If you thought the '50s were nifty, you'll think retro restaurants are rad

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Welcome to the decade of Wurlitzer jukeboxes and Elvis, shiny silver diners and heaping portions of French fries with gravy.

Yeah, we're talking about the 1990s.

When the '90s began (seems like yesterday, doesn't it?), the trend-spotters were out in force with predictions that the new decade would be one big '60s revival, complete with miniskirts, ecological awareness and a renewed commitment to peace, love and equality. And in a way, they were right: nude knees and big yellow recycling bins have both become a commonplace of city life.

But just about the same time the Cold War was petering out, a new wave of Cold War chic has hit our shores. No, we haven't spotted any poodle skirts yet, but other artifacts of that most iconic of decades, the '50s, are out in force. (We'll extend the concept of " '50s" here to include the first half of the '60s, before Vietnam and recreational drugs eclipsed surfing and the Supremes.) Two convincing pieces of evidence: Couples are once again slow-dancing to "Unchained Melody," and a wealth of '50s theme restaurants and retro diners have recently opened in the Baltimore area.

Baltimore is, of course, a diner-loving town, and plenty of the real thing -- the Bel-Loc in Towson, for instance, and the Double T on Route 40 -- are still around. But there also seems to be a popular hunger for the re-created, stylized versions of our restaurant past. The new places reflect a streamlined postmodern vision of the era, the diners making ample use of such traditional elements as sunburst-pattern chrome and squiggle-print leatherette, and the coffee-shop homages going in for references to pop culture idols -- the bathrooms at Classics Pub in Columbia are labeled Elvis's and Marilyn's -- and '57 Chevys. Gas station artifacts, black and white tile, Coke machines and neon are standard elements, as is the ever-present Wurlitzer juke, sometimes retrofitted to play CDs.

The appeal of such places, their owners say, is their unabashed good-time atmosphere, which celebrates the gleeful exuberance of the early rock era as well as an earlier, simpler era in dining. "I think think everybody can relate to the '50s. It was a relaxed, laid-back period," says David Tamberino, owner of the new Tamber's ("Nifty Fifties Dining") in Charles Village.

There are two basic modes of retro restaurant, according to Michael Pachino, owner of Ralphie's Diner in Timonium, which he calls "a '50s diner with '90s flair." The first type gets its effects simply. Period memorabilia and Fats Domino tunes, to be sure, but no gum-chewing waitresses on roller skates. Other neo-diners of this type include Tamber's -- "Its an art deco type diner, but with a lot more glitz to it than the Bel-Loc," according to Mr. Tamberino -- and the Silver Diner in Laurel, which has the shiny railway-car exterior of the best of the classic diners.

Restaurants in the other style are veritable theme parks of '50s culture. At Classics Pub, for instance, they have an oldies disc jockey and live music on weekends; at the dineresque Stash & Stella's in Marley Station Mall, the waitresses boogie down the aisles and dance on the counters, and encourage patrons to join in on the bunny hop and the hokeypokey.

Despite our city's eternal fondness for lunch-counter culture, the phenomenon is certainly not limited to Baltimore. In fact, Mr. Pachino of Ralphie's traces the trend to San Francisco's Fog City Diner, which made waves by combining classic diner style with California nouvelle cuisine.

"It's a nationwide thing," says Joe Sheahin, who in January opened Burbank's Cafe in Columbia with his brother George. "I read in Restaurant News about four months ago that McDonald's is trying out a 'McD's Cafe.' "

Other chains have been quick to catch the wave: Stash & Stella's, which purports to be owned by a blue-collar couple from Buffalo, opened its first Maryland outpost in November; there are now nine Stash & Stella's from Buffalo to Nashville. And that same month, Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, one of Barry Levinson's Hilltop Diner gang, opened his third Boogie's Diner, in Georgetown. The first celebrity-strewn Boogie's was in Aspen, Colo.; the second was in Chicago.

Mr. Sheahin attributes the new popularity of the theme partially to the period's great music, and partially to the casual dining-out style of the '90s. People are eating out more, he says, but want to do so without spending lots of money or having to put on a tie. But, adds Michael Pachino, they are very demanding about quality. Informal eateries used to be known as "greasy spoons," he says, but no restaurateur will survive long in 1991 by dishing out the griddle-fried fodder of old.

For some restaurateurs, joining the trend is a matter of bandwagon-hopping. But this doesn't mean that the owners, some of whom are baby-boomers themselves, aren't in it for the nostalgia, too.

Arne Ellgard is one of the nostalgic ones. For Mr. Ellgard, owner (with his wife Debbie) of the year-old Classics Pub, that era was one of memorable music, individualistic automobiles and good food you didn't have to spend a fortune on. He's tried to pay tribute to all of these -- including food cooked without the use of anachronistic microwaves -- in his restaurant.

Mr. Ellgard, who is 47, is a veteran of such Route 40 teen hangouts as the Varsity and Champ's, where car-hops would deliver the food to front-seat diners. In fact, he modeled his Elvis burger -- two patties, lettuce and tomato, Thousand Island dressing -- on the burgers he remembered from Champ's. Joe Sheahin, 45, hung out in such places as the Hot Shoppes (home of the Mighty Mo) and Topp's Drive-In, and their look, with tiled floors and individual booths, inspired Burbank's decor. David Tamberino admits that, at age 28, he is too young to remember the era firsthand, but he had plenty of experienced help from his mother Kay, who designed Tamber's interiors and runs the dining room.

For all its culinary reminiscing, retro restaurant food hasn't turned its back on modern tastes.

The menus are, indeed, largely devoted to teen favorites (burgers, pizza, ice cream creations and so forth), as well as the rib-sticking, no-frills fare beloved of truck drivers. And David Tamberino tapped yet another '50s market by borrowing such items as cream cheese and olive sandwiches and shrimp salad on cheese toast from a vintage Hutzler's tearoom menu.

But "people want to have the old food, but combine it with new things," according to Stash and Stella's manager Frank Cortina. So that restaurant has added new items to such best-selling Blue Plate Specials as meatloaf, liver and onions and hot roast beef sandwiches. Other retro spots have done the same, offering items rarely seen in Baltimore before 1975, such as nachos, Buffalo wings and Cajun cuisine, and more upscale choices, such as fresh pasta and prime rib. Some serve alcohol, too.

Another way in which the new places differ from their '50s models is clientele. While Pop's Soda Shoppe was the virtual property of forever-16 types such as Archie, Veronica and Jughead, patrons of the new restaurants tend to be older and more prosperous, and may have kids of their own in tow. People who actually lived through the period are most receptive to the charm of the '50s revival, says Mr. Cortina.

"They can say, 'Man, I remember when it looked just like this. I remember when I danced on the counters!' "

However, Arne Ellgard says, for many younger people, the '50s are far enough in the past to seem new and exotic. And the music appeals to all generations, and sounds fresh (in both old and new senses) even to teens.

"There are a lot of young people, like my kids, that's all they hear around the house," Mr. Ellgard says. "They know those tunes better than I do."

Classic shrimp salad

Makes 4 to 5 servings.

This version of Maryland shrimp salad was devised by chef Ken Berry at Classics Pub in Columbia. Mr. Berry recommends 32- to 35-per-pound-count shrimp for this dish.

1/2 cup beer

1/2 cup vinegar

1 pound shrimp

1 tablespoon celery seed

2 tablespoons crab spice

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

garlic powder, to taste

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

2 to 5 tablespoons mayonnaise, to taste

Pour beer and vinegar into the bottom of a large covered pot or steamer with a rack on the bottom. Bring mixture to a boil. Add shrimp. Steam, covered, until shrimp are pink (about 5-6 minutes). Do not overcook or shrimp will become tough.

Remove shrimp from pot, let them cool, then peel and devein. Chop coarsely.

In a bowl, add celery seed, crab spice, dry mustard, Worcestershire, a sprinkling of garlic powder and white pepper to the shrimp. Add mayonnaise and stir all ingredients together. Chill and serve.

Tamber's chicken pot pie

Makes two 9-inch pies.

This luxurious version of the diner favorite, which includes heavy cream, wine and chicken breasts, is served at Tamber's in Charles Village. The recipe was provided by the restaurant's head chef, Lisa Mitchell.

SHORT CRUST:

1/2 pound flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 pound butter

1/2 cup water

FILLING:

1 onion, diced

3 stalks celery, diced

2 whole carrots, diced

1/2 pound butter

1/2 pound flour

1/2 gallon chicken stock, heated

1 cup white wine

1 pint whipping cream

1 1/2 pounds steamed or boiled chicken breast, diced

1 cup peas

1 cup parboiled potatoes, diced

salt and pepper, to taste

egg wash, made of 2 eggs and 1/8 cup milk

Add 1/4 teaspoon salt to the first 1/2 pound of flour and mix. Cut the butter into the flour until it's the consistency of cornmeal. Make a well in the center of the flour and add the water. Mix into a dough. Let the mixture relax in the refrigerator for an hour.

Saute onion, celery and carrots and onions.

Make a roux with the butter and flour. Add hot chicken stock and white wine. Bring the mixture to a boil. Lower heat. Add whipping cream. Add chicken and vegetables and season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the filling into two 9-inch pie pans.

Divide short crust dough into two balls. Roll each one into a

round a little larger than the pie plate. Cover each pie plate with dough. Crimp the edges and prick the crust with a fork. Brush top of crust with egg wash.

OC Bake in a 350-degree oven until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

Diner meatloaf

Serves eight.

"Square Meals," by Jane and Michael Stern, is a compendium of "taste thrills from only yesterday," including suburban back-yard luaus, heartland Sunday suppers, ladylike tearoom treats and, of course, diner chow. This recipe from the book, which was published by Knopf in 1984, should turn out a very diner-worthy meatloaf, provided a few rules are followed. The Sterns advise using ground chuck with 20 percent fat for juiciness, not skimping on the oatmeal filler and cooking until the meatloaf is gray through and through.

1 1/4 pounds ground beef

1/2 pound ground pork

3/4 cup instant oatmeal

2 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup tomato juice

1 onion, minced

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix beef, pork, oatmeal and eggs. Blend in milk, tomato juice, onion, Worcestershire and seasonings. Pack firmly into 9-by-5-inch loaf pan, shaping a rounded top.

Bake 1 1/2 hours. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing. Drain off any excess juice at bottom of pan.

Streamliner tollhouse pie Makes 1 10-inch pie.

The Streamliner Diner, on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle, is not your typical diner. It has carpeting on the floor and such dishes as artichoke heart and brie turnovers and mushroom pate on the menu. (And do real diners serve quiche?) Still, the Streamliner has the long, narrow structure and feeling of camaraderie characteristic of a traditional diner. You can get meatloaf if you want, too. This recipe is from "The Streamliner Diner Cookbook," written by the diner's owners, Alexandra Rust, Elizabeth Matteson, Judith Weinstock and Irene Clark, and recently published by Ten Speed Press.

1 recipe pie crust, unbaked

3/4 cup butter

3 eggs

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 cup brown sugar, packed

1 cup unbleached white flour

2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts

Prepare the pie shell.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Set aside to cool.

In a medium sized bowl, beat the eggs with an electric mixer. Add the sugars and flour, continuing to beat until the mixture is light and creamy. Beat in the cooled butter until thoroughly incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips and walnuts with a mixing spoon. Pour the filling into the pie shell.

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Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Cool before serving.

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