ROCK n' ROLL DINER (3 Gerrard East, at Yonge, 416-593-9912) Complete meals for $20 per person, including all taxes, tip and a $4 imported beer. Average main $10. Open daily 6 am to 2 am. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Flagrantly defying the city by-law that bans smoking in restaurants, Jimi Hendrix unashamedly drags on a roll-up at the Rock n' Roll Diner. Having been dead for 34 years, he lights up figuratively, his airbrushed image enshrined on the walls of a recently launched Hard Rock wannabe just off the Yonge Street strip.
"You just missed the Elvis-impersonating priest," our young hostess cheerfully informs the Troubled Balkan and me this early afternoon lunch. "He's in here all the time."
Not that he'd stand out now that the former sports bar's been given a glitzy neon-lit makeover. Under van mural portraits of poor Marilyn, skinny Marlon and Jimmy Dean - as well as AC/DC, Ozzy and KISS - the Balkan and I face each other on metal-flake Naugahyde benches across a formica table complete with squirt bottles of mustard and ketchup.
In lieu of a jukebox, a TV set built into the wall next to our booth beams CityPulse - wouldn't MuchMusic or MTV be more appropriate? - while the house sound system serenades us with the Eagles' Hotel California. How many more times, lord?
Because the Diner's laminated card is full of such period-sounding all-day dishes as the accurately dubbed Chubby Checker (three eggs, bacon, peameal, ham, French toast and home fries, $8.99), I'd expected the soundtrack to be more Presley than Judas Priest. Apparently, nostalgia isn't what it used to be.
But if, like the Balkan, you were 11 years old in 1978, Happy Days was your favourite show (he learned English from the Fonz) and you love Thin Lizzy, the Diner is pure rock 'n' roll heaven. To the rest of us, the Rock n' Roll Diner is a third-generation photocopy of a copy of a copy.
The food's like that, too. But, then, how seriously can you take a restaurant that lists Kraft mac and cheese ($4.95) and all-you-can-eat cereal ($4.99) on its menu without a trace of irony? That doesn't stop the almost full house of extras and rent-a-cops from the Eugene Levy flick being shot next door at Ryerson. From their outfits, I hope it's a comedy.
Tragic would be an accurate description of the Diner's Rock'n Wings ($13.99 with Riblettes), rather than the words "Buffalo-style" used on the menu. After surviving NOW's exhaustive chicken wing survey, I feel I'm something of an authority in this field, and no Buffalo wing I've ever encountered was battered.
Here, they're breaded to such an excessive Colonel Sanders consistency, the scant six turn into doughy mush.
The Riblettes turn out to be four small but meaty pork ribs that would be quite tasty if they were on the menu by themselves. We side the combo with chunky fries we recognize from our supermarket's frozen food case. They also form the basis of the Diner's sizable take on poutine ($2.99).
In the Test Kitchen, we call it frozen fries 'n' gravy topped with melted processed cheese food. Regardless, the Balkan declares he'd like it if he were drunk enough. But, then, he says that a lot. And if, as the menu insists, those are actual cheese curds - the crucial ingredient that gives poutine its distinctive squeak - I'm Taffy, the long-lost Olsen triplet.
I'm a smart-ass for ordering Country Fried Steak ($9.99) - a cholesterol-rife concoction known in the Southern states as chicken-fried steak - rare, since I know it's virtually impossible to undercook a half-inch-thick piece of beef once it's been battered and fried like schnitzel. I'm correct. Slightly less artery-clogging, Bareback Smothered Chicken ($10.99) ditches the dough but retains its Philly cheese-steak blanket of gloopy fromage.
Both cheese-layered mains come with a Pilsbury Doughboy-like biscuit, a slender, mealy baked potato in tinfoil and a commercially dressed Garden Salad - iceberg lettuce, cubed sweet green pepper, red onion rings (à la carte $3.19 small/$5.45 large) - that would fit right in at the local greasy spoon. Or Greek restaurant, for that matter.
So would My Big Fat Greek Burger ($4.29 5-ounce/$5.29 10-ounce), one of the few dishes we try that delivers what it promises: lean beefy patties on a sesame seed bun topped with tzatziki. Weigh that, Hero Certified Burgers!
And while the Balkan is intent on testing the Diner's Kitchen Sink Sundae ($14.99) - 12 scoops of ice cream served in a stainless steel bar sink - I insist we try Cheese Cake In A Blanket ($5.99) instead. We get a perfectly acceptable store-bought slice of plain New York-style cheesecake wrapped in a flour tortilla that's been deep-fried. Our mutual conclusion: why?
The downtown Rock n' Roll Diner is the first franchise of a Newmarket concern that plans to have 19 similar spots up and running across the province in the next three years. Maybe that kind of shtick plays in the sticks. But except for breakfast, even with an Elvis-impersonating priest among its clientele , this Diner is unadulterated Heartburn Hotel.