2201 First Ave, 443-0975
Sun–Thurs 4:30–11 pm; Fri–Sat 4:30 pm–midnight.
1924 N 45th St, 545-9090
Sun–Thurs 7:30 am–10 pm, Fri–Sat 7:30 am–11 pm.
When I went looking for a vintage '80s-era restaurant, I naturally thought of Miami Vice, and started searching for a neon-rimmed joint done up in teal and flamingo pink, with mirror tile and Nagel prints. In that quest I failed, coming close only with the façade of the Moonlight Restaurant on Jackson Street.
I did, however, tap a certain Reagan-era groove in the always dark and bustling Queen City Grill. There are touches of the '80s everywhere: pink-and-black tile in the bathroom, the menu's proclivity for pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, and tarragon, and the geometric wall sconces kept on perma-dim. Most '80s of all is a certain feeling of predatory hedonism you get at the bar.
Queen City is not a pulsing scene like Axis across the street; instead the room oozes a certain elegant smarm, one that could only be set to jazz. Indeed, as we were sharing a pretty darn good crab cake ($16.95), the husband recognized an era-appropriate Herbie Hancock joint playing on the stereo. The baby boomers at the bar have long since brushed clean their noses, cut off their slicked-back ponytails, and exchanged Gordon Gekko suits for expensive golf shirts, but they still enjoy hovering around the much-younger women who sit on stools and slowly sip their cocktails. Queen City serves a lot of forgettable food, but it does a few things just right, like perfectly un-gimmicky mashed potatoes (served alongside some too-gamy-for-this-girl lamb chops, $29.50) and a hamburger ($11.50) to write home about, cooked to order and juicy as a new US Weekly. Next time you want a little meat to go with your meat market, go to Belltown on a Friday night and order one.
But the '80s I lived through weren't all sexed up with the birth of hiphop, Dynasty, and hot aerobics instructors. Most nostalgists have forgotten the profoundly dorky country style that permeated middle-class homes at that moment: lace-collared granny dresses, the stenciled walls, and living rooms draped in a profusion of calicos in shades of rust, Wedgwood blue, and mauve. When I walked into the Rusty Pelican in Wallingford, it all came screaming back to me, because the Pelican possesses a certain institutional country-craft style that rarely surfaces today outside of retirement homes.
White ironwork shelves arranged with country bric-a-brac hang from walls painted a particularly unfashionable shade of minty green. Someone's handmade chintz canopy arcs above the entryway. The owners have even found a place to nestle a needlepoint pillow or two.
My mom and I cozied into a window-side booth and ordered off a very familiar menu: Nothing on it would have broken the '80s spell, not the crêpes or the ice cream cocktails or the gourmet hamburgers. My mom had a garden omelet ($8.50) that was crammed with vegetables—peppers, spinach, and zucchini, and not quite enough salt. I giggled at my BLT ($7.95) served on a croissant, the consummate bread-form of the '80s. Tasty as they are on their own, croissants are terrible for sandwiches, too limp to really give you a handle on the goods inside. Still, the goofy sandwich was passable, since the Pelican knows how to properly crisp bacon.
In fact the whole meal was wrought in capable diner fashion, with a certain affection for embellishment: A decent tomato barley soup came with its attendant cracker selection; my mom's iced coffee with whipped cream and sprinkles; the baby's oatmeal with strawberries, bananas, brown sugar, milk, strawberry jam, and raisins. No wonder we had fruit flies hovering around.
Plenty of other restaurants have comfy booths and reasonable food, but only the Rusty Pelican doubles as a museum of ur–shabby chic, offering a good-natured reminder that for every moment of a bygone era that you missed (say, never tagging a subway car or never seeing X in concert), there were a million dweebier moments that you never have to relive.