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Retro Cheek 

SLIM GOODIES puts a modern spin on a timeless eating experience: the diner.

One evening last week, a shower-fresh couple sliding into Slim Goodies' lipstick-red front booth appeared to be on a first date. Gel had frozen his combed back hair into aerodynamic submission, and his shirtsleeves bunched a little just above the biceps. She was as pretty as she was polite, laughing at everything he said and fluttering when he engaged the jukebox in a duet -- an entire Bruce Springsteen ballad. While he picked at his pork chop and she at her Tofulaya, they gazed upon Magazine Street's rush-hour traffic, which matched their milkshake in thickness. She tried to look interested when he cooed over several passing cars, and I learned why when my friends entered: he was their mechanic. He turned in the booth to signal a welcome, as if they had stepped into his garage. This was as close as I've come to a Happy Days moment. The smooth operating mechanic was a modern-day Fonzie and Slim Goodies his Arnold's.

The wholesome, good-time moments occur with frequency at Slim Goodies. Brother-sister team Raymond and Kathleen "Kappa" Horn have harnessed the spirit of an all-American diner -- with chrome trappings, gee-whiz service and an expansive flat-topped griddle -- even as they incorporate a rather loose, updated interpretation of diner aesthetics. White paper lanterns dangle above the red booths and chrome-trimmed tables in the front room. Behind the slate-colored diner counter and its red-cushioned stools, young line cooks whose tattoos are a bit more precious than those of their 1950s counterparts slather pesto onto grilled mozzarella and tomato sandwiches. Out back, in a jungly dining area that was off-limits during much of the rainy season, it's tribal; a totem pole tilts against a tree and lawn torches spear the dirt.

Despite the modernized menu's veggie burger and raspberry vinaigrette, I would bet that fried hamburgers and meatloaf are Slim Goodies' bread and butter. There's something irresistible about eating nationally recognized comfort foods in a diner, their native element (it was crushing when macaroni and cheese, listed on an early menu, didn't make the cut). Should the Horns create the world's greatest foie gras French toast, it couldn't usurp the standing of my most memorable meal there: a B.L.T. made with summer-ripe tomatoes; skinny, snap-crisp fries; and a deeply chocolatey chocolate malt served in a parfait glass with whipped cream.

Even considering this just-right lunch, however, the food quality consistently rings in barely above average -- a fact that may reflect the challenge inherent in serving foods about which large populations have had lifetimes to form opinions. By adulthood most Americans covet a certain style of meatloaf. We all have an aunt, a neighbor or a spouse who makes the best hash browns. We tend to judge grilled cheese sandwiches with more scrutiny than presidential candidates. You could pass the morning at Slim Goodies pining away for your grandmother's potato latkes, or you could approach the restaurant as you would a golf partner with a handicap and adjust the score accordingly. Much of Uptown clearly does the latter, especially on weekends when brunch joints are at a premium.

The One Eyed Bacon Cheeseburger (crowned with a fried egg) is a morning-after masterpiece still waiting to happen. Ask for it pink and runny, as it was just another burger with a rubbery egg when I let the kitchen have its way. I had better luck at breakfast ordering a simple fruit, yogurt and granola parfait, and better luck still with The Guatemalan, a combination involving eggs as you like, soupy black beans, fried plantains and flour tortillas. The accompanying salsa, like the supermarket-brand syrup visible on a ledge of condiments, is worth mentioning only because it's there. Pancakes are utterly normal, flat and spongy vehicles for soaking up the syrup.

Down-home entree platters play to monster appetites here, as they should. The brownest meatloaf you've ever seen was chock full of garlic, rosemary and salt; presented with identically colored gravy, hot French fries and luxuriant sauteed spinach, it has the makings to become someone's Platonic ideal. Crawfish etouffee, its sauce tinted crawfish tail-orange and visibly pummeled with garlic, covered twin biscuits on another platter. The odd-sounding etouffee-biscuit coupling tasted preordained. A bowl of ground beef and tomato chili scattered with black beans was satisfactory, though it failed twice in the same night to arrive at the table hot.

Slim Goodies is a nice place to be, anyway. A new diner is by nature nostalgic, and the Horns excel at playing up this angle with humor but little cheesy affect. They call their tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the all-American salad -- a great swell of blue cheese dressing cascading over tomato, carrots and a lobe of iceberg lettuce -- The Trailer Park Wedge. Vintage matchbooks and passages from dated writings titled "The Male Hormone" are framed throughout the diner. Finally, waiters who lay on that '70s look to a can't-touch-this thickness appear organically united with the retro-hip space.

More to the waiters' credit, the only attitude beneath the outfits is that of perfect gentlemen. The Fonz would approve.

click to enlarge Counter culture: Customers at SLIM GOODIES often - belly up to the slate-colored diner counter and its - red-cushioned stools, watching the line cooks do - their thing. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Counter culture: Customers at SLIM GOODIES often belly up to the slate-colored diner counter and its red-cushioned stools, watching the line cooks do their thing.
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