A DINER IS A PLACE of refuge. For travelers it's a welcome waypost that promises rest and soul-satisfying quantities of grease on the cheap. On Sunday morning it curbs the hunger of a penitent churchgoer, or relieves the queasy pain of a recalcitrant sinner. A diner is quintessentially American—its food being as brash, no-nonsense, and unapologetic as the country it feeds. It's open late for the weary and wounded, and knows each regular by name. It's as solid and constant as a Formica countertop and as welcoming as a deep Naugahyde booth. There are no surprises and there's nothing to improve upon.
Apparently the crack team of restaurant concept engineers behind the Original disagrees. They've classed up the diner by adding a pinch of Las Vegas sparkle, sprinkling the menu liberally with lobster, and doubling the price point of your average greasy spoon. The result is the "dinerant" (their terminology), a franchise-ready monster with no soul and little flavor.
The Original bills its food as "evolved Americana cuisine." Unfortunately this cuisine has evolved into the culinary equivalent of a vanity dog—gimmicky, showy, and plagued with problems.
Most items are takes on tried-and-true diner standards. Most miss the mark. A duck confit hash ($12.75) was both greasy and bland, with large, overcooked potatoes and a limp mound of Swiss chard that could have passed for canned spinach. As an added bonus, the dish concealed a sharp, inch-long duck bone.
The Rueben ($11) was piled with pastrami that was all smoke and no oink. The thin slices of bread required close inspection to confirm they were indeed rye and not wheat. The red cabbage was a lovely thought lost to the smoke and a thick smear of 1,000 Island dressing, and there was simply no hope for the delicate Gruyere cheese.
It goes on like this, each dish more gimmicky than the last, but all frustratingly tempting: lobster corn dogs, poutine and foie gras, a greasy, sickly sweet burger with a Voodoo Doughnut as a bun.
How can you resist the curiosity of a $19.25 bowl of mac 'n' cheese? I couldn't. I wish I had. Mac 'n' cheese only in name, this dish promised a wonderland of mascarpone, truffle, orzo, and lobster. It announced itself with an overwhelming smell of fish far before it reached my table. It was difficult to overcome the ammonia-tinged scent—it lingered as I chewed the lobster and bland, creamy orzo. If there was truffle in this dish, I would have needed a pig to root it out. I'm not in the habit of leaving truffle and lobster on my plate, but I pushed the bowl aside, half finished.
I'll give it to the Original: Every plate was packed with food. But I'd rather have less and better than mass amounts of mediocre. The open-faced turkey sandwich ($10.75), for instance, was a mountain of meat, gravy, mashed potatoes, and stuffing on a slice of como bread. The como was actually buttery and delicious, and the stuffing quite tasty, but both were lost in the overwhelming tumble of turkey, which was largely flavorless and squeaky between the teeth.
I'd like to say that the Original nails the basics, but they fall behind here as well. The burger ($8.95) is mushy, greasy, and bland. The chicken-fried steak ($10) arrives with an adequate tangy gravy that's stymied by a grainy floury texture and a forgettable steak.
Granted, the Original is making an effort. I like the fact they're making their own pickles for the burgers—they're just doing so poorly. I also appreciate they are using local ingredients—but the menu is unworthy of the bounty.
In the end, the best thing about the Original is not the attractive but often absent staff. It's not the somewhat comfortable booths or the full bar. It's the chocolate malted milkshake. This $6 wonder is luscious and creamy, with just enough sweetness and a big malted depth. It's easily shareable and the remainder is brought to the table in the stainless mixing cup. Bliss.
There's a reason for this. The milkshake is only one of a few of the Original's un-evolved menu items. Much like the American diner, the chocolate malted is simple, classic, and perfect as it is. The Original executes it with both style and grace. Now, if only they took that approach with everything else.