Tick Tock Diner: Perfect for a Dateless Saturday Night
It’s Saturday night and no challenge at all to persuade two of my women friends to meet me at the Tick Tock Diner. “Oh, good,” my friend Eileen responds. “I’m going to order the mashed potatoes with gravy.” I’m excited too. Diners do pies. I’ve been searching for old-fashioned American pies since my Christmas week in Chicago. There, fish restaurants do all kinds of classic pastry. At Joe’s Stone Crab: Boston cream pie, peanut butter pie with hot fudge, sweet potato pecan pie.
I know from an architect friend that restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman has been charged with bringing a new contemporary vision to Tick Tock, the Manhattan offshoot of the legendary Clifton, NJ diner original. Indeed, owner Alexandros Sgourdos doesn’t want to call it a diner anymore, but he rejects Whiteman’s visionary new menu. “TICK TOCK Meals ‘Round the Clock!’” is printed on the cover of the new menu, a dazzling blaze of color boasting a vast inventory of old fashioned clichés.
“The new look is all Michael’s ideas,” architect Richard Bloch assures me. “He has the ideas. I draw up the specs, and my people install it.” Bloch calls my attention to a corner papered with quotations about time. A long wall is lined with a museum-worthy collection of vintage menus. And of course, we can’t miss the paper inflatables hanging over the communal table – a giant white teapot and a couple of cups.
“They look like a tea party from Alice in Wonderland,” I say. My friends and I, tucked away in a booth near the wall, admire the blowups just as a passerby bumps his head on a teacup. There is no blood, no potential lawsuit. He laughs.
To start on a high — the place looks great. Bright orange and camel leather, a rainbow of table tops, a glittery lineup of liquor bottles at a real bar — although my “Jolly Rancher” cocktail, red on top, green on the bottom and wildly sweet, tastes like melted Jujyfruits. Eileen, who has a real feel for diners, is too smart for a cocktail. She loves her “Frosty Milk Shake,” creamy vanilla.
“Water only by request,” the menu advises, but our server Marina, perky and ironic with a Slavic accent, has already poured, and describes the short rib for Eileen, who notes that like the meatloaf, it comes with mash (sic) potato and onion rings.
The menu is food porn without pictures. Erotica for grownup foodies with no date on a Saturday night. I am always into “more is just enough.” Now, I want everything. I love breakfast. The Texas Benedict stands out: BBQ pulled pork on brioche French toast with poached eggs and hollandaise. I wouldn’t mind getting up for the “34th Street Traffic Jam”– two potato pancakes, two eggs, two sausage patties and melted Muenster.
I’m not into breakfast disguised as dessert, but for those who are, there is Nutella French toast with bananas and hot chocolate French toast stuffed with marshmallow fluff and hot fudge, s’mores crepes, and banana upside down pancakes with homemade caramel topping. For patriots, there are omelets in many nationalities, served with potatoes or grits.
Maybe dinner tonight will be a sandwich: a Buffalo chicken stack or a Cuban with spicy mayonnaise on a soft brioche or a triple-decker club with fries. Turning the page, I decide it must be a burger. The consultant has outdone himself with meaty prose. Tick Tock’s burgers are “grass-fed, pure marble beef, half-pound Black Angus patties from our proud butcher Pat Lafrieda.’’ I consider the bleu burger with steak-cut bacon and the chipotle burger with jack cheese and bacon, smoky-peppery BBQ onions, pickled jalapeños and waffle fries.
Then I spy “Burgers-Hamburger.” It looks like a printer’s typo, but I’m fascinated that it comes with crisp pork belly, charred tomato, and a fried egg on a brioche bun lathered with warm cheese sauce, and fries. Excessive enough even for me.
I insist everyone order appetizers so we can say we tasted around. No one falls for “Super Salads.” One of them — is it Shelly or Eileen — nearly succumbs to disco fries with mozzarella and brown gravy. I weigh chicken pot stickers (Am I crazy? In a diner?) against Buffalo chicken spring rolls with blue cheese dressing (How brilliant!) or three cheese quesadilla with guacamole and, predictably, go for the $7.95 bowl of macaroni and cheese. Always looking for Mom’s macaroni, my Rosebud.
Shelly chooses the delicately battered rock shrimp – not bad at all, though the marinara dipping sauce is sadly bland. Eileen finds positive vibes in spinach and artichoke dip with “Parmigiano, Reggiano” (never mind typos) and crispy tortilla chips. I suspect it evokes positive memories of cocktail dips from the ‘80s for her. Nice for dipping the onion rings, too. My cocktail parties a decade earlier also included chicken liver mousse and pigs in blankets.
Four cheeses of exemplary diversity – queso blanco, fontina, swiss and gouda – make for very creamy macaroni, but I’m upset that the noodles are naked – crustless and no browning on top. “It’s not like my Mom’s,” I complain to Marina, who promptly takes it away. (One of us had 11 years of psychoanalysis. I can’t believe she’s the one who’s so blissfully sane.)
Shelly did some advance research. “The menu online says to ask for free coleslaw and pickles,” she says. She says it again. “The menu online says we should ask for the free coleslaw,” I repeat to Marina. She hesitates.
“Do you want me to bring the coleslaw?” she asks. Yes, Yes. Yes.
But then, with so many starters crowding the table, two bussers bring main courses. “Stop, stop,” I cry. “Take them away. We’re still eating our starters.” The lead emissary looks at me blankly and two of them start rearranging the tabletop with plates hanging over the edge.
Marina surveys the chaos on her return. “I told them downstairs not to send out the entrees too fast,” she erupts, looking for a spot to put the coleslaw and dill pickles. “But they never understand.”
“Chinese?” Eileen asks sympathetically.
“No Mexican. It’s the same thing,” says Marina, taking the shrimp away and the last of the green dip, rearranging the big plates.
“The short rib is really juicy,” Eileen signals.
I take a forkful. “It’s fatty. It’s delicious, but it’s so fatty. It’s not dry and stringy the way short rib can be,” I grant, “But it’s fatty, scary fatty.” I taste the potatoes. “Not bad. Needless to say, we’re not expecting Robuchon’s potato purée here, are we?”
I put the brioche top on my burger and try to take a bite. It explodes. Two surfboards of pork belly slide off. Pork belly is just bacon, after all. Couldn’t these slices be thinner? I blot the cheese sauce from my chin. You don’t expect much from a winter tomato anyway. The meat itself is not very good either. I try to see the positive side: This burger combo is a lot of eating for just $13 if one were actually hungry. The pale fries — stale and not even hot — are unforgiveable.
“The Reuben is pretty good,” says Shelly. She gives me a big corner of the corned beef, Swiss and sauerkraut on toasted rye to taste. Yes, it tastes like a Reuben and just $11.95. We’re still eating the fried onion rings.
No one really wants dessert. I’ve checked the pastry display. Diners used to offer all kinds of pies. Tick Tock only has key lime and an unapologetic remnant of apple pie. The cakes look artificial.
“I want to give you dessert,” Marina says. “Pick something.”
“What’s your favorite?” Eileen asks.
Marina brings a fat cut of cheesecake with strawberries. Maybe a tad too sweet, but very good. And the berries, wherever they come from, are sweet too, but strawberries are supposed to be sweet. All that food, 50 bucks each, including tip.
Tick Tock is not the diner of my dreams. Still, it’s great-looking. Virtually untouched by the 21st century, the menu is amusing, so full of possibilities. It can make a dateless chick laugh on a Saturday night. This corner of Manhattan is probably not the place to meet the man you’re going to fall in love with. But maybe. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in the diner of my dreams. If you arrive in town at 2 am, you could have breakfast. You could stop by after your team loses in the Garden. You could feed your kids’ chess club on a budget.
Alex Sgourdos cared enough to upgrade this place. Too bad he didn’t have the courage to give his consultant free range. Sgourdos is on the floor tonight. Marina points him out. The least he could do is keep his eye on the fries. The good life is so complicated.
481 Eighth Avenue at NW corner of 34th Street. In the Wyndham New Yorker. 212 258 8444. 24 hours, seven days a week.
Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.