Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Two Diners Enter, One Diner Leaves: Carroll Gardens vs. The New St. Clair

Carroll Gardens Salonike Diner vs. The NEW St. Clair Restaurant

CG: 155 Smith St. between Bergen and Dean

F/G to Bergen St., B51, B75

SC: 93 Smith St. on the corner of Atlantic

F/G to Bergen St, B75, B63

Reviewed by Jessa

So, shortly after I reviewed the original St. Clair Restaurant, it closed, and I was sad for two reasons: A) my first diner review became irrelevant, and B) I had grown up eating at the place! It was also the place my best friend and I liked to go when we weren't in the mood for the Carroll Gardens Diner, another favorite of ours. Well, I was insanely excited when I saw it reopening as The NEW (!) St. Clair Restaurant.

I was also a little bit apprehensive. Would they have cream cheese thimbles and awesome lemonade? What would the prices be like? Well, one day, my boyfriend Spyderr and I decided to have brunch there. I was impressed by the new, '50s-style menu design and eagerly began to peruse the menu. Oddly, a creepy sense of familiarity set in my brain. At first, it all seemed like coincidence: "Oh! They have crepes, just like Carroll Gardens Diner! And look, there's the Lox Platter, also like Carroll Gardens! And...Philly Cheesesteak...Surprise...just like...Carroll Gardens?" I've been to Carroll Gardens Diner enough times to pretty much know their menu by heart. This was the same exact menu. (The one exception being the aforementioned Cheesesteak Surprise was St. Clair Style, as opposed to Carroll Gardens Style, whatever the hell that means.)

Okay, so the menu's the same, which probably means the owners are the same. But...well, is the quality the same? Does the food actually taste the same?

The Order:

Grilled cheese on rye with tomato, a cup of matzoh ball soup, peppermint tea.

The Food:

Carroll Gardens Diner was my first stop. I decided on the grilled cheese because it is my go-to drunk/tipsy/hungover diner meal. It was good, a standard grilled cheese, a little dry for my taste. The bread was toasted but on the verge of burnt. That being said, they did add a nice amount of tomato, and the cheese was gooey and plentiful.

The matzoh ball soup is a favorite of mine, and while the Carroll Gardens soup isn't tops, it's always there for me. Oddly enough, it wasn't on the menu when I went, but when I asked, they did have it. A few dashes of salt, and I felt warm and cozy, sort of like that old sweater of your ex-boyfriend's that you still wear every once in a while. (Yes, you do.)

St. Clair, I am pleased to report, made me what may be the best straight-up grilled cheese sandwich I have ever had. Perfectly buttery bread, bursting with cheese and juicy tomatoes! It was the perfect mix of crunch and grease. What a joy it was to dip my sandwich in my matzoh ball soup, which was on the menu. Of course, it required a bit of salt, but not quite as much because the cheesy explosion in my mouth had enough salt to keep me satiated. Plus, at St. Clair, they gifted me with two sides: delicious, crunchy half-sour pickles and their tangy, creamy cold slaw, dotted with plump, sweet golden raisins. Free food = love. ["Re: golden raisins -- overruled." -- ed.]

Advantage: St. Clair!

The Drinks:

Carroll Gardens Diner: Peppermint tea: Celestial Seasonings. Hot cup of water. Sugar on the table. Done.

St. Clair Restaurant: see Carroll Gardens Diner.

Advantage: None. It's hot water and a tea bag.

The Service:

At Carroll Gardens, service was not terrible, considering it was a Saturday afternoon. My server was perfectly pleasant, though my order did take a while, especially for something as simple as a grilled cheese.

I did go to St. Clair on a weekday, when the restaurant was not very busy. This would explain the almost creepy attention to detail. No sooner had I finished my amazing sandwich than the plate miraculously disappeared. I barely had time to sip the last of the soup from my spoon before the cup was whisked away. I started to get a bit annoyed. I enjoy personal service and all, but I felt as if the staff was trying to rush me out.

I spent a decent amount of time working in the food service industry. You want to be attentive, not pushy, and definitely not obvious. I felt that both Carroll Gardens and St. Clair needed to work on this. Also, the staff at St. Clair lacked the humor and kitsch that made the old St. Clair such a hoot to go to!

Advantage: Meh, this is a tough one. I'd say Carroll Gardens, just because the servers weren't so eager to get me the hell out of their establishment

The Surroundings:
Think of it this way: Carroll Gardens is the steadfast, matronly sister to St. Clair's fancy-free retro Betty. Carroll Gardens tries to put on an air of sophistication, with hues of raspberry sorbet and seafoam green adorning the walls and booths. Hideous orange fake flowers that look as though they haven't been dusted since they were salvaged from the discount bin at Rag Shop (dis)graced the tables. There are also two jumbo flat screen televisions that are usually tuned to CNN, closed captioned for when you want to zone out on your current conversation and find out more about that crazy ol' stock market. The place is very standard family diner, not very inspirational but clean and not unpleasant. (Except for those flowers. Oy.)

There were a lot of families with plenty of loud, rambunctious kids around. Since I work with kids all day during the week and on some weekends, it can sometimes harsh my mellow if I have to be subjected to screaming kids when I'm off the clock.

St. Clair, on the other hand, is peachy keen, jellybean! She's going to the hop and playing dress up with Mom's vintage clothes. Or at least, that's the image St. Clair is desperately trying to evoke. The restaurant is awash in inoffensive shades of peach, beige, and cerulean. There are artsy oversized prints of diner regalia such as forks and coffee cups, and the menu's layout and font are completely 1950s redux. The customers were mostly young, American Apparel-wearing hipsters writing in their journals, sipping endless cups of coffee. While the time I went is obviously going to be less chaotic than the weekend, I have been there on the weekends once or twice. There are definitely fewer families and more hungover grownups hanging out at St. Clair on the weekend.

They are definitely trying too hard (both St. Clair and its patrons), but I do think it's a cute place, a modern attitude to vintage nostalgia. I do have to say, I miss the Krusty-Krab vibe of old St. Clair. It was so weird that it gave the place a certain uncalculated charm.

Advantage: St. Clair. The only scent wafting from Carroll Gardens's fake flowers is the sour stench of fail.


Carroll Gardens is open 24/7. St. Clair closes at midnight. For this alone, I have to give an advantage to Carroll Gardens. Everyone knows that grilled cheese sandwiches are best at 4 AM after a night of pub crawling. Duh.

Look, either place is fine, but they definitely aren't equal...or are they? St. Clair just seems to try a little bit harder to please, but I suspect this is because they're trying to woo the old customers back and prove that they're even better than St. Clair the First. I'd like to see how St. Clair fares over the next year or so. Will I still get free pickles? Will their grilled cheese still make my little dairy-lovin' heart sing? Will their staff be a little less overbearing?

Carroll Gardens is tried and true. It's a great place for an easygoing chat session with a friend, and it's still my go-to joint when I'm dishing with my best friend about...well, anything.

When it comes down to it, I have to make my decision based on the food. Diners are all about a good meal, and St. Clair really delivered. If it's not past midnight, I'm heading over to St. Clair...for now.

St. Clair: A-

Carroll Gardens: B+

St. Clair Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 14, 2008

Diner, Anyone?

I don't mean go to one; I mean buy one. The American Diner Museum site is a nice diversion, particularly if you'd like to fantasize however briefly about owning one of these chrome beauties.

And if you don't know how to cook an egg, but want to ensure that diners don't go the way of the drive-in, contribute to the Diner Rescue Fund.