When does a diner cease to be a diner? When it no longer has seats at the counter? When it takes burgers off the menu? How about when it starts serving bananas Foster or entrées flamed with brandy?
For more than 20 years, in two locations and under two owners and two names, D'Pauli's (formerly Giorgio's) has thrived on its reputation as a diner with upscale surprises: steak Diane, veal Marsala, a burger with chutney and bordelaise sauce. Today, though, the burgers have taken a way-back seat on the dinner menu; only three are offered, plus five sandwiches. The rest of the long menu is a mix of items like those you'd find at Big Boy (such as "Light Delight," tuna and cottage cheese) and such higher-falutin ones as steak au poivre and veal piccata. (Lunch tends more to the bacon cheeseburger side, while breakfast will bring you anything from house-made hash browns to Belgian waffle jubilee, with flaming Kirsch.)
It's impressive to sit at the counter and watch the cooks when D'Pauli's is busy, and to watch their economy of motion as they not only flip steaks with both hands but pour in glugs from the sherry, vermouth and liqueur bottles by the stove. (No alcohol is offered in a glass, another distinction that keeps a diner a diner, perhaps.)
Service is slow from 7 to 8 p.m. as the cooks try to keep up with demand, as D'Pauli's is wildly popular with the senior crowd. But what customers are eating is not gourmet food, despite the names on the dishes. I kept telling myself that such-and-such was not bad for a diner.
In some cases, prices are not that different from what you'd pay at a middle-drawer white-tablecloth place — $16.99 for veal Parmesan, for example. Other times they're way low: three lamb chops for $12.99. Whether you think you're getting a great deal depends on what you're comparing it to. You're paying more than you'd pay for a diner meal, or a Big Boy meal, but in a downscale environment, for one flavor per dish, nothing subtle here.
One of the dishes D'Pauli's is famous for is tomato basil bisque. It's salmon-colored, with one big piece of basil in it, rather sweet, and served with Krispy saltines in cellophane packets. If you'd consider yourself cheated if your soup didn't come with saltines, fine. If you're looking for fine dining, try a place where the surprises lie more in the results than in the ambition.
For example, a nice touch is the little plate of olive oil with a dab of basil pesto, brought at the outset with warm rolls. But the rolls are soft and characterless.
The $9.99 D'Pauli's Salad was advertised as made of mixed greens, but there was only one type of very pale lettuce, as flavorless as iceberg with a bit of the crinkle of romaine. The overwhelming flavor was dill — like so many tastes at D'Pauli's, not a diner flavor, but is it all you want your salad to taste like?
I enjoyed my veal piccata (misnamed veal picanti) — what's not to like about a sauce of lemon butter, garlic and white wine? (The traditional capers of veal piccata are available on request.) It came with an enormous baked sweet potato, plain and good.
Veal Marsala also did what it usually does — deliver a big punch of sweetness. A carpet bag steak — "cooked to perfection with bordelaise sauce and flamed with Wild Turkey bourbon" — was a bit chewy, and the ostensible bordelaise had a lot more in common with salty mid-class gravy than one might have hoped. Spaghetti salmone displayed three big pieces of salmon atop thick pasta in a pale tomato sauce. Neon-yellow lemon rice soup had one flavor: lemon. Spinach triangles, an appetizer (along with wing dings and chicken quesadillas), had an agreeably tangy filling, but the soft outsides lacked the crisp flakiness you want in phyllo.
For dessert, I sampled a standard-issue sundae covered in peanuts, rice pudding that was mighty stiff and sweet, rather than creamy, and a slice of pie in which the "pistachio pudding cream" was overwhelmed by the Cool Whip.
Don't get me wrong — I didn't send anything back to the kitchen. I had my leftovers cheerfully boxed by the efficient staff, as everyone else was doing, looking forward to a lunch that would outshine many a brown bag. Portion sizes are truly enormous; that's where the value comes in, especially if you take advantage of the 2-6 p.m. 20 percent off Early Bird Special. Now, why didn't the Lark think of that?
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.