Two Outta Three Ain't Bad

The food and decor are fun, even funky. Just think twice about going on a Saturday night.

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Park City Diner 8111 Rockside Road, Valley View 216-328-0575. Breakfast: 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, 8 to 11 a.m. Saturday. Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Fifties flashback: Park City Diner is like a time - machine with food.
Fifties flashback: Park City Diner is like a time machine with food.
For the baby boomer dreaming of her childhood . . . for the nursery gourmet searching for a simple, home-cooked meal . . . or even for the Gen Xer hoping to figure out, once and for all, what's up with all this nostalgia crap, allow us to introduce the Park City Diner, developer-restaurateur Frank Sinito's newest project in Valley View, overlooking the scenic Towpath Trail and across the parking lot from his superlative Lockkeepers restaurant.

If it is possible for a space to channel an era, then this attractive, newly built restaurant is a pipeline to the past. And while we are usually all about authenticity (preferring Europe to Epcot, say, and a real hamburger to a posturing Quarter Pounder), it has to be said that Park City captures the genuine mid-20th-century leitmotif better than most of the region's "real" dining-car restaurants. In fact, from the intricate mosaic-tile floor to the strikingly spare glass-and-silver ceiling lamps, the diner's design pays an almost obsessively detailed homage to what might be called Late Deco. The sturdy, streamlined flatware, the orange-and-green vinyl upholstery, the servers' boxy bowling shirts -- nearly every bit of minutiae is right on spec. And those details that aren't period-appropriate only serve to make the place more swank: the blue-cheese-stuffed olives in our martini, say, or the background music that eschews overdone '50s drivel in favor of obscure tunes from the '70s, by such mist-shrouded artists as It's a Beautiful Day.

As expected, many items on the far-ranging lunch and dinner menus (virtually identical except for the prices, which go up after dark) echo the retro theme, with homey, well-executed diner classics such as meatloaf and mashed potatoes, roasted turkey and gravy, and chili topped with chopped onions and shredded cheddar cheese. Here, again, style seems of the utmost importance. Coca-Cola comes in those squat, old-fashioned glass bottles, for instance; a miniature banana cream pie, fresh-tasting as all get-out, arrives in a tiny aluminum pie tin; and an entire chocolate layer cake, now sized for a family of Lilliputians, is routinely served with a tumbler of cold milk. (A sophisticated companion actually turned up her nose at the moist little cakelet, dismissing it with what she felt was the ultimate insult: "It tastes like a Hostess Cream-Filled Cupcake." And truthfully, she wasn't far off the mark. But rather than a fault, I would have called the cake's intentionally childish taste "irresistibly endearing," just another of the kitchen's cheerful nods to simpler culinary times.)

On the other hand, that same kitchen can get down and funky when it's got a mind to. The menu, designed by owner Sinito and Lockkeeper's executive chef Morgen Jacobson, and ably implemented by Park City chef Jerry Cigoi, has a definite Pacific Rim feel that shows up in such dishes as Crunchy Calamari in lemon and Vietnamese sweet-hot sauce, or a gently roasted filet of salmon in a sweet soy glaze, served with nutty pearls of kafir-lime-scented basmati rice. And if our grandparents were more likely to bait a hook with a starter of seared rare tuna than to eat it, the quality, flavor, and presentation of the Park City version were every bit as contemporary as any trendinista could desire.

Indeed, nearly all the food lived up to present-day expectations. A thick, relentlessly juicy Black and Blue Burger, for instance, topped with bacon and a surprisingly delicate blue-cheese dressing, was as good as any in the region. Two golden, battered walleye filets snuggled between the shiny halves of a substantial roll from Lockkeeper's bakery literally melted in the mouth. And as for that roasted turkey dinner, with buttery mashed potatoes, sleek homemade gravy, almost-ephemeral sweet-potato bread pudding in place of mundane dressing, and thick slices of some of the moistest, most tender breast meat ever to reach a table . . . well sorry, Mom, but it was better than what we've had at some Thanksgiving blowouts.

If side orders of French fries proved surprisingly mealy and deep-fried onion rings were merely average, a side of colorful "Asian-ish slaw" (finely shredded cabbage, red pepper, carrot, and scallions in a sweet-tart dressing of cider vinegar, lime juice, and sugar) perked up our taste buds. And although it seemed like pure hyperbole to refer to the teaspoon of shredded celery and mango on top of our Snazzy Chinese Chicken Wings as a "salad," there was no fault to find with the plump chicken wings themselves, in their sweet, spicy, ginger-garlic-and-hoisin glaze.

Turns out, those mildly spicy chicken wings were about the sassiest dish we encountered. For although the "s" word was tossed around in several other menu descriptions, we found nothing that was spicy enough to frighten even the most timid palate. Consider the Black and Blue Burger, for instance: Despite the alleged use of "spicy" blue cheese and "Cajun" seasonings, the anticipated fireworks weren't even a sizzle. And although the "wasabi pea crust" on the roasted salmon could have been incendiary -- what with its wasabi paste and pulverized wasabi-flavored dried peas -- its heat was hardly discernible. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, especially when compared to kitchens that persistently go for the burn and let flavor be damned; and it's certainly in keeping with the comfort-food theme. But diners who cherish a good capsicum rush should realize they aren't likely to find it here, menu descriptions notwithstanding.

Something else diners will not find at Park City is a reservation book. Unfortunately, this is a more serious glitch. The no-reservations policy wasn't a problem during a weekday lunch, when our party of two was seated almost immediately. But during a Saturday evening's rush, the cramped space between the front door and the hostess stand resembled the checkout line at Marc's, as glassy-eyed wannabe diners shifted from foot to foot, waiting for a table for nearly 45 minutes. It couldn't have been much fun for the diners seated nearby, either, as the crowd got bigger, noisier, and less concerned about edging ever deeper into the dining space; the mealtime experience for those poor souls must have seemed as intimate and charming as an evening spent at the Wal-Mart returns counter, the day after Christmas. If management can't be persuaded to institute dinner reservations, we suggest that they at least consider converting the enclosed, heated foyer into a waiting area, with seating.

By the time we finally got a table, we were starving -- as well as thankful that we hadn't brought along any fussy youngsters! Alas, the poorly paced service that followed didn't do much to cheer us up. A server took and delivered our drink order promptly enough (a $7 glass of Zardetto Prosecco, by the way, and an $8 pour of Sterling Vintner's Collection Merlot, both chosen from the informative, well-written wine list created by Lockkeeper's sommelier Yusef Riazi), but nearly 30 hungry minutes elapsed before our appetizers arrived -- and they were followed, no more than five minutes later, by the main events!

Good thing, then, that the tasty food and the fascinating decor were enough to keep our mind off our service troubles, at least for the most part. And anyway, it's hard to hold a grudge against a place where the honest-to-goodness milkshakes are thick and creamy, the beefy, slow-simmered chili is the color of mahogany, and the kids' menu offers free "black olives for the ends of your li'l fingers." Plus, there are still so many other dishes on the menu that we want to try: the "knife and fork chili dog," for one, the "sticky cinnamon roll bread pudding," for another. So of course, we'll go back to Park City -- for breakfast, which began December 1; for lunch, after a hike on the Towpath; or for an early dinner, before a movie at the nearby mega-plex. Just don't look for us in the Saturday-night mob enveloping the hostess stand: Mom may not be that great a cook, but at least she never makes us wait in line.

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