Give Munch your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to have a submarine sandwich and a plate of scrambled eggs in a down-on-its-luck neighborhood.
Keep, trendy retail districts, your storied pomp and overpriced "gourmet" sliders.
Give Munch Allentown.
Call Munch a brazen giant of Steel City fame with smoldering eyes and a dashing smile if you must, but Munch has always had a soft spot for tempest-tossed neighborhoods such as these, and ham-and-egger restaurants such as this: Cafe Retro, along E. Warrington Avenue.
Cafe Retro is so named because, Munch supposes, it endeavors to be the type of diner where oldies music is always playing on the sound system, the menu items have an outer-space feel to them (atomic steak hoagie, moon chili dog, Milky Way shakes, cosmic bomb breakfast platter), and the movie posters hanging on the walls are sufficiently classic, campy or both.
Well, good news -- it's all that it endeavors to be, plus free WiFi.
Cafe Retro, with its neon-green storefront and soft yellow accents, brings to two the number of retro-style diners in Pittsburgh's hilltop neighborhoods, the other being Del's '80s Cafe on Brownsville Road, which eschews the old movie posters for old album covers but serves up similar food in a similar, years-ago setting.
And what can be said about that food? Munch can say this: It is exactly the type of food you'd want and expect from a place like this. Breakfast all day, eight or so hoagies, burgers and hot dogs, chicken fingers, a couple of salads, some fried appetizers. You get the idea.
Munch's cheeseburger (normally $5.49, but on special during Munch's weekday visit) came with a plate of fries. Nothing to drive up the mountain for, but for a fin and change, it's nothing that would make you feel cheated, either.
Reliable Lunch Partner of Munch -- whose insight is always sought-after by this column because she will eat nearly anything and anywhere if somebody else is paying for it -- was surprised, and happily so, by the butter pecan milkshake ($2.99), a flavor combination RLPOM had not yet seen in a milkshake, which is truly saying something, as RLPOM has seen a lot of milkshakes.
Not that Munch is in any position to judge -- Munch once ate seven ice cream bars in a single sitting, though, in Munch's defense, they were free, and putting free food in front of a newspaper journalist is like putting an injured field mouse in front of a tomcat.
As excited as RLPOM is to see a hand-dipped milkshake on the menu, she's doubly so when she sees eggs and bacon available at 2 in the afternoon. The "Venus" platter -- two eggs, meat, toast and fries -- comes in at $4.99. The eggs were egg-y; the bacon, bacon-y. We left, each stuffed to the neck, having paid out less than $20, including tip.
But as is the case with many diners, this diner is not solely, or even primarily, about the quality and creativity of the food. It is about the quality of the place and those who loaf in it, day after day, year after year.
Allentown needs more places like these, neighborhood anchors providing stability and camaraderie. Michelle's Diner, across the street, is such a place. The well-known Alla Famiglia is another. Heisler's bar is reopening, Longo's bank bar is threatening to remake itself as a bistro, and with the Zone 3 police station taking up residence at the east end of the street since 2009, it's hard to argue that Allentown isn't a more pleasant place to be than it was three years ago.
RLPOM, astute as always, noted of Cafe Retro that "it makes an effort."
Indeed. It tries. If more people tried like cafe owner Ray Meyers is trying, offering a world-wide welcome to those around them, places like Allentown might recast themselves yet.munch