Retro done right
Alhambra’s Diner on Main is a fitting homage to the 1950s
By Erica Wayne 12/12/2013
Have you ever heard of Googie architecture? Well, neither had I until I looked on the Web site of Alhambra’s Diner on Main Restaurant, a wonderful retro coffee shop and restaurant, and read:
“Welcome to Diner on Main! Diner on Main is a Retro American ’50s restaurant in the heart of Alhambra’s Main Street entertainment district. The historic site is one of the few remaining ‘Googie’ style restaurants designed by the famed architectural firm of Armet & Davis. Done up in chrome and Formica with canvases of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, this theme-style restaurant promises fun for all. We have great food, awesome entertainment and a true ‘diner’ experience. So, if you’re in town and are ready for a ‘Daddy-O-Dog’ and a ‘Wiki Wiki Woo’ stop in! We have a large parking lot for your convenience. Open seven days a week serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, we’ll look forward to serving you!”
We weren’t exactly ready for a Wiki Wiki Woo (a potent cocktail fashioned from vodka, tequila, two kinds of rum, amaretto and three kinds of juices for $8.25) since it was only 10 a.m. But we were definitely ready to check out the breakfast menu and the iconic architecture after I’d done a bit of Googling on Googie.
It seems that Googie, originating in LA in the late ’40s and continuing into the mid-’60s, was a popular architectural style used for motels, coffee houses, gas stations, drive-in movies and bowling alleys. The name comes from a long-gone 1949 coffee shop (Googies) in West Hollywood, which bore the nickname of the owner’s wife.
Influenced by car culture, jets and the space age, the style features upswept roofs, cantilevered structures, geometric shapes, glass, steel and neon. It features space-age designs like boomerangs, flying saucers, atoms, starbursts and parabolas. And, since many of these buildings were erected to be visible to and accessible by vehicular traffic, they also included large pylons with elevated signs, neon lettering and plenty of parking.
It was a flashy style, used to perfection in many early Vegas hotels and casinos, as well as “retro-futuristic” creations like Disney’s original Tomorrowland in Anaheim before being abandoned in the later 1960s, after which many of its best examples fell into disrepair and were demolished.
As for Armet & Davis, it’s the same firm that designed the first Norms (1949) and Pann’s (1958). Some of the firm’s design hallmarks included radically vaulted roofing, room-length dining counters and outsized signage to beckon to drivers. The firm was designated “the Frank Lloyd Wright of ’50s coffee shops” by Merrill Schindler in a review of Pann’s; and, according to critic Philip Langdon, came to define “coffee shop” for much of America.
Doing all this research really worked up an appetite. By the time we got to flashy, retro Diner on Main and pulled into its enormous parking lot, I was absolutely starved. Outdoor speakers were broadcasting ’50s songs (Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter) as we got out of the car and walked past the chrome and steel-clad patio with its red and white diamond-inset railing to get to the entrance.
And there we were — instantly transported back to the era of penny loafers and saddle shoes, ducktails and bouffants, poodle skirts and straight-leg jeans. There were the Armet & Davis hallmarks: room-length counter with comfy cantilevered seats and radically angled vaulted ceilings, along with lots of other retro elements, such as glass walls with etched geometric letters advertising cold beer, hamburgers and booth seating. There was also aqua, cream and burnt orange décor, as well as light-wood veneer and, as promised, nothing but cozy booths throughout.
Frankly, the restaurant’s design was so fascinating that I could barely concentrate on the menu. I finally managed to tear myself away long enough to choose one of the weekday breakfast specials: a French toast, two-egg and bacon combo for only $5.95. My hubby, not quite as mesmerized, easily focused on the breakfast quesadilla: “A giant tortilla filled with two scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, jack cheese, sautéed onions and cilantro. Served with guacamole and homemade salsa on the side” ($9.10).
There were a couple of glitches. Our server admitted the white stuff in the pitcher was artificial and that they didn’t have half and half or cream (Shame on you, ’50s diner!). But she brought me some mollifying milk. And, even though I’d asked that the French toast be on a separate plate, it didn’t happen. However, given that my scrambled eggs were moist, the bacon a bit underdone but tasty, the French toast (a rare indulgence) absolutely heavenly, and the continuous musical backdrop delightful, I was a happy camper.
My mate’s quesadilla was, indeed, gigantic, lying across the plate in glorious splendor. Despite his hearty appetite, he was easily persuaded to pack up half of it for the next day in exchange for one triangle of my French toast and most of my (fake) maple syrup. We thought of treating ourselves to one of the homemade cinnamon rolls ($3.50) but, ultimately, facing an entire month of holiday overindulgence, decided to forgo the pleasure.
There are other anachronisms besides fake creamer at Diner on Main: a flat-screen TV above the counter, acoustic ceilings, some menu items I bet weren’t typical of the original coffee shop occupying the site, like bacon fried rice with Portuguese sausage ($8.95), jalapeno poppers ($3.95/$5.95), Thai Cobb (“a home run” — $8.75), siete mare pasta ($11.10) and vodka martinis in several exotic variants ($7.95), plus an Elton John tune as we were leaving.
Prices at Diner on Main are excellent. I haven’t done the math, but if a ’55 Caddy cost $4,000 right off the line and a loaded 2014 XTS goes for around $70K, a ’55 cheeseburger with fries that used to cost about four bits for $6.95 isn’t too far off, inflation-wise. Neither are the weekday dinner specials for $9.95 including soup or salad, rice or potato, vegetables, bread and, for an extra buck, dessert. And, during happy hour, well drinks and draft beers for $3 will make any inflationary differences seem completely inconsequential.