Diner feeds need for '50s nostalgia

June 28, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

The jukebox plays oldies but goodies, as waitresses in bright turquoise uniforms race across a black-and-white tile floor to customers seated in red leather booths.

K. C.'s Cafe in Eldersburg invites its customers back to the 1950s -- "a time that was just fun," said owner Kevin F. Candrilli.

The facade, with its neon 1957 Chevy, beckons motorists along Route 26 into a diner, a replica of many once prevalent along major highways.

The nostalgic and colorful decor is designed to take customers back to an era that had a slower pace, said Mr. Candrilli, a 39-year-old child of the '50s.

"Everybody gets a little tired of the '80s and '90s," said Mr. Candrilli. "Here, people can get away and reminisce."

They can also dine on blue-plate specials such as meat loaf and sandwiches named after once-popular television characters. "The Fonz" is a ham and cheese on your choice of bread.

Doors open at 5 a.m. with breakfasts cooked to order. Lunch includes soups, salads, burgers and sandwiches. Dinner entrees, all under $20, range from seafood, chicken and steaks to rack of lamb Mongolian.

When a few construction workers stop in for "lunch" at 9:30 a.m., "no problem," said the owner. Mr. Candrilli has the cook switch from omelets to hamburgers.

While an arm injury limits the work he can do in the diner's kitchen, the owner still supervises what is cooking -- and the dishes are all his recipes.

"That's the beauty of an open kitchen," he said. "Everyone can see what is going on."

In an era of fast foods, kept warm under heat lamps, Mr. Candrilli insists on everything fresh.

"I grew up with a grandmother who had her own vegetable and herb garden and loved to cook," he said.

He caught her affinity for cooking and attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He served an apprenticeship with Paul Prudhomme in Louisiana and later worked as chef at the Museum of Natural History and as executive chef for Hilton Hotels.

Earlier this year, he decided the time had come to start cooking in a restaurant of his own.

He didn't want to be too far from his Eldersburg home. When a 3,000-square-foot building became available at what he considered an ideal location, he said he knew he was in business.

In his search for a theme, he wanted to avoid a formal "white-tablecloth" atmosphere as well as the "coldness of fast-food joints."

"I wanted a place where people could relax and get away from the stuffiness," he said.

The diner motif fit.

Two months ago, he opened the cafe. Now, 18 employees serve meals to as many as 110 diners.

Can't dally? Dine at the counter. Just dessert? Stop at the ice cream window out front.

A experienced businessman, Mr. Candrilli is playing into the nostalgia craze.

In the foyer, posters of a rebellious James Dean and laughing Marilyn Monroe, with the wind tossing her skirt, greet customers. On the restaurant walls, diners find other souvenirs reminiscent of the '50s, including a mural of a turquoise Chevy painted by Barbie Jaeger, dining room supervisor.

Mr. Candrilli went to great lengths to make his cafe a true replica.

"I did research at the library about old diners and stole ideas and looks," Mr. Candrilli said. "I found the pictures at auctions and yard sales."

Today's teen-agers are especially fascinated with a jukebox stacked with 45s -- all tunes popular 40 years ago, he said.

"Some kids have never seen records," he said.

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