Restaurant Review

Nostalgic, but the memories aren't all good

CorrespondentApril 23, 2010 

  • 410-300 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh


    Cuisine: diner, American

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $-$$

    Atmosphere: diner retro

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: friendly and attentive

    Recommended: chili, milkshakes

    Open: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily (open 24 hours).

    Reservations: not accepted

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; minimal vegetarian selection; patio

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

Cruise down Glenwood South after the sun goes down, and the glitzy signs of restaurants and bars beckon, promising exotic adventure (Thaiphoon Bistro, Globe, Tasca Brava 607), sultry sophistication (Solas, Cashmere), and fashionable farm-to-fork fare (Zely & Ritz). Even the most casual eateries call out to you with names that hint at a walk on the wild side (Armadillo Grill, Mellow Mushroom).

In that setting, it's hard to imagine a more unassuming name than that of The Diner, which hung its sign in the midst of all this Glenwood glitz in December.

Rest assured, though, the restaurant's over-the-top style more than makes up for its generic moniker.

Step inside, and you're bombarded with a veritable Disneyland of visual cues: retro '50s diner counter, cherry-red booth upholstery, yards of black-and-white checkerboard tile, life-size statues of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, the front end of a '57 Chevy protruding from one wall.

Jukebox oldies in the background and the whir of a blender whipping up malted milkshakes sing in doo-wop harmony, promising heaping helpings of nostalgia.

Does the food live up to that promise? Well, yes and no.

This is Glenwood South, after all, and the menu makes concessions to trend seekers. Strewn among the traditional diner fare are au courant enticements such as tempura fried pickles, sweet tea-brined pork chops and hanger steak with homemade steak sauce.

Even the classic burger is not immune to reworking. In keeping with current fashion, burgers are made with a hefty 8 ounces of ground beef, and come in a dizzying array of variations, from the Demetri the Greek (feta, artichokes and kalamata olives) to the Horseshoe (bacon, tomato, shoestring hash browns and cheese sauce on Texas Toast).

Unlike a growing number of restaurants, though, The Diner does not grind its beef on the premises, and so must cook its burgers at least to a temperature of medium-well. If that's your preference, you're in luck.

If not, you might consider the meatloaf sandwich. Substitute ketchup for garlic mayo if the setting has fired up your cravings for a taste of the past.

Indeed, notwithstanding the menu's trendy aspirations, there's no shortage of options for those whose appetites are whetted by the nostalgic surroundings. The meatloaf is also available as an entree with mashed potatoes, brown gravy and sautéed vegetable medley for a dinerlike price of $10.

A sawbuck also buys you a couple of fried boneless chicken breasts with a distinctive crunchy coating of crushed and whole corn flakes. By all means, take the waiter up on his suggestion to get the onion marmalade on the side. Other entree options include country fried steak, baby back ribs, and a diner twist on veal cordon bleu called Blue Ribbon chicken.

Rings of disappointment

I'd resist the siren call of the onion rings, tempting as they look in their paper-lined, wire spiral serving cones. All too often, the breading is heavy under that deceptively appealing golden-brown crust.

Instead, start with a shareable platter of chili cheese fries, featuring a homemade chili that's chockablock with beef and beans, and packs a respectable punch.

True to diner tradition, breakfast is served all day - an especially big plus at The Diner, where "all day" translates to "around the clock." You'll find all the usual suspects, from Belgian waffle to Western omelet to steak and eggs.

A display case tempts with classic diner desserts such as coconut cream pie, carrot cake and cobbler. The strawberry-peach cobbler sounded intriguing recently, but unfortunately turned out to be - there's no gentle way of putting this - a doughy disaster.

After that, I'd be inclined to satisfy sweet tooth cravings with a malted milkshake or one of The Diner's "adult milkshakes" such as the Almond Joy, spiked with coconut rum, amaretto and crème de cacao.

The Diner is the third venture on Glenwood South for Niall Hanley, who established a solid track record as owner of Solas and Hibernian Irish pub. The Diner lives up to his reputation for creating a fun, vibrant setting. If the food too often falls short of that standard, I'd be surprised if the savvy restaurateur doesn't iron out the wrinkles soon. In the meantime, I think I'll have another Almond Joy.

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