Hell, I never thought I'd live to see 35, let alone my current incarnation as a calorie-counting, cholesterol-watching ex-smoker, ex-boozer, former snack-cake junkie and doughnut addict. I may not be a "goddamn geriatric," but I'm a lot more sympathetic to diners who wear their napkins like bibs and prefer a gulp of Maalox to a shot of espresso for an après-dinner treat.
Maybe that's why I like the venerable Romanelli Grill. It's easy to feel younger than Justin Timberlake when you're surrounded by diners who grew up listening to Rudy Vallee. The place started out as a neighborhood saloon in the 1930s, and the ambience has hardly changed. Men still gather at the bar to smoke cigars and swig beer after work. And over in the dining rooms, veteran waitresses aren't afraid to snap, "I just serve the tables, honey. I'm not a mind reader."
I have younger friends who like to eat there because it's inexpensive and so tragically unhip that it's a comfortable antidote to the new, chic bistros popping up all over town. But because of its reputation as a blue-hair hangout, none of them wanted to be put on record as frequenting Romanelli's.
"Darling," said one thirtyish friend, "I'd rather be seen walking out of Ray's Playpen!"
The night I ate dinner there with the youthful-looking Marilyn (who started eating at Romanelli's in the 1940s) and Ivy, the ex-hippie turned artist, we saw patrons of nearly every age group -- from a frizzy-haired octogenarian caked with so much makeup that she looked like a silent-movie vamp, to a young couple with two squalling toddlers.
"I can't help myself," shuddered Ivy, looking around the room. "I'm having a snob attack."
Glamorous it isn't; the tables are uncloaked, and the napkins are paper. But my friend Bob compares Romanelli's main dining room to a small-town country club because there's an unexpected gentility to the place. Good manners prevail in a setting where everyone seems to know each other.
Marilyn looked up from her vodka on the rocks and waved to people as they walked in and out of the dining room.
"These are the same people who have been eating here for thirty years," she said. "But I see a lot of new people here tonight. Look, there's a whole table of lesbians over there."
Our waitress, Linda, a no-nonsense type who has been working at Romanelli's for twenty years, told us that more and more young people are discovering the place. As Waldo's aging population moves out of the neighborhood, headed for places like John Knox Village, the younger folks are buying their houses, she said. "So the clientele is changing."
But not on the early evening when Bob, Debbie and I squeezed into a booth near the entrance and watched a trio of regular patrons come through the front door. One hobbled in clutching a walker. Another dragged her oxygen tank behind her. The third leaned heavily on a cane. As they passed through the smaller, smoking dining room back to the bigger dining area, they cheerily greeted old friends.
"See, it's like a country club. Everyone knows each other," Bob said as he dipped a fried chicken liver into a paper cup filled with drawn butter. We had all gasped when the pile of moist chicken livers -- the best in town, by the way -- arrived golden and crispy but with melted butter as a dipping sauce. Cholesterol-wise, that's like tossing a burning ember into a can of gasoline. Mostly, though, it's just an oddly flavorless choice, so we asked for something different. I would have preferred the restaurant's slightly sweet spaghetti sauce as an alternative, but I was outvoted by Bob and Debbie, who wanted cream gravy as a dip. The waiter, Travis, agreed that it was the more popular choice.
And why not? For many patrons, a good greasy dinner isn't just home cooking; it's culinary Viagra. Besides, older diners, survivors of the postwar cocktail generation, like a stiff drink before, during and sometimes after supper. On one visit, I overheard a frail lady with a cloud of teased white hair turn down dessert: "I never touch that crap. It's totally unhealthy. Bring me a vodka stinger!" You go, granny!
But diners should be careful what they pour. After I emptied a tiny paper cup of "Italian" salad dressing over my chopped iceberg lettuce, I nearly choked on the first bite. Dressing? It tasted like straight oil. I pushed it away and buttered a slice of pumpernickel bread.
That was the dinner I shared with Marilyn and snobbish Ivy, who had come along as a lark but found the restaurant and the menu depressing. After first griping that "everything on the menu was fried," she settled on a dinner of hot spiced shrimp. She seemed pleased at the pile of pink crustaceans nestled in a curl of red cabbage leaf. But after the first bite, she sniffed, "They're overcooked. And not very spicy."
The word spice is irrelevant at the Romanelli Grill. The spaghetti sauce tastes as if no herbs or garlic have ever gone near it; the cream gravy on the chicken-fried steak has only a hint of pepper. But the good thing about this no-spice world is that real, freshly made mashed potatoes taste only of potatoes, butter and cream instead of garlic or jalapeno or wasabi. So many trendy chefs forget that simplicity is sometimes a virtue.
There's no dish less complicated than Romanelli's best-selling fried catfish. It's just the whole whiskered fish, breaded and pitched into a deep fryer until the crust is sizzling and the flesh is firm and flaky. Linda deboned mine in less than a second and asked if I wanted the tail. Before I could answer, she threw it back on the cart she had used to roll out our dinners and wheeled off like a NASCAR driver. Her performance was one of the comic highlights of the night: She sort of tossed everything we ordered at us as she made her way to a table of regulars she clearly liked better.
"It's enough to give you an insecurity complex," Marilyn said as she cut into a coaster-sized "petite" filet that looked microscopic to me but was "just the perfect size" for her.
Romanelli's portions aren't stingy, but they're designed for the less-hearty appetite. At one dinner, Debbie laughed at the puny baked rainbow trout that a server had set in front of her. "It's a baby trout," she said, "and swimming in a lake of butter!"
That was the night I tackled a tender hunk of pounded beefsteak coated in a crunchy armor of chicken-fried breading and slathered in cream gravy.
"Hey, you only live once," said an attractive, trim seventysomething lady at the next table. She told us she was a cancer survivor who still smokes and drinks and eats all the things that are supposed to be bad for you.
Including dessert. Romanelli imports its cakes, but the kitchen puts out a hot, baked apple crisp that overcomes its gritty, breadcrumb-tasting topping. Despite the apples' predictably delicate spicing, it tastes as if somebody's grandmother had made it -- just like most of the dishes at Romanelli's.
That's just the way the fans of this restaurant like it. Shut up and pass the gravy.