86 the Banana Split

Soda Fountain Square ain't a real diner, hon

Soda Fountain Square

Tuna melt $7.95
Chicken and dumplings $20
Co-ed banana split $4.25

1801 Park Avenue; 314-241-0099. Hours: 6:30 a.m.-midnight Tue.-Thu., 6:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Fri.-Sat., 7:30 a.m. -9 p.m. Sun.

There are diners, and then there are "diners." A diner is a greasy spoon, a coffee shop, a neighborhood cheap-eats establishment whose sole raison d'être is to feed the hungry, fast. A diner doesn't bother with amenities (cloth napkins, paper menus, lattes) that get in the way of realizing its purpose — yet a diner also lets its clientele linger for hours over a newspaper and a bottomless cup of coffee. Straightforward, American diesel-fuel coffee.

Though the characteristics vary from place to place — the historic converted rail cars of the northeast, the coffeeshops of Manhattan, etc. — it seems like every single diner works from the exact-same menu. At any one of them, you can order a BLT, a club sandwich, breakfast all day, a scoop of cottage cheese on a bed of lettuce, a hamburger, cheeseburger or pizza burger, whole baked trout with your choice of potato and vegetable of the day, rice pudding or (my personal favorite) tuna salad with lettuce and tomato on whole wheat toast. And they will all taste precisely the same, and delicious.

Diners aren't out to impress anyone, despite the autographed headshots that may crowd the walls. They are blue-collar, blue-plate, the blues that set in from seeing an old man eat his spaghetti Bolognese (usually besmirched by a watery sauce, and always accompanied by the vegetable of the day and your choice of potato) sitting at the counter, that bottomless cup of coffee his only company.

A diner never opens or closes, never has a grand opening or goes out of business. Each and every diner has been around since the dawn of man, as if the grease traps and the Bunn-O-Matic coffeemakers laid in wait for centuries until the Old World figured out how to load up its population on boats and get those huddled masses the heck over here so they could experience firsthand how freedom means being allowed to order your fries well-done. I love diners.

A "diner" is a gimmick, a packaging of diner quintessence. Though it may turn out very good food very quickly in a very fun setting, a "diner" is faux retro, its aura of nostalgia curated, wink-wink and self-aware. Kitschy-comfort cuisine usually graces the menu at a "diner," with lots of "just like Mom used to make!" exclamations. Diners have existed forever; "diners" aim to evoke a halcyon time and place that never actually was. Their waitstaffs are freshly scrubbed and transient, their signage festooned with old-timey fonts. The oldies streaming out of their sound systems are usually cranked just a smidgen too loud.

Which brings us to Soda Fountain Square, a two-month-old "diner" — complete with vintage-style soda counter, jars of penny candy, black-topped and chrome-edged tables and, just in case you're wondering what year it is, an exposed loft ceiling — in a new, apartments-on-top, retail-on-bottom development in burgeoning Lafayette Square.

Soda Fountain Square's tuna melt was stellar, an exemplar of old-school short-order fare. Rather than being served open-faced, it came sandwiched in a rye-white hybrid. The mayo in the tuna salad was ever- so-slightly liquefied from the heat, which also rendered the cheese ever-so-slightly glommy (both scrumptious signposts of a tuna melt done right). Sad to say, that tuna melt was the only really good meal I was served there.

Here's an example of how awful Soda Fountain Square is: I didn't finish a banana split, and it wasn't because I was full. This was the "Co-Ed" split, served in a classic banana-boat dish and topped by two scoops of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. The sauce was a thing, a glutinous silicone swamp thing (with a chemical, day-old-coffee aftertaste) that refused to be torn apart by mere utensils. Even when I was able to get a consumable quantity of this fudge to teeter upon my spoon alongside a bite of ice cream, the fudge would defiantly slide back onto the dish before I could hoist it to my mouth.

On a previous visit, I chose the blue-plate special of that day, a Wednesday: chicken and dumplings. The dish had a peas-and-carrots sweetness (which was pleasant), but nary a shake of salt (which was stultifying). Other than that, it looked and tasted like condensed soup. On the side came a "buttermilk" (in quotes, as in "diner") biscuit that could have been lying around for a year and could have stopped a bullet.

Soda Fountain Square's fries almost certainly came out of a freezer, from a plastic bag that doubtless possessed more personality than the fries themselves. On one visit they arrived with a shine to their skins and a welcome freckling of black pepper; on another they were as salt-free as the chicken and dumplings, utterly lifeless, and a little tough and stale to boot. A cereal-bowl-size side portion of macaroni and cheese went beyond lifeless. It was lobotomized, the stiff elbow noodles and numb cheese sauce registering on the tongue as some negative integer of flavor. Applesauce, another side, tasted just like Mom used to spoon out of the Mott's jar.

A simple cheeseburger topped with romaine, tomato, pickle slices and white onion achieved a respectable, tasty degree of burger-tude, though the melted cheese on top tasted more like processed spread from a lab than thickened milk from a cow. A double mushroom-and-Swiss burger invoked the meat sweats, and not in a good way; the beef so disproportionately outweighed the toppings and bun that, less than halfway through, I was left with a fistful of messy protein. An entrée plate of fried fish was upstanding, though plagued by those damn fries. I would have enjoyed the house salad more if I'd been given a larger plate on which to negotiate cutting up a wedge of iceberg and getting some of the tomato and red onion onto the same forkful. I also would have enjoyed it more had my side cup of oil and vinegar contained any vinegar (and if I hadn't had to practically cajole my waitress into sending it back).

Even the basics at Soda Fountain Square are screwy. The flip-pad menus are confoundingly laid out so that the top sheets face upside-down. This necessitates repeatedly turning the menu 180 degrees in order to take it all in. That's frustrating, though evidently not as frustrating as it must be to wait on customers there. Two servers (one working the floor, the other at the counter) took it upon themselves to complain to me about how busy and/or tired they were. Perhaps it's no coincidence that, during those two visits, I waited an interminably long time for service.

Yet, even as I recall the tableau at the counter, me and my fellow customers hunched dejectedly, our countenances glazed-over masks of defeat, I sense a glimmer of hope. Maybe it's because the woman behind Soda Fountain Square, Bethany Budde, put Lafayette Square back on the dining-destination map when she opened the wonderful SqWires in the former Western Wire Products factory a few years ago. Maybe it's the gleaming rows of milkshake-mixing chalices lined up behind Soda Fountain Square's soda fountain, standing proud and optimistic. Or maybe it's just me, irretrievably in love with diners — and possibly, even "diners."

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