Out of the Ordinary: Park City Diner

Park City Diner in Valley View claims it's "not your ordinary diner," whatever that means. After all, these days, a diner can be anything from a greasy spoon to such aggressively upscale eateries as Atlanta's Buckhead Diner or the Fog City Diner in San Francisco. These aberrations aside, however, most of us have a fairly clear mental image of what a diner should look like and what a typical diner menu should offer. In our diner of the mind, the room is long and narrow, with decor evocative of the dining cars of the golden age of rail travel. The menu features standard, simple American fare: comfortable food like burgers, fries, club sandwiches, chili, soups and simple desserts.

It might seem surprising, then, that Frank and Malisse Sinito, owners of Lockkeepers — regarded by many savvy diners as one of the area's best and most creative upscale spots — added the Park City Diner to the Thornburg Station complex that houses their flagship restaurant.

"Not really," says Sinito. "My beginnings in this business go back about 20 years to Little Angie's River Pub, where I developed a menu that featured solid, American comfort food. So I'm really going back to my roots."

Well, you can never go all the way back. For one thing, Park City hardly looks like your typical diner. Sure, there's plenty of stainless steel on the walls and the booths are upholstered in bottle-green and salmon leather, but designer Morris Nathanson added rich woods, a stunning mosaic floor and art deco lighting fixtures. It still has the look of a dining car, but definitely on a deluxe train.

And then there's the food. After all, not many diners even have an executive chef, much less a chef like Pamela Waterman, alumna of the Culinary Institute of America. During her years in charge of the kitchen at Lockkeepers, she brought that establishment into the very top rank of local restaurants. She moved over from Lockkeepers to Park City last January. In her new kitchen, Waterman's mission is to create old standards that win the blue ribbon as best in class.

"Everything is made from scratch and to order," she says.

"To add even more variety to the menu," she adds, "we've assigned a different theme to every night of the week." Monday is Asian night and, while specific choices vary from week to week, you may find such temptations as General Tso's chicken, a sushi sampler or shrimp in coconut-milk curry. Tuesday is Italian night. Choose, perhaps, a plate of eggplant Parmesan or fettuccine with veal meatballs. And so on through the remainder of the week: Mexican on Wednesday, holiday favorites (such as roast turkey) on Thursday, a fish-fry on Friday, roasts for Saturday and breakfast all day on Sunday.

Appetizers are offered either as "platters" for sharing or as "small plate" individual servings. Try the red bones ($7.95), meaty spareribs that are fall-off-the-bone tender. Waterman marinates them all night in a spicy dry rub, then braises them in ginger ale for a unique sweet/spicy flavor combination. Egg rolls ($4.75) feature a feather-light, crunchy skin around a vegetarian filling. Not bad, but a little too grassy for this carnivore. Sweet-and-sour and peanut-flavored dipping sauces save the day. Calamari ($7.95) are rolled in roasted sesame seeds before frying. They're crunchy, nutty and accompanied by a dipping sauce that offers just the right jolt of heat and vinegar.

Sharers may choose the pu-pu platter, a medley of Asian appetizers, or opt for a dozen peel-and-eat shrimp. The Mexican, Greek or barbecue combos also make great starter courses for sharing. The pu-pu ($10.95) features the aforementioned vegetarian egg rolls and calamari, plus water-chestnut rumaki and Chinese bones (much like the red bones, but with a touch of hoisin).

The Greek-inspired Olympic platter ($10.95) offers a generous scoop of hummus — made with white beans rather than the more traditional chickpeas — roasted eggplant dip and a salad of marinated artichokes and feta cheese. Both the hummus and eggplant dip are presented in fried pita cups. A few rounds of soft, fresh pita would have been a welcome addition.

Park City's "famous" tomato, basil and artichoke soup ($6.50 for a bowl) is offered every night, but if you're lucky enough to visit for Monday's Asian Invasion, order the hot-and-sour clam soup. It's a wonderful, aromatic blend of clams, clam broth, ginger, lemon grass and heat that will have you licking the bowl and looking for more ($3.25 cup, $3.95 bowl).

Entree salads are huge, beautifully presented and flawlessly made. Try the Cobb ($11.95), a salad that is often promised in menu descriptions elsewhere, but rarely delivered as well as at Park City Diner. This is the real McCoy, a classic Cobb with carefully arranged rows of bleu cheese, avocado, crisp bacon, turkey, chopped hard-boiled egg and tomatoes on a bed of chopped lettuce fresh from the field.

Don Ho's salmon salad ($11.95) is a Hawaiian feast with grilled salmon resting on Chinese cabbage with tomatoes, celery, pickled onions, a sprinkle of macadamia nuts and a sweet/sour dressing.

Any diner worthy of the name must offer club sandwiches, chili dogs, BLTs and Reubens. Here, the sandwiches are on housemade breads and accompanied by such sides as fresh french fries, potato chips made in house or perhaps a bit of apple-cider slaw. The Reuben sandwich ($9.95) is an example of Waterman's giving a new twist to an old standard: She grills a chicken breast, slathers it in honey mustard, piles on apple-cider slaw and a slice of Swiss, then sandwiches all between two slices of grilled rye bread.

Burgers are big, made with ground round and cooked precisely as ordered. We tried the basic burger ($7.95, $8.85 with cheese), which was juicy and delicious. The accompanying fries were great and the bun fresh — just wish it had been toasted.

Park City's "killer meatloaf" is its most popular entrée ($11.75). It's perfectly seasoned, moist and melts in the mouth. Sides include velvety mushroom gravy, fresh broccoli and smashed redskin potatoes.

Nightly specials reflect the theme of the day. On Monday, you could find pork chops marinated in crushed lemon grass ($13.95). Wednesday's Mexican menu might feature chicken in spicy, chocolate-spiked mole sauce ($11.95).

Don't pass up dessert. All are made next door in Lockkeepers' kitchen and they're outstanding. Half-mile-high chocolate cake ($5.95) is a spectacular skyscraper of light and luscious chocolate sponge cake. Chocolate mousse separates the many layers, and a coating of chocolate ganache studded with chocolate chunks tops the edifice. The peach tart ($6.95) features a crisp crust, almond-flavored cream and a layer of perfect peach halves under a shiny glaze. Our favorite was a summertime special: a bombe molded of coconut ice cream, pineapple sorbet, raspberry sorbet and sponge cake. It was a delicious and refreshing end to a late-summer meal.

Park City Diner, 8111 Rockside Road, Valley View, (216) 328-0575. Hours: breakfast: Mon-Fri 6:30 - 10:30 a.m., Sat 8 - 11 a.m.; lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m. - 4 p.m., Sat noon - 4 p.m.; dinner: Mon-Thu 4 - 10 p.m., Fri and Sat 4 - 11 p.m. Breakfast is served all day on Sunday, 8 a.m. - 7 p.m. The restaurant offers full liquor service and accepts all major credit cards.

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