Prairiefire’s Paradise Diner gets only the wrong stuff right

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Revivals are best left to Broadway and to church groups. When it comes to restaurants, they’re almost always doomed to fail. It’s one thing to bring back The Sound of Music. It’s another to put Paradise Diner back on the block.

Yes, yes, some folks remain nostalgic for the original Paradise, the quirky Oak Park Mall café opened by Gilbert/Robinson veterans Bill Crooks and Paul Khoury in 1987. It was cute and shiny, a Disneyland version of a diner, but the food was good. In those days, Crooks and Khoury — who have since gone their separate ways — were hands-on restaurateurs.

I don’t know whose hands are running the nine-month-old Paradise Diner at Prairiefire, the development at 135th street and Nall, but whatever charm and polish the original had is altogether absent. Having eaten several meals at this third incarnation of the PB&J staple, I can say it’s a truly unfortunate venture, a copy of a copy of a copy.

It would be fair to note that no dining spot I’ve visited at Prairiefire has impressed me enough to keep me coming back. Not Cocobolos (which has already attempted a rethink since I reviewed it last year), not Pinstripes and not Newport Grill. But those places at least look as though they belong in this attractively mounted suburban complex. Paradise Diner, on the other hand, is a conspicuous oddity: an evocation of unpretentious jeans-and-T-shirt dining that still has lobster ravioli and filet mignon on the menu.

A real diner doesn’t offer those dishes (or valet parking). Then again, the kind of greasy spoon that most of us envision as a traditional diner doesn’t share a kitchen with an expensive seafood restaurant, the way Paradise Diner does with Newport Grill. The two employ the same kitchen facilities, executive chef and general manager.

I can’t think of another restaurant in the metro that has assembled more ill-fitting components in one place. The first thing you notice: talented interior designer Hal Swanson’s assemblage of rough-hewn beams, mismatched light fixtures and a migraine-inducing “pop art” wall fabric. Then you sit down and note that the menu is a collage, too, with simple dishes — a meatloaf special, a cheeseburger — looking dowdy next to, say, a short-rib stroganoff.

Then you order the food and find that the meatloaf and the cheeseburger are awful, but the fussy stroganoff is unexpectedly excellent. It’s like the Bizarro world of the old Superman comics, this diner where the basics are poor and you end up lamenting just how few oddly ritzy dishes are offered.

There are also in-between items, such as coconut-fried-chicken tenders, but they swing toward the regrettable. The tenders were actually so overcooked and tough that they resembled garden mulch. And the beef-tenderloin flatbread I sampled was skimpy.

A couple of dishes here date back to some earlier PB&J restaurants. Some may recognize Cory’s Chicken Salad, which was called Bill’s Chicken Salad when Crooks was still with the company. The Squawking Nachos are back. And there’s a truly fine platter of thickly battered fish and chips.

The only dish I loved, though, was that stroganoff: a fork-tender hunk of short rib over a jumble of egg noodles and wild-mushroom-and-thyme cream sauce. At $15, it was even a relative bargain for this zip code, especially compared with the Sunday meatloaf special, sold for the same price. The night I tried it, the dish consisted of a stiff puck of, presumably, ground beef, egg and breadcrumbs that had been baked — or so the manager insisted — until it had reached the consistency of igneous rock. All of the shiny brown gravy in the universe couldn’t have made this shard of beef-flavored pumice more palatable. I shoved the plate aside and waited for the server to return.

The waiter look puzzled. “Most people just love our meatloaf,” he said.

That was the same reassurance a different server used to describe the leathery cheeseburger that arrived at my table during another visit. The meat had been grilled with such intensity that it could have fallen out of a smelting crucible. It wasn’t a burger; it was jerky. (The staff is personable and professional; they’re not the problem here.)

The desserts include a peewee-size hot-fudge sundae that can be had a la carte. At two bucks, it was one of the better deals here, and it was vastly superior to the doughy, dull brown-butter cake. Also on the menu are a forlorn wedge of cheesecake and a trio of house-made bonbons so dreary that they make Russell Stover seem exquisite.

Someplace called Paradise Diner, regardless of its history, should at least make a dessert you’d order again. But this Paradise isn’t that kind of diner, and its lineage doesn’t help. This isn’t a revival — it’s a do-not-resuscitate.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews