, and among sandwiches and suppers ranging from chopped steak, fried catfish, pork chops, grilled beef liver, pot roast and other meat-lovers' meals, we dove in. All items are in the $6 to $7 range.
The burger was bare-bones simple, adequate when dressed with fixings. The tuna melt was tuna, American cheese, pale tomatoes and shredded lettuce on a basic sub roll. The meatloaf was a slab of what appeared to be food processed (as opposed to hand-handled) ground meat. The consistency was more like overcooked paté than moist, springy, oniony and eggy meatloaf.
Beyond the creamy, lumpy, buttery mashed potatoes, the only star was the macaroni and meat cheese bake. This huge portion of the classic cheese dish was amplified with sausage, ham and chicken slivers. The child's plate version comes without the meat, and if I ever return, I'll order the cheese-only version, just because I'm a purist. I'm also, admittedly, a theme restaurant snob. The food is marketed more than it is created in joints like these, and the atmosphere which in a diner counts more than the food anyway is manufactured and
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