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

March 24, 1991|By Lynn Williams

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.

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