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April 09, 2006

Fab Faux Forties Food

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Attention CONSPIRACY THEORISTS: Have you ever seen Michael Blowhard and Donald Pittenger in the same room at the same time? In the same town, even?

I thought not.

Take the month of March, for example. Early in the month Michael and The Wife were in California, perhaps in Santa Barbara, where he has been known to visit. At the end of the month Pittenger and The Fiancée were in Santa Barbara! What do you make of that?!? AND ... has anyone ever seen The Wife and The Fiancée together in the same room or town? QED.

Where was I?

About to talk about retro restaurants, of course. Why else would I have gone to the trouble of concocting that odd title to this post.

I am one of the world's fussiest eaters. I forget my ranking, but a couple months ago I might have been number seven or eight. But this doesn't prevent us from dining out a fair amount. Lord knows we travel a lot, so that virtually mandates restaurant dining.

Probably the nicest Santa Barbara place where we ate was the El Encanto Hotel, on the hill not far from the mission. We met friends from Malibu for lunch and sat next to the window where we had a fine view of the city, the channel, the islands and the Pacific.

The evening before, we weren't so choosey. It's a long grind from The Fiancée's Northern California place, so once we stashed our stuff in our beach-area motel room we parked the car in an underground garage by Macy's and checked out State Street, the main shopping drag.

After a few blocks' worth of menu-inspecting we decided to head back to the Nuevo Paseo, Santa Barbara's downtown mall -- one of those uncovered, streetscape shopping centers with a couple large stores (Macy's and Nordstrom) to anchor things.

Last year we had had dinner there in a retro-1940s restaurant called Ruby's Diner and survived, so we went back. Ruby's is tucked away at the edge of the Nuevo Paseo in a food ghetto next to an Oriental food place and across from a pizza restaurant. All three places were pretty busy, indicating that Santa Barbara isn't totally a hook-the-little-finger-when-drinking town.

Ruby's (check their Web page here) was founded in the Los Angeles area in the early 80s and has expanded to other parts of California and to a few other states. It features a white interior with red cushions on counter stools and booth seating. The walls are adorned with Coca-Cola posters from the 30s into the 50s, as best I can judge. They claim to be a 1940s place, but have fudged things a bit including the menu which has ethnic and vegetarian items not found in most cafes of 60 years ago.

The menu was so large and diverse that it troubled me a little. Being a fussy eater, I like menus to be large enough to include at least one item I'm likely to eat. But a menu with lots and lots of items with different kinds of ingredients makes me wonder how fresh the ingredients are and whether the cook can master such a large variety of dishes.

As it turned out, all was fine. The Fiancée is a big-time seafood eater and easily found items she enjoyed. I'm a classic burger 'n' fries guy and happily had just that.

Ruby's, and the next place I'll mention next tend to be on the a la carte side -- you pay extra for fries if you order a burger, for example. Don't be surprised if a quickie meal sets you back a ten-spot or more.

A similar retro cafe chain is Johnny Rocket's. It too was established in the LA area, but about five years after Ruby's. Johnny's has expanded more aggressively than Ruby's, being found over much of the country and even overseas, including the Middle East of all places. The decor is similar. I ate in one only once, and that was two years ago. The menu is more limited to classical hamburger-joint/malt-shop fare and I found my burger tasty indeed.

I'm a little hazy on this, but I think, as the name implies, it's supposed to be more of a Fifties place than a Forties one. Nevertheless, I seem to recall that the wall posters it uses came from earlier times as well, so the reconstruction isn't perfect.

Here's the deal, in picture form:

Retro burger place gallery

The Santa Barbara Ruby's Diner.

The Ruby's Diner interior.

Rockets exterior.jpg
A Johnny Rocket's restaurant.

rockets interior.jpg
Interior of a Johnny Rocket's

For your viewing pleasure, here is some vintage Coca-Cola advertising such as you might see in a Ruby's Diner or a Johnny Rocket's.


Coke poster - lady in red.jpg

Coke poster - swimsuit.jpg

Maybe it's 'cause I'm a burger guy, but I kinda enjoy going to Ruby's or Johnny's once in a while. I'm old enough to remember actual 1940s and 1950s burger joints and can't recall anything entirely matching the new places' retro decor. (But we just had hamburger joints in Seattle when I was young and there were almost no classical diners: they were an East Coast thing.) I'm sure Ruby's and Johnny's were well-researched, having all the period elements but in a distilled form. And that's okay with me.

I have no strong objections to ferns, naked-brick walls and wood-beam ceilings (though I do draw the line at waiters who tell me their astrological sign and first-name me), but some antiseptic white, chromium stripping and bright red once in a while is fun relief.



posted by Donald at April 9, 2006


Classic diners as seen all over the Northeast tend to have huge menus too, but for the most part they handle most of the items fairly well. Not an easy feat, I would say.

Posted by: Peter on April 9, 2006 9:50 PM

I'm sure I ate in a Johnny Rocket in Santa Barbara, 1991 or so. It was right by the bus stop and open all night, too.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 9, 2006 11:22 PM

I'm sorry, Donald, but these retro joints are like a knife in the stomach to me. I hate them. They are chain restaurants and deserve the same scorn that you would give to a Denny's. As a resident of Los Angeles, you can't get away from these fake 50's-60's diners with their fake nostalgia. The sad thing is that there are beautiful, authentic diners still existing in town, but they are getting closed by the minute. Ben Frank's was on Sunset Boulevard for decades -- a perfect example of 50's era Googie type diner architecture. Until it was bought out -- by who? -- the fake 50's diner chain called "Mel's Diner," named after the restaurant in the movie "American Graffiti." So, now it is a fake 50's diner built on the location of a real 50's diner, based on a nostalgic movie made in the 1970's about the imaginary youth of the guy who eventually created Star Wars. And their burgers ain't too good.

Posted by: Neil on April 10, 2006 1:44 AM

Donald, you're one of the world's fussiest eaters and your idea of good meal is burger 'n fries?

Oh the fantasies about ourselves we like to engage into..

Posted by: Tatyana on April 10, 2006 9:20 AM

There are still some great old fashioned Diners in the LA area. I can recommend the burgers at Russell's on Fair Oaks in Pasadena.

If you are looking for a real hamburger that won't cost you a tenner, In n Out is the way to go.

Posted by: Rick Coencas on April 10, 2006 10:42 AM

Wow. Those diners are so clean!

Real diners here in the east are kinda grungy.

There's nothing like sitting in a not so well lit, not so clean (but warm) diner on a cold, bright New England morning.

Posted by: ricpic on April 10, 2006 11:31 AM

And then there's the whole fraught question about "classicism" vs. "theme park-ism." I like a lot of old-style designs and for the life of me can't understand why they aren't still built, with modern conveniences and reliability being added as time goes by. Wouldn't it be great to be able to drive a Cord, for instance, only with air conditioning, up-to-date engine, CD player, etc? So I tend to cheer retro when retro comes along, pretty much on principle. That little Plymouth retro car is a silly car (I rented one for a weekend, and it reminded me of driving an original VW Bug). But I love its looks, and I love the way it contrasts with all the SUVs and bubble-teardrop-Taurus clones that the roads are generally full of.

On the other hand, there's the whole theme-parking thing. I'm not sure I have it sorted out in my mind. Generally it's used as a term of abuse, and I can often see the point of that. Other times, though, I wonder. What's wrong with synthetic? What's wrong with nostalgia? (I mean per se -- after all, anything can be taken to a ludicrous and absurd extreme. But what's ludicrous and absurd? When do we cross the line into those two categories?) And, after all, many Americans like literal theme parks. Not for me, though I loved traditional amusement parks. But modern-style "theme parks" make me feel like I'm on corporate LSD. It's a nightmare, if of the most inane and bland sort.

So I dunno, I dunno ... When does something become "a classic" (and thereby a worthwhile general pattern, useful and pleasant and utilitarian) and when does it hit "absurd corporate theme park peddling a particularly idiot brand of nostalgia"? I guess I mind neither (though I'm more appreciative of the first), though I sure feel it'd be nice if the latter didn't tend to steamroller the former.

Nice to hear the food was good. It sounds like the SB vacation went well, which is also nice to hear. SB is nothing if not restful and pretty, with one of the nicer small-city downtowns for ambling around. A semi-artificial and borderline theme-parky city in some ways, come to think of it. Yet it's very easy to bliss-out there. Hmm, life is complicated ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 10, 2006 11:35 AM

I've been trying to convince my fellow Woodstockers for years that we should have a theme park. Just think of all the work it would provide for hippie musicians! Woodstockers, of course, are against everything... so that didn't fly. We can't even get an Indian casino built.

Michael, how about a pop sex theme park... a place where the anal sex workshop runs every day at 3 p.m., where the girls can pretend to be Sharon Stone facing (if that's the right word) the police, where... well, you get the point. What would be the best location for the first pop sex theme park?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 10, 2006 1:26 PM

Peter -- A chain that has large menus is The Cheescake Factory; I haven't tried it out yet because the menu's so long it's scary.

Neil -- The half-life of independent restaurants would make an interesting topic. I don't have the data, but the mortality rate must be quite high. Even large chains can die. Howard Johnson was huge in the Northeast 50 years ago and is either gone or all-but today.

The only way for a restaurant to survive is to keep attracting customers. (Okay, some close when the owner decides to retire, but you get the drift.) Yes, a failed beloved restaurant can be sad for former patrons, but part of that failure was that most patrons weren't loyal enough.

As a parting shot, there used to be a restaurant in Portland, OR near the Columbia River bridge called Waddles. It lasted for 50 years or longer and had loyal patronage. But the menu and patrons were both from the mid-1950s. New patrons weren't attracted while the orginal group slowly died off. It was closed for a year or two and now the building hosts ... a Hooters!. Sic transit.

Tat -- You mean not everyone is a burger 'n' fried fan?

Rick -- In 'n' Outs are good, but are so seriously crowded at times that I'll go elsewhere.

ricpic -- Maybe that's why I seldom/never ate in 'em.

Michael -- I've been meaning to write a post on retro car styling and why it happens. Yes, in this case there is a reason why.

Thomas -- Er, I'll leave this project to you, Michael and your venture capital buds.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 10, 2006 6:09 PM

From the photo, and judging only its external appearance, Johnny Rocket's looks like a a "classic" White Castle with a Mel's Diner "overlay" -- which is kind of a nice look, actually.

Judging from the White Castle outlets that I'm familiar in NYC, it seems to me that the chain either overdoes, or sometimes underdoes, the "hygienic" white tile look. Their outlets strike me as being too cold and sterile (when clean) or like unclean gas station restrooms (when not clean). The two outlets that stick out in my mind are two "new" ones (at least they were new when I was last there in the mid-1970s!!!) that had, if I remember correctly, stainless steel sit-down tables that were bolted to the floor. (It was kind of like what I imagine the autopsy room in a morgue to be like.)

Both were in nice mid-1970s neighborhoods, by the way. One of them was opposite Fordham University in the Bronx (situated on the boulevard that separates Fordham University, which has a very handsome campus, and "Belmont," a terrific low-scaled working class urban neighborhood -- the Bronx's "Little Italy") and the other one was in the pleasant, busy neighborhood shopping district of Bay Ridge (another nice working class neighbhorhood) and it was used for a scene in the movie "Saturday Night Fever."

- - - - - - -

Regarding "theme park" design.

Basically I see myself as a defender of "theme park" design, which I see as being accessible and truly meaningful design that is populist/anti-elitist. Certainly theme park design is better than "no design" (like unadorned brick warehouses) and in my opinion it's often even better than pretentious avant-gardist "high" design.

However, I also do have certain reservations and misgivings, which especially apply to the use of theme-park design by chain stores.

One of the problems with theme park designs, either chain or independent, is that the forms that are being used (e.g., external window shutters, mansard roofs, etc.) are often divorced from the functions that originally inspired them (e.g., the window shutters are not working shutters, but just a theme design element that has been tacked on to the outside of a building). So, part of what actually made these forms originally delightful, clever and beautiful has been taken away. (In other words, part of the "beauty" of working window shutters, their metal "tiebacks," etc., is the fact that they've been designed to actually "work.")

Furthermore, once the form (e.g., the form of the external window shutter) no longer has to perform a function, the original proportions of the design element (which once contributed to their functionality) often seems to wind up being distorted -- and no longer truly beautiful.

- - - - - -

Some examples in addition to window shutters that come to mind:

1) The genuine Art Deco theater that used to be on Eighth St./University Place that was remodeled by NYU into an "ersatz" Art Deco "in-house" auditorium/cinema.

The new "Deco" inspired design is still probably better than if NYU had re-built it 100% along avant-gardist modern principles (instead of just having some trendy touches here and there), but it is still not as "good" (in my opinion) as the Art Deco design of the original building.

2) There also used to be a spectacular Art Moderne ballroom, low-rise office building on the northwest corner of 42nd St. and Seventh Ave.

The original building had along its second floor (if I remember correctly) a spectacular line of French Doors set in blue glass. When it was torn down as part of the 42nd Redevelopment, a much larger imitation of this facade was built on the western end of the block. But this imitation has no relation, I believe, to any interior function and has none of the charm of the original -- it's an overblown design and the gigantic windows are just decoration and aren't meant to work (the originals were scaled to human proportions and presumably originally worked).

- - - - -

What's the difference between good theme architecture (e.g., although I think the McKim, Mead and White Pennsylvania Station is very much overrated, I'd still call it good theme archtitecture) and bad theme architecture?

I think in good theme architecture, the forms are carefully and creatively rethought to enhance the modern day architecural/design program. In bad theme architecture (like the French Doors on the northeast corner of 42nd and Eight Ave.) this isn't done.

With regard to chain stores, it seems to me that chain stores -- especially these days -- tend to be highly formulaic and therefore they are unlikely to use architecture, theme architecture or not, in a flexible and inspired way. However, my guess is that the smaller chains of slower-paced yesteryear (e.g., Howard Johnson's, Ebinger's [correct name?], Horn and Hardart's Automat, Schraft's, Woolworth's, Lowe's movie theaters, etc.) were probably less formulaic and more creative in their use of design, theme or not.

- - - - -

P.S. -- Just yesterday I was in my old neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens, and took some pictures of a very good example, in my opinion, of theme architecture -- an "Independence Hall/Tara" bank branch that I believe was originally built in the late 1940s/early 1950s for the "Federal Savings Bank."

Howard Johnson's also built a beautiful -- and spectacular -- Federal-style Howard Johnson's in nearby Rego Park. It was torn down in the early 1970s(?), but when it was built to accomodate those on their way to/from the 1939 World's Fair, it was the largest Howard Johnson's ever built. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to go in it, but it was a Howard Johnson's I very much wanted to visit.

I also liked what I saw of the more abstract "50's modern" versions of the Howard Johnson's "neo-colonial" theme.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 10, 2006 8:28 PM

I had no idea Waddles had become Hooters!

There were other problems besides the menu and general style. The freeway came along, practically over the top of the place. Jantzen Beach, which was once an amusement park, morphed into a minor shopping center, then a big box store enclave and a huge boat moorage for people who live on their boats. The whole neighborhood went from family to cruisin' singles.

Two other classics in Portland were the Tick-Tock (or was that Tik-Tok) which was a real rock-around-the-clock place, and a hamburger joint way up in the top of the West Hills called the Skyline. When I left in '99, the burgers were still classic but the place was moldering.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 10, 2006 8:45 PM

Benjamin, thankfully, Bay Ridge still have non-chain diners, like one Bridge View Diner, looking directly onto the panorama of Verrazzano - and they have salmon+stainless theme going on, along with white vinyl upholstered seats.

And yes, that's burger and fries on the picture!

Posted by: Tat on April 10, 2006 10:29 PM

It seems even the Irish can share in the nostalgia,

Posted by: Erroneous on April 11, 2006 1:21 AM

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