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Diner duo 

Hanging the Moon, Sampling the City

More than 20 years ago, when you were bouncing on your mama's lap in Buckhead, I moved into the rococo but dilapidated St. Charles in Virginia-Highland. That neighborhood had not been fully gentrified then, and it was a pleasant blend of bohos, old-timers, halfway house residents and a smattering of yuppie prototypes.

Sundays, I usually awoke (hung over) to the sounds of the Salvation Army Band playing outside the legendary Plaza Drugs, where Harry's in a Hurry is now located. I'd roll out of bed, sucking on my first cigarette (or joint) of the day, and walk to the Majestic Diner where I ordered the same thing every Sunday, the lamb special. Just 20 years ago, you could not easily find good lamb on a menu in Atlanta, and the Greek owners of the Majestic prepared the best in town at the time. The waitress with the Church of God hairdo and the slightly crossed eyes never even bothered to ask me what I wanted, I was such a regular.

I also ate, during those impoverished years, at Doby's, next door to the Majestic, and at the Dunk'N Dine on Cheshire Bridge, frequently in the company of Lavita Allen, star of the Sweet Gum Head. Now, Doby's is out of business. The Sweet Gum Head closed. Lavita died. Of course, the Dunk'N Dine carries on -- I ate there recently -- and the Majestic perseveres, though I quit going when the lamb went off the menu years ago.

Diners, nevertheless, continue to flourish in our city. We don't much identify them as we used to -- as those gleaming metal structures resembling railroad dining cars that once dotted the American landscape. Now, a diner is any smallish, typically overlighted place that usually features a bar with stools, serves relatively inexpensive food and often has a staff that has come to suffer policemen's syndrome. That is to say, having seen too much too quickly of scummy people, they don't like to take no shit.

I visited a couple of diners recently. The Crescent Moon, a longtime favorite of Decatur folks, moved some time ago from its original semi-seedy location to a Disney-esque locus at 174 W. Ponce de Leon (404-377-5623). It calls itself a "neighborhood eatery," but the overlighted space with its overdone, grimly campy outer-space theme -- another Jetsons set-- is pure tacky diner.

I visited with my friend Tommy Brown, who insisted he'd had decent meals there before. Good for him. Our meal, alas, was amazingly unappetizing. We ordered a smoked chicken quesadilla, normally an entree, to split as an appetizer ($6.29). While the menu brags that the restaurant smokes its own chicken breasts for this dish, it does not disclose its secret for draining the meat of every drop of natural moisture. Avoid it.

Things actually got worse. Tommy ordered the roasted chicken pot pie with garlic mashed potatoes ($8.99). He asked, though, that the kitchen leave off the potatoes and give him some broccoli instead. Our server, Bradley, balked and said he didn't think that would work but would check with the kitchen. The kitchen agreed.

When Bradley returned, he set before Tommy what was basically a bowl of watery chicken soup surmounted by some puff pastry. "This isn't chicken pot pie," Tommy said.

Bradley explained that the mashed potatoes usually form the body of the pie. That, he said, is why he balked earlier. Tommy, noble as always, decided to eat his chicken pot soup without complaint.

Meanwhile, my steak au poivre, a $14.95 special, arrived. One taste sent me reeling back to childhood, when every mother in America was marinating beef in hideous flavored tenderizers. I'm sure this is not what Crescent Moon intended, but its Cabernet-pepper sauce, combined with the mysteriously mealy texture of the meat, certainly duplicated that fad. Tommy was less baroque. He just thought it tasted like Band-Aids. Oily potatoes, supposedly flavored with rosemary, were served on the side with some quite edible green beans.

What can I say good about our experience? The apple pie is killer.

City Cafe Diner is a lovably garish place, open 24 hours, at 525 10th St. (404-724-0407). You get huge plate glass windows, mirrored walls, pink booths, red chairs, blue neon and a smattering of Greek food, since, in the American tradition of true diners, this one is operated by Greeks.

The menu is absurdly huge and comprehensive. Since it ranges from jalapeno poppers, fajitas and fried calamari to burgers, fried catfish and souvlaki, it's hard to take seriously its claim of "real home cooking at a real fair price." Maybe there really is somebody in the back cooking a zillion international dishes homestyle, but I'm doubting it.

Alas, my combination Greek platter ($10.95) was a disappointment. Like all plates here, it was an almost comically gigantic serving exaggerated by tons of French fries and a heap of Greek salad. The greasy gyro -- in chicken and beef varieties -- was out of proportion to the spinach pie and dolmades. Everything was piled onto a cold slice of pita that I couldn't really get to without knocking everything off the plate. Nor was I served any tzatziki sauce to season the gyro. The plate needs to be better engineered.

Wayne ordered a perfectly good burger -- the Benedict burger topped with Canadian bacon, cheese and a very overdone fried egg ($7.95). And I've been back once for a good breakfast omelet made with feta cheese ($6.55). I like the place for its garishness and simplicity. Just stick with the basics, though.

Call Cliff Bostock's voice mail, 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, at any time, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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