Off Tempo

I was already planning on grabbing a bite at Tempo in North Miami Beach when an old high school friend of mine from New Jersey called. "I'm in Miami," she said. "Wanna do dinner?"

I couldn't have engineered a better coincidence. I spent more time with this woman sitting in vinyl booths eating French fries with gravy -- the Jersey state pastime -- than I did sitting in classes. In diners we marked all the important stages of our adolescent lives: first date, first boyfriend, first breakup. As teenagers we perfected the art of hanging out, lingering over a single cup of coffee for hours to avoid being kicked out; as college students, diners were our backdrop for Thanksgiving- and Christmas-break reunions. I figured Tempo would be an ideal place to catch up. And it was. But not to fill up: This place explodes the myth that people go to diners for the food.

Owner Sonny Cohen, a Chicago businessman-turned-restaurateur when he "couldn't find a decent place to have breakfast," says he was aiming for a Sixties diner look and feel. To go along with the retro styling of the building A which he designed himself A Cohen kept the technology out of the kitchen. Tempo has no microwave ovens or freezers. French fries are cut by hand, hollandaise sauce is made fresh for every order of eggs Benedict. I admire this passion for detail, but novice restaurateur Cohen is the first to admit, "I'm not a restaurant man -- that's my problem." That's apparent. Despite his claims that waitstaff problems have been corrected -- "Ninety-five percent of our servers are on the ball" -- we found service to be the fatal flaw.

Business, though, seems to be booming: Of the 2000 takeout menus Cohen had printed up for his opening, none are left. Go to Tempo for a pre- or postmovie dinner on a weekend night and you'll be overwhelmed by the first of the season's snowbirds. Go for lunch and you'll get run over in the parking lot by local businessfolk on 30-minute breaks. Go during off-hours, as we did, and you're likely to discover that Tempo, in the diner tradition, isn't only a place to note life's passages, it's a place to note how life is passing you by -- as you wait for your order to come up. Unfortunately, we found the nine-month-old behemoth (more than 300 seats!) a monument to miserable service and indifferently prepared fare.

From the exterior, the neon-lighted establishment resembles a nightclub. Then the automatic doors part with an electronic whir to reveal Tempo's logo, set into the cream-colored stone floor; a glow of fluorescent light so powerful it could grow plants; and a produce case in the foyer filled with fruit and vegetables. The impression is supermarket.

A party of six, we sat in one of the two dining rooms in a handsomely upholstered banquette that could hold ten in its marshmallow depths; lay off the coffee if you get stuck sitting in the middle of one of these, because bathroom runs require a good deal of physical maneuvering. You wouldn't want to drink coffee here, anyway. The other beverage options -- fresh-squeezed fruit juices, smoothies, and egg creams -- certainly sounded more enticing. Unfortunately, our server waited so long to bring us our drinks that the smoothies had separated and the chocolate egg cream was flat.

Specials were never mentioned (we noticed the board on the way out), so we ordered straight from the menu, which features mostly breakfast food, salads, and sandwiches (hot and cold). Appetizers are nonexistent, but inventive eaters can make a first course from salads and side dishes, as we did. A "garbage salad" was big enough for the table to share. Chopped romaine was layered with a couple of slices each of red onion, mushroom, green pepper, cucumber, tomato, and black olive; a few strips of salami and a strip of bacon were a nod to the carnivore who can't stand the thought of vegetables without meat; hearts of palm and tinny-tasting artichoke hearts rounded out the mix ($6.25). The salad was fresh, but the dressings -- we sampled French, honey mustard, Thousand Island, creamy Italian, and a blended vinaigrette -- were uniformly spineless.

A side dish labeled simply "artichoke" was not the whole vegetable, as we'd hoped. It proved to be a few of the aforementioned anemic hearts scattered on a bed of iceberg lettuce. We threw it all into the garbage salad. Onion rings were another disappointment, a brown tangle that was too well-done ($3.50). Though the batter made for sufficient crunchiness, it had no flavor.

Blintzes were an unusual appetizer request, but the waiter didn't even blink when we ordered these cheese cre#pes topped with blueberry sauce. Nor did he seem concerned when we informed him that they were as cold as the wind-chill factor in Dubuque. He eyed our plates -- we'd divided the three blintzes among ourselves and had each taken a bite before discovering the icy temp -- and scolded, "Well, you should have told me." Owing to their undercooked condition, perhaps, the pancakes themselves were soggy but imbued with a strange grainy texture, as if they'd been rolled in sugar before being topped with an uninspired, jamlike blueberry sauce.

A sizable lull between courses would have been the convenient time to clear the table. But our waiter decided to take his job title literally: He waited, only to deem it more appropriate to grab dirty dishes after our main courses had been set down, lifting several of them over our heads before abandoning the gesture altogether. What started out as a spacious table quickly became cramped.

We took advantage of the late-night breakfast options and reverted to childhood with a couple of entrees. A raspberry waffle was an improvement over the blintzes -- though not hot, it was warm, and covered with fresh ripe berries. A requested dollop of whipped cream made a nice touch for the perpetually sweet-toothed. French toast (offered plain or raisin) was also sugary but not quite as sinful-sounding; the three pieces of thick bread were soaked in an egg-white mixture to cut the cholesterol. The exterior still had that fried eggy crust, just a trifle less rich than the whole-egg version. Weighed down with syrup, the toast was too heavy for my taste.

Tempo will make an egg-whites-only omelet and cook it in Pam for no extra charge. A Jamaican omelet, one of 30 available, was one of the most interesting combinations I've tried in any diner. Not the jerk-chicken-filled envelope one might expect, the three-egg concoction was only vaguely Caribbean but surely delicious, tiered with bananas, walnuts, and a beehive's worth of honey ($5.65). It was served in a skillet with "American fries" A flat discs of potato that were fried to a golden-brown, but in some cases on one side only. The pallid underbellies of the neglected home fries were at best unappealing.

French fries, on the other hand, were crisp and relatively grease-free. No gravy, but we made do with ketchup. The fries accompany all sandwiches, as does a small dish of grated cole slaw, minced fine enough to eat without your dentures. You might need those pearly whites for a burger, though. A patty melt we ordered medium arrived as well-cooked as the proverbial goose. Smothered with sauteed onions and cheese and slapped between two slices of seeded, buttery rye bread, the combination was sloppy and tasty enough to satisfy the patty-melt connoisseur despite the hockey-puck texture of the main ingredient ($5.35).

A Monte Cristo lacked the necessary crunch of pan-fried bread. Ham, turkey, and a congealed slab of Swiss cheese were encased between two slices of French toast. The airy bread was the right idea but was too sweet, and an obviously lengthy pause between preparation and arrival turned fluff into sog. A tuna club sandwich was more to our liking, onion-accented tuna salad showcased between three slices of toasted white bread. Juicy tomatoes and iceberg lettuce freshened up the filling, though bacon, that traditional club accompaniment, was conspicuously absent.

As was our server. When he finally showed, bill in hand as if ready to get rid of us, we requested dessert -- a tactical error, as it took twenty minutes for him to find his way back again. He finally reappeared with a slice of over-refrigerated chocolate layer cake (like most of the meal, it wasn't worth the calories), surveyed the messy clutter of the second course he hadn't bothered to clear, and asked, "Where do you want it?" We restrained ourselves from telling him exactly where to put it.

Another bit of diner wisdom, gleaned from years of experience: The nature of the business requires that the waitstaff be topnotch, and it generally is in these places. If Tempo wants to be about more than nostalgia, then it should do a better job of keeping the beat.

15400 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami Beach; 944-1540. Open daily from 7:00 a.m. to midnight.


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