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Revisionist Retro

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Everywhere I go, people want to feed me meatloaf, fried chicken, mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese. Every new restaurant, it seems, is feeling a little nostalgic for diners, or, should I say, The Diner, like the silvery kind you might have found dotting Route 66 once upon a time. Low lighting, slick upholstery and fancy concrete bar tops, despite their upscale ambience, still give customers a hankering for the kind of food mom used to make, or so goes the thinking.

Gourmet comfort food is ubiquitous, and this means that you might find truffle oil or blue cheese or, if you're lucky, lobster, in that plate of pasta formerly known as mac and cheese. Meatloaf is generally left alone, but mashed potatoes can hide a multitude of unexpected guests, such as roasted garlic (awfully good) or sun-dried tomatoes (terrible to look at). It's all heavy, unctuous, rib-sticking fare, and it makes you wonder, while your waistband groans and you stagger to your car, why suddenly every chef in town wants to pay homage to these ersatz roots.

DeLux, the new diner at the corner of West Main and Addison streets where once was Southern Culture, even keeps diner hours, closing just five hours out of every 24. Yes, you can eat three full meals here seven days a week.

Except for the enormous Ed Trask paintings of just the kind of diner/lounge/motel signs you might find decaying along the present-day Route 66, however, there isn't a lot inside to press those buttons of nostalgia. Instead, designer Helen Reed Hayes has created a sleek but warm metropolitan interior that hints at the past in the upholstery, the curving booths and the long, cylindrical shades of the light fixtures. The glowing, color-shifting cutouts in the high ceiling evoke the kind of place George and Jane Jetson might have frequented (and all the retro-futurism that entails), but the pearly tile behind the bar and the glowing gas fireplace are unambiguously 21st century.

The food is a little trickier. Dinner is fine, lunch is better, and breakfast is pretty good, too (especially all the permutations of eggs Benedict). But in a lot of ways, deLux's cool, swanky interior does its menu no favors. It's difficult to live up to the expectations this kind of setting creates.

The Captain Crunch fried shrimp wins hands down with its sweet, corny crust, and it's hard to stop eating the skinny french fries, with their coarse salt and shake of Italian seasoning. The beef empanadas ooze ground beef and cheese in a desultory sort of way, and disappointingly, the Cuban pork roast conjures up North Carolina barbecue instead of pulled pork out of Havana, although the beans are flavorful and the chutneylike pineapple salsa sweetens the vinegary sting.

There are two kinds of mac and cheese on the menu, but the best is the lobster-topped, bacon-laden version, extravagantly lavished with cheese, but a little stingy with the shreds of lobster that survive the oven only by collapsing into lank strings. Or maybe that's a good thing.

The fried chicken arrives -- surprise! — boneless, and dry because of it, but the mashed potatoes are decent and free of unwelcome extras. The Kobe beef burger is juicy and packs a meaty punch, but I don't see how it manages to be $8 better than the regular cheeseburger. In fact, I'm a little nervous about what part of the Kobe cow the ground beef comes from, but that's probably just me.

Ultimately, though, deLux is more about the place than any culinary missteps. Downstairs, the chairs and booths are comfortable and the service is attentive, but up the unshakeable steel staircase, it's even nicer. Couches and armchairs are grouped in a way that inspires long, lingering confidences over cocktails, and the television — now appearing everywhere just when you thought you'd left that sucker at home — stays put on the first floor.

It's a room that asks you to stay awhile, for coffee in the morning and drinks after dark, and I can imagine doing just that, often. S



deLux
2229 W. Main St.
353-2424
7 a.m.-2 a.m., seven days a week.
Handicapped access downstairs.
Smoking some times, in certain places, but occasionally everywhere if it's really late. Ask.
www.deluxrichmond.com




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