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New City Diner is the real thing

The best of the '50s _ good service, warm atmosphere, solid food at reasonable prices _ remains, along with an updated menu that suits the '90s.

It warms the Nibbler's heart and coffee cup to see the New City Diner, going on 50, busy on a hot summer night or a Sunday morning. There are few sadder sights than a diner idle or abandoned, and too many are.

Such a wonderful piece of 20th century technological innovation, the diner. Stainless steel, Formica, tile, Naugahyde and neon fused into an all-in-one kitchen and dining room that rolled out of a factory and down the road to Everytown. Based on the railroad dining car, the diner was an early triumph of modular construction, but never standardization, and rarely a chain (okay, Toddle House, bless its toddlin' heart).

With the invention of the diner, the loneliest stretch of highway in East Nowhere could instantly have a restaurant, a place for two eggs over easy, malts, blue plate specials _ and community. The buildings may have been manufactured, metallic and moderne, but the places were never cold or impersonal.

All you had to add was people, first Shorty on the grill and Rosie at the counter and register, and the rest was easy _ or used to be. Everybody wanted someplace where the food and the folks were warm, even if you sat by yourself for hours over coffee and toast.

What is now the New City Diner was made in 1952 by Mountain View Co. of New Jersey. It started out almost a half century ago in Tampa on Dale Mabry Highway near Kennedy Boulevard as the Ayers Diner and sat there until 1993, when it gave way to franchise row. It was moved (that was the principle of diners, remember) to an empty stretch of Himes and went through various attempts at revivals of faux Happy Days.

Why is it alive again? Good food surely, in fact very good food and of the modern kind so rare around Tampa Bay: grilled tuna fired up with Indian sambal olek, chicken crusted with walnuts, artichoke foccaccia and pork chops in herbs and olive oil. There are burgers, meatloaf and milkshakes too, yet the New City Diner's menu is neither nostalgically corny nor preciously nouvelle. Re-educated, but still the stuff of a fine diner, solid eating at modest prices that we ought to find more often.

The other answer is people. Here Shorty and Rosie would be Roger and Terry Lenzi, longtime restaurant people who once worked at the hip edge of local dining, at the likes of Capriccio in south Tampa and Miracle Grill in Pasadena. A few years ago they settled down in a small neighborhood place called Eccentrics in an uneccentric patch of West Tampa; last year they moved up to the diner.

So have we, artsy students, hip dates and whole families with tastes young and old. For the Lenzis bring together two nourishing traditions, the energy of contemporary cooking and the comfort of the past. Their diner isn't the same ol': Jazz has replaced the jukebox, the counter's been pulled out to make room for tables with cool '50s chairs, and while there's no daily breakfast, you can get blueberry pancakes or filet mignon and eggs at Sunday brunch.

The standing menu is tempting and creative, with a savory meatloaf of veal and wild mushrooms and shrimp done with artichokes and spinach or sauteed with blue crab or in Jamaican jerk seasoning. If that's not enough, a dozen daily specials stretch the culinary boundaries further, especially with fresh finfish in a world of sauces. Accompaniments and garnishes include all manner of starches, from polenta to flavored mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables.

It can be over the top for customers who want more simplicity and less spice, but the menu doesn't seem too much for the kitchen. I found an occasional case of overcooking and breads weak, but the main shortcut was in presentation: Entrees included so many goodies that they slopped over each other. Then again, Shorty wasn't long on frills, either.

But the Nibbler won't quibble when the ingredients are the perfectly cooked white flesh of amberjack sweetly glazed with hoisin, peppery stir-fried vegetables and delicate basmati rice; I managed to enjoy each taste without fussy plating. I did, however, have dull rice with wahoo on another night.

More often the entrees, even meat and potatoes, impress and wow, like rack of lamb with eight ribs, spinach, garlic mash, a rich port sauce and lightly herbed ribbons of squash, or Cajun-spiced pork loin cooked to my order, medium rare and juicy, with mashed potatoes and goat cheese.

Sunday's brunch is not frilly, but it's full of unusual options, like a petite rack of lamb or rainbow trout (too dry for me) as well as sweeter fare, hearty huevos ranchero and a raft of eggs Benedict.

The greatest improvement in diner fare is on the side. The comes-with salad is largely romaine and larger croutons with ripe tomatoes, but you can order livelier salads. The vegetables are always fresh and cooked with lightness and a little style. Wines were never a diner item, but New City's selection beats many white tablecloth joints for price and selection of favorite Nibbler values like Bogle and Los Vascos and treats like Guenoc.

Two important diner verities, dessert and service, remain in place. The long list of sweets includes at least four forms of chocolate cake, and if you can have only one, the 10-layer cake is much more than enough. While service is no longer "Honey"-ed, servers were quick and both enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the food. They'd make Rosie proud _ and shame the staff of bigger-bucks places.

There are too many places to get ordinary food on our roadsides today, including shiny new diners remade into miniature theme parks.

New City Diner has modernized the food, but it's the real thing. We need more of them.

New City Diner

1002 N Himes Ave., Tampa; (813) 877-2088

Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays; dinner, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; brunch, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

Details: Major credit cards accepted. Beer, wine. Non-smoking section provided.

Wheelchair access: Good

Prices: Lunch, $4.95 to $6.95; dinner, $5.95 to $14.95