May 05, 1991|By Janice Baker

Tamber's sells "Nifty Fifties Dining." We asked a young waitress there, who was an old acquaintance, why she wasn't wearing saddle shoes. Too uncomfortable, she said. Or scruffy white bucks. Egh, she said. These young people don't seem to know, sturdy shoes were among the '50s' good points. Some of the food of that era was the pits.

Tamber's isn't so much frozen peas as style, though. It's Johnny Ray singing "Cry" on a jukebox flashy with yellow, red and green illuminated piping, and fitted with a fancy arm to lay the platters on the turntable. It's Elvis Presley and Paul Anka, and Norman Rockwell/Saturday Evening Post covers and a large metal Coca-Cola sign hanging on the walls near the booths in the back, and a soda fountain, and tiny floor tiles (looking more 1920 than 1950) and a clock with neon writing around it. So everything's probably from a Southeast Asia nostalgia factory. So what?

Tamber's is kind of fun, actually. We even saw a couple sitting at the counter sharing a milkshake and looking gaga at each other, him with his baseball cap on backward, her, fresh-faced and pony-tailed. Among the retrospective details: You pay on your way out at the cash register by the door (with credit cards a la 1991, if you want).

The menu's sort of '50s, sort of not. What's '50s are burgers, subs and blue-plate specials, including meatloaf and mashed potatoes ($5.95) and chicken potpie ($5.95). A category called " '50s classics" includes shrimp salad on date and nut bread ($5.75). Strike any memories? Then again, some ideas are 1991: The kitchen uses only cholesterol-free Canola Oil for frying; $3.95 buys you mozzarella sticks; $3.25, potato skins; $4.95, spicy Buffalo wings, and $7.95, a 16-inch, fresh-dough cheese pizza. (In 1953, Irma Rombauer, of "Joy of Cooking" fame, was referring to a pizza as a "vegetable shortcake," and advising her readers that, "Oregano, an herb, may be purchased in most groceries.")

We started our dinner with a cup of tomato soup, which was the soup of the day ($1.75), and a plate of those Buffalo chicken wings. Mrs. Rombauer's dried oregano peppered the soup, which was an otherwise appealing combination of chopped tomato, decent broth, some onion and cream. The wings -- eight of them, without the tips -- had a nice fiery edge of cayenne. However, because the skin was mostly fleshy and fatty, not dry and crackly, we found it a messy job to strip them down and eat them. Their side dip (what James Beard was calling a "dunk" in 1959) was principally mayonnaise with a bit of blue cheese stirred in.

For the main part of our meal, we ordered an open-faced, barbecued chicken sandwich ($5.95), a special; chicken scaloppine, which, at $10.95, was one of the most expensive dishes listed; and the fish of the day, a fillet of snapper ($8.95). We chose two chicken dishes with an eye on how many ways Tamber's prepares chicken: in the aforementioned potpie, in a chicken salad submarine ($4.25), deep-fried ($7.95), grilled ($8.95), in a salad platter ($5.95), in chicken Francais ($10.95), and chicken picante ($10.95). Everything on the menu was remarkably inexpensive; chicken is a rational food to feature when management is keeping prices low.

The open-faced sandwich was a fluffy, commercial bun topped with a moist chicken fillet slathered with a sweet barbecue sauce. There were also some conspicuously dull french fries. (Too bad the kitchen skimped on the quality of its fries, when good, homemade ones would have made a big difference.)

Three generous chunks of chicken scaloppine were moist and delicious, scattered with chopped green pepper squares, and set in a simple wine and cream sauce. They came with a choice of spaghetti or salad: We picked a sweet, light and likable honey mustard dressing for a mammoth salad of fresh romaine, thin slices of onion, and red cabbage, heaped with commercial croutons.

A leathery fillet of snapper seemed almost phenomenal. Had it been frozen too long? Cooked forever? We ate very little of it. A fat scoop of unusually firm mashed potato and frozen-style, French-cut, oleomargarined green beans on the side reminded us of upscale dormitory food: routine.

Remembering the wonderful ice creams, pies and puddings of yesteryear, we hoped for glorious desserts. A tasteless rice pudding with artificial whipped cream ($2.25), an only faintly limy Key lime pie with a cardboard crust ($3.50), a hot fudge sundae ($2.95) made with cold fudge and more of the artificial cream, and super-ordinary coffee (75 cents) made us wish we'd tried a rich, thick malt ($2.95) instead.

Because Tamber's doesn't have a liquor license, and doesn't smile on importations of beer or wine, we confined ourselves to drinking seltzer water (75 cents) with dinner. Not that anyone would think me old enough for alcohol, when I wear my flats, crinolines and Angora sweater. *

Next: Fiori

Tamber's, 3327 St. Paul St., 243-0383

Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, until 9

p.m. Sundays

Accepts: * /-

Features: 1950s diner food

No-smoking area: No

Wheelchair access: Yes

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