Most of it I can recall with a sense of nostalgia. But not the fast food I ate — and I ate a ton of it. Bacon double cheeseburgers from Burger King, with large fries (supersized, by the 1990s) and several refills of a large Coke, were my preferred poison. Only a teenage boy's freakish metabolism kept me from waddling, diabetic, into the twenty-first century.
It wasn't that the food was bad. If I could pretend not to have read Fast Food Nation or The Omnivore's Dilemma, I could still enjoy the occasional corporate burger and fries. And it wasn't even that the food was bad for me. (I mean, a diet of pork belly, foie gras and tacos al pastor ain't exactly doing wonders for my waistline.) No, the problem was how bland the whole experience was, from the cookie-cutter burgers smushed together inside their paper wrappers to the sticky faux-wood tables to the taupe and mauve color schemes that — if there is a God, and He is just — will decorate the lowest circle of Hell. As a result, I have no individual memories of the food I loved as a kid, just hundreds of identical experiences blurred together into a single, greasy impression.
Now, I don't often dwell on my childhood eating habits, but I do ponder them once in a while, most recently while larding my arteries with an ice-cream sundae at the Fountain on Locust. The sundae was the sort of dish that Ian, age twelve, could have eaten twice in a sitting: chocolate ice cream in a glass, coated with hot fudge, topped with whipped cream and marshmallow sauce. Unlike the sundaes of my youth, this one featured chocolate ice cream that tasted like chocolate: rich, silky, with just a hint of bitterness. And it had an adult, vaguely sexy name: the "Dark & Sinister." I ate the whole thing and then tried not to remember how long it had been since my last visit to the gym.
As its name might suggest, the Fountain on Locust is a throwback to the days of soda fountains and lunch counters, of phosphates and ice-cream floats. If that doesn't offer enough opportunities for nostalgia, the restaurant occupies the former Stutz showroom along what was once Locust Street's automotive row.
I had to Google "Stutz." The only soda jerk I've ever seen is in a Norman Rockwell painting, and the ice-cream sundaes of my childhood were scooped out of industrial tubs in fluorescent-lighted Baskin-Robbins by pimpled and mulleted teenagers too busy plotting how to sneak beer into the Crüe concert to realize I'd asked for extra hot fudge, no whipped cream. Which is why I was pondering my nostalgia-free childhood culinary life, and why, in a larger sense, a place like the Fountain on Locust normally wouldn't appeal to me.
But the Fountain on Locust doesn't belong to that category of nostalgia-driven faux diners, soda fountains and lunch counters — you know, with posters of Marilyn Monroe on the wall, tabletop jukeboxes, enough chrome to leave an afterglow when you shut your eyes and a kid in a paper hat Twittering on his cell phone instead of making your milkshake. The interior's wood fixtures and low natural light give it the appearance of a pub as much as a lunch counter, and the décor is a striking art-deco look rather than 1950s kitsch.
The menu, too, though heavy on that classic lunch-counter pair of soup and a sandwich, has its own bent. The soups, for example, include a Polish potato soup spiked with dill — so much so that, as my wife remarked, it could be called pickle soup. Peanut soup is another uncommon specimen. Here it's on the thin side, the richness of the peanuts cut (a tad too much, for my taste) by stock. A third soup changes daily; on my visits, it was Cuban black-bean soup, dense with beans and vegetables and possessing a strong cumin kick.
Sandwiches range from the simple (peanut butter and jelly for the kids or the young at heart) to rather ambitious constructions. I especially dug the "Prosperity Panini," a messy concoction of grilled zucchini, red-onion confit, roasted red pepper, hummus and tomato. Because I'm an unrepentant carnivore, I added sliced turkey to counter all those vegetables, but the zucchini had enough substance and flavor to carry the sandwich by itself, and the hummus gave the whole thing a welcome zip.
Many of the sandwiches are twists on simple classics. The "Blackhawk," named for a Stutz automobile, is a roast-beef sandwich topped with lettuce and tomato, but also roasted red pepper and a delicious spread of garlic, basil, olive oil and goat cheese. The "Royal Grille" is a grilled cheese (white cheddar and mozzarella) with fat Fuji apple slices in the middle. You can add turkey to this, too, but I refrained.
The menu also includes a few single-serving pizzas. These are described as featuring a "deep-dish crust," though what appears on the plate looks more like an open-face sandwich on very thick slices of toast. In the case of "Pesto Chicken Pizza," that crust is topped with grilled chicken-breast meat under a gooey blanket of melted mozzarella topped with a long squiggle of pesto. I did like the crust, which had a soft, slightly spongy texture, but the pesto flavor was muted by the sheer quantity of cheese and chicken.
The drink menu includes both ice-cream martinis (I took a pass; it was lunchtime) and classic phosphates. I opted for the housemade root beer, which was excellent — sweet and spiced, with just enough carbonation for balance.
The desserts feature very good ice cream and sherbet either alone or in various combinations. Besides the "Dark & Sinister," I tried the "Sweet Annina Twist," which topped raspberry ice cream and orange sherbet with raspberry sauce, hot fudge and candied orange peel. The result was a lot like dipping fresh fruit into melted chocolate.
Had I been fifteen, I'd have ordered a second.