[caption id="attachment_163428" align="alignleft" width="150"] Eric Ruth Guest Columnist[/caption]
When it comes to business lunches, middle-of-the-road is sometimes exactly where you want to be.
Sure, that la-dee-da steakhouse up the street might offer deal-clinching, martini-soaked ambience, but what if the plushness overstates your eagerness, or undermines perceptions of your frugality? A quirky, authentic, rough-around-the-edges ethnic joint might reflect your willingness to embrace a fun-tastic corporate culture, but what happens when your client’s notions of “fun” don’t include eating things they hadn’t previously considered edible?
No, sometimes it pays to roll directly down life’s roomy centerline, and that path quite frequently leads us into the past: We return to beloved old standbys, partly because they deliver familiar culinary touchpoints for the greatest variety of customers — few will find reasons to fuss when offered piles of pasta at places like Mrs. Robino’s or Cafe Napoli, or the nice-but-never-fussy bar food at uber-pubs like Ulysses, Two Stones or Kid Shelleen’s.
The humble diner is a genre that’s riding a resurgence thanks to the Metro Diner chain, and seems likely to gather momentum in the coming months with the opening of Goober’s, a ’50s-style Wilmington retro-plex from the owners of Buckley’s Tavern. Readers of a certain vintage may remember there once were many more of these — the old Post House(s), for one, and also the venerable Peter Pan and its later incarnation, Arner’s, very possibly the only restaurant in state history to be situated inside the cloverleaf of a major highway interchange.
Never mind the U.S. 13 traffic that whirls around you: Arner’s boasted friendly waitresses, a welcoming lunch counter, and oodles of room in the back for big get-togethers, giving businesses a reliable go-to for easygoing lunch breaks. Plus, they had pie — homemade pies — lathered with toppings and quivering lusciously from their front-and-center exhibition case.
Sadly, those pies are gone, and so is much of the Arner’s mystique, despite the fact that this exit-ramp landmark has been preserved and revived as The Legend (not to be confused with Legends, a Delaware Park restaurant up the road). Actually, the proper name is “The Legend Restaurant & Bakery,” though no proof of the latter identifier could be found: Desserts are made off premises, we were told.
It isn’t just that The Legend is failing to recapture some of that Arner’s magic; it’s that it seems to be reproducing it in unproductive ways. It’s nice that they gussied up the old interior while preserving the familiar Arner’s feel, but why leave these spiffed-up spaces so style-free and sterile-feeling?
Surely the folks here can trim things down by a crab-stuffed critter or two, though a few dishes suggest an even deeper kitchen introspection is needed: The fried calamari seems to have been conceived with a certain retro-aesthetic, one that remains wistful of the days when everything was so thickly cloaked with bread crumbs and so deeply deep-fried that no one knew what lurked inside ($9.99). A crab cake salad should be more than the sum of its parts, hard to achieve when the parts are limited to ho-hum lettuces and just-OK crab cakes ($14.59).
Within the local network of Greek-accented diners, The Legend so far seems less capable of effortlessly achieving that cozy, neighborly feel, and also less aware that even simple dishes demand deft execution. Stuffed potato skins lean too heavily toward the potato and not enough on the stuffing ($6.49), making the snappy, fresh-tasting stuffed grape leaves a far livelier starter ($6.99). House-made New England clam chowder is more accented by starch than the sea, and the gloppy, nearly clam-free broth delivers more meh than magic ($2.99).
The kitchen seems to feel more comfortable leaning more toward the Mediterranean than the Atlantic: Nicely charred beef and pita points with yogurt sauce seem to suit the Greek diner style, though these un-stuffable little pita wedges do pose a messy construction quandary ($10.59). It’s a dish that’s a little like the restaurant itself: Good-hearted and eager to please, but also a little confused about what it really wants to be.