This nice little Charles Village eatery seems to change its image as often as Madonna.
The last time I stepped inside its doors, it was a peach-colored bower with lattice-enclosed booths, twinkling white lights and swoony Sinatra ballads. But get a load of it now: those red booths, that black and white tile, the soda fountain, the bubbling Wurlitzer. And check out the menu, with its blue-plate specials and banana splits. Like so many other new restaurants around town, Tamber's ("Nifty Fifties Dining") has sold its soul to rock and roll.
The building's new owners, the Tamberino family, seem to have done things right, though, with a minimum of kitsch and plenty of enthusiasm.
As someone who thanks the restaurant gods daily for the gourmet and ethnic revolutions of the past three decades, I can't get too thrilled about the revival of lunch-counter cuisine. The '50s were frankly a bland era, food-wise; Marilyn Monroe's pictures may deck Tamber's walls, but its culinary heart belongs to Donna Reed. This is apparently a minority opinion, however, as people are lining up for tables, even on a sleepy Tuesday night. And the retro chow is, in its square sort of way, pretty good.
A few contemporary choices have been snuck in, though, including orange roughy, chicken piccata, and our appetizer choice, spicy Buffalo chicken wings ($4.95), which were oily but undeniably tasty and just hot enough. A more orthodox choice, vegetable soup ($1.75 a cup), also had a non-'50s zip, with a flavor very close to a good Maryland crab soup.
Codfish cakes have a poor-folks-food connotation that made their top-of-the-line price of $8.95 a bit of a surprise. I suspect their strong fishy, oniony flavor is an acquired taste, but my companion was pleased with their unexpected assertiveness.
Chicken pot pie ($5.95) is about as Donna Reed as food gets, but this version had more than a touch of upscale class: rich cream sauce, large chunks of chicken breast, al dente vegetables and flaky golden crust. There was too much potato in the mix for my taste, but this dish well surpassed Swanson's.
Yes, diner-food fans, you can get a hearty bread pudding here (although someone should have mentioned that it was made with blueberries instead of the promised lemon sauce), and the coconut cake ($2.50) had a pleasing airy texture.
An appreciated period touch was the Fiesta Ware on which our dinners were served. And an appreciated modern one was the kitchen's concern for our health: frying is done with canola oil, and fountain treats can be made with low-fat yogurt instead of ice cream.
Where: 3327 St. Paul St.
Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m Mondays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
Credit Cards: MC, V
Features: American food, Italian dishes, sandwiches
Non-smoking section? No