Take Fox's Sherron Inn. Created in 1946, its scruffy, blue-collar ambiance; midnight-in-an-inkwell lighting; and jukebox full of tunes by Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, and Patsy Cline say "bygone era" the same way Dick Cheney's lip-curling death leer says war-mongering greedhead.
It is basically a funky old bar with a kitchen and a couple of minuscule dining rooms attached. The two dining rooms are cramped, brightly lit, and far removed from the action around the bar; they are about as much fun to dine in as a box of Cheetos. The bar is cool, paneled in dark wood and jammed with barstools and red leather booths. Everything boasts the well-worn patina associated with years of hard use yet is almost impossible to see until your eyes adjust to the cavelike light.
In a nutshell, the place is a dive. A real dive, a run-down, frayed-around-the-edges, manifestly untrendy throwback to a time when dining out was just plain eating, when a drink was a shot of booze and maybe some ice, when people smoked in bars, dammit, and if you didn't like it, you could stay home. Those were the good old days, and it appears as if Fox's regulars have lived through every one, going all the way back to the Paleolithic period. I don't want to say the clientele skews old, but you will see more walkers, canes, and sensible orthopedic shoes in one hour here than in ten lifetimes on South Beach.
On the other hand, you will not be treated like something scraped off the sole of a nitwit celebrity's Manolo Blahniks either. The staff is remarkably friendly, the bartender makes an excellent dry martini, and despite the crush of people trying to wedge into one of three impossibly tiny rooms, service runs with an efficiency as foreign to Miami as Ulan Bator.
Alas, just as in the good old days, the food sucks. And I mean inhale-a-washing-machine-through-your-left-nostril sucks, drain-a-swimming-pool-with-a-straw sucks, swallow-your-own-internal-organs-in-a-whirling-black-hole-vortex-that-consumes-everything-in-its-path sucks. The kind of sad, disheartening suckiness that reminds you though the good old days offered many things, good food was not among them.
It is difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps with the bland navy bean soup and tired iceberg lettuce salad with its bottled-tasting dressing. Or with the shrimp cocktail that was decent but nothing Winn-Dixie doesn't sell by the pound. Or maybe with the thin, limp onion rings that exuded enough oil to bring gas prices down twenty cents a gallon.
We certainly could begin with an evening's special of lamb chops, tough and muttony clumps of meat clinging to plenty of bone, though not quite as tough as the pile of undercooked broccoli spears that arrived alongside. Or we could begin with a reasonably fresh fillet of yellowtail that would have been passable if it weren't hidden under a thick scum of soggy egg batter and set off by "hash browns" with the texture of crisp-fried glue. Finish with a slice of watery, near-tasteless peanut butter pie dribbled with straight-from-the-can Hershey's chocolate sauce. We could at least make honorable mention of the "wine list," which inexplicably refuses to list producers. What, you wanted Château d'Yquem?
No, actually. I just wish the good old days tasted better.