Fast food joints failed to deliver a knockout punch to diners, but they did have those American institutions on the ropes and looking hopeless for a while. That was back in the early Sixties, and one of the main attractions of the then-new national burger chains was their consistency of product: You could get the same meal week in, week out, in Tucson or Tucumcari. Nowadays you still get pretty much the same food in diners and neighborhood restaurants across the nation, though instead of being driven to sites in Big Mac trucks, it's driven in big Mack trucks belonging to some national restaurant wholesaler. I can imagine one of them backing up to the service entrance of the Westside Diner right now, unloading boxes of fresh six-ounce ground-meat patties, separated from one other by little squares of white paper; sixteen-ounce T-bones, clean as a whistle and individually sealed in their own plastic Baggies; large plastic bags of soft, sesame-seeded hamburger buns; and larger plastic bags of skinny frozen French fries. They'll wheel the groceries through the back door and into the long, lean kitchen in the appropriately narrow, dining car-shape restaurant. They'll have to maneuver by just a few tables, as most of the seating takes place up front, at two-seat booths that line the right wall, and at chrome stools along the counter that runs up the left side of the room. Reproductions of old-style Coca-Cola and Pepsi signs hang over the glass shelves behind that counter (such nostalgic gestures are obligatory in diners).
The modern homogeneousness of restaurant food isn't necessarily bad news for the customer. You may not be able to vouch for some seedy-looking cook behind the line in that Tucson diner, but at least the odds are decent that their product is coming from a reputable food company. When Jonathan Eismann of Pacific Time is the owner, though, as he is at the Westside, standard diner fare becomes something of a letdown. Not that we expected, or wanted, a pan-Asian BLT or anything, but some signature touches within the genre might give the place distinction, as polenta fries and TV dinners do for Big Pink. How about offering a real pickle spear instead of those flimsy, formaldehyde-tasting chips? As it stands the burger ($5.75), BLT ($6.75), smoked-turkey club ($7.25), tuna salad ($5.95), and grilled cheese ($5.25) sandwiches at the Westside are just like anywhere else -- as in neither here nor there.
The fish does not come from some large truck, but from Island Seafood, located right next door. The portions of dolphin with garlic, lime butter, and mojo ($10.25), and sautéed salmon with lemon and parsley ($11.25) weren't huge, but they were very fresh, well prepared, and, like all entrées, came with a small salad and choice of one side. Creamed spinach was good, mashed potatoes bland, but I don't believe there's a better seafood dinner for less money anywhere on the Beach. That aforementioned sixteen-ounce T-bone also was fine for the price ($14.25); most nondiner restaurants get away with using the same product and charging much more. You won't confuse this with thick, marbled steak-house beef but it provides a satisfactory sating for such until you make it to the Palm. Desserts, including chocolate cupcakes, apple pie, and rice pudding, are made on the premises. The key lime pie ($3.25), with an old-fashioned cooked-meringue topping, was the best we've had in a long, long time.
The Westside is going with predictable prefab fare for the same reason all diners do: to keep labor costs, and thus prices, down. Johnny V tried to reach higher with his food, in the same location, but that necessitated charging more money. The natives of South Beach already have enough places like that. What they need are Westside Diner-type spots, where one can go for an informal dinner without spending $30. So even if we're frustrated knowing that Eismann could, if he so desired, provide more inspired American chow, we appreciate this operation for what it is, a conventional, inexpensive diner that serves the locals well. We might even learn, in time, to forgive the pickle chips.
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