Photo by Anne Fishbein
LOS ANGELES HAS NEVER BEEN SHORT ON ICONOGRAPHIC LANDMARKS, with monument-size doughnuts and rooftop hot dogs dotting the city. And now there's a brand-new one — in Beverly Hills, of all places. This newest quirky manifestation of human creativity is Fred Eric's Airstream Diner on the corner of Camden Avenue and Little Santa Monica Boulevard, a happy 24/7 establishment that draws all its visual cues from a famous trailer.
Airstreams, designed by a man named Wally Byam, were a paean to midcentury space-age design and the mollusk: shiny aluminum riveted like airplane wings on the outside, veritable rumpus rooms on the inside. Self-contained, glinting in the sun, created to be dragged hither and thither by powerful American sedans, they were the private jets of the driving class, and they still exude a bright, silvery, round-shouldered appeal.
I've lived in an Airstream, and I have to say, the restaurant's spirit runs true — from the aluminum sash windows and pegboard cabinet doors to the painfully scant curtains, aqua upholstery and molded, varnished blond-wood panels. Photos, enlarged onto Plexiglas and mounted on light boxes, show Airstream trailers beachside or in the desert, and serve as faux windows or dioramas. Even the waxed tissues in the burger baskets have a repeated pattern of tiny Airstreams being pulled by a bicycle. As for the garden dwarfs who serve as bases for the counter stools — well, that's an adjacent sensibility, the Airstream after it's been permanently parked in a trailer court.
At lunch, the place is packed: movie folk, next to merchants, next to matrons with their boxy Chanel mohair and quilted handbags. (Hey, you can't eat at Walter's every day of your life.) Never mind that the music is loud and weird — Grandma won't register the Gipsy Kings murdering “Hotel California” anyway.
The menu is as lengthy as a deli's, but it also features many of today's trendy snacks, like tofu scrambles, Asian noodles and pressed sandwiches — all with a dose of Fred Eric's well-established jokiness. There's the “Ron I aM (a magnum of flavor),” sliced corned beef (quite tasty and — as if this could be a sincere criticism — unexpectedly lean) on round rye bread, and matzo brie. Other ethnic contributions range from the “Pressed and Creased Cuban Sandwiches” to the “Sin Delicious” Vietnamese-style noodles, to the “Hippie Sandwich,” avocado, tomatoes, sprouts and jack cheese on multigrain bread.
Some of the dishes sound more audacious and ridiculous than they really are. Consider the “Bossa Nova Waffle Sundae,” “a waffle with vanilla ice cream and dulce de leche” (caramelized sweetened condensed milk), or the “Rocky Road Pancake,” basic flapjacks with marshmallows, chocolate chips and almonds. We tried the “Hunka Hunka Burning Love Pancake,” with peanut butter, chocolate chips, banana, caramel sauce and powdered sugar, and, well, it's not over the top at all — your kid, who will love it, won't go into major sugar shock. Oh, and the “Pancake Tatin,” an excellent fluffy flapjack fried with caramelized apples, is simply delicious.
Breakfast sandwiches (“New Amsterdams”) come on fluffy buns, but have a deep interior crunch thanks to a layer of crisp hash browns. We liked the basic “Manhattan,” with scrambled eggs and hash browns. Omelets and frittatas are also darn creative. I ordered the “Frittata Riviera” (“little pools of molten Brie cheese, champagne grapes, walnuts and bits of brioche”) just because it sounded so novel and peculiar — but was disappointed that the alleged champagne grapes were just generic red seedless. Otherwise, hey, it was far from unpalatable. But would I order it again? Wellll . . .
Some dishes strain for cleverness. The “Airstream Chopped and Lowered Salad,” with lettuce and tomatoes chopped and shaped into a sharp-edged star, then topped with tiles of charred tuna, seems overhandled, unfresh. The pale-green “Devolution Chinese Chicken Salad” is 70 percent rice-stick noodle, 30 percent Napa cabbage with flecks of pink pickled ginger (the kind you get with sushi) and dark meat — it tastes good, but we'd wanted a lunch of mostly vegetable matter, not deep-fried noodle.
The basic and best burger is the “Wally Burger” (named for Wally Byam, Mr. Airstream): A half-pound patty with a good, crunchy crust is served on a grilled, buttered bun with Thousand Island dressing, lettuce, tomato, cheese and onions. Order it with the great house fries or the even better house onion rings, or a combination of the two.
In general, Airstream's food is fun and good, the prices are doable, and the atmosphere is cunningly cute. The biggest bugaboo is the service, which is inconsistent at best and can, on a Sunday afternoon, degenerate into an absolute parody: Your dinner's served, but you've received no silverware. All the employees are laughing in a huddle way across the room. You wave, call out. Hello? Hello? Nobody even looks your way. But wait! One waiter has broken away. He's coming toward you. He sees you waving. He smiles and, reaching you, waves back. Then: “Buh-bye,” he says, and swerves out the front door.
Perhaps the place is too hip to have good service. But with a little training, Airstream Diner could soar — or rather, like the original shiny high-concept vessels, cruise.
9601 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 550-8883. Open seven days, 24 hours. Sandwiches $2.75$9.50. Full bar. Lot parking. AE, D, MC, V.