A finer diner

Feb 6, 2002 at 12:00 am

Metro Detroit seems to have more than its share of restaurants that look like a diner but food that doesn’t taste like it came from one. Small, unassuming as to decor — but there’s someone in the kitchen with pretensions to more than burgers and tuna salad.

Meaghan (pronounced mee-gan) Spicer, former co-owner of Mack Avenue Diner, opened Meaghan’s on Oct. 1, with just 19 seats, including seven counter stools. She serves from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. six days a week and 7 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sundays.

The space is quite pretty for a diner, with black-and-white tiled walls in a staircase pattern part way up, topped in deep burgundy. A big drawing by New York artist Howard Lieberman of a real old-time diner, flanked by a fedora and a 1930s Plymouth, is appropriately self-referential.

Meaghan’s serves eight salads, 18 sandwiches, and dinners ranging from ribs and meat loaf to pasta Alfredo. She says that all her recipes, except some of the soups, come from her mother or sister, and that everything is done on the premises, from turkey roasting to ham baking.

I love those soups. They change daily, and there’s no schedule, so hope that you show up on the day she’s serving ham-cheddar. It’s thick and strong, a beautiful gold. Seafood chowder is the opposite, delicate in taste (it’s not cream-based) and very full of clams, shrimp and perch, but equally delectable. Chicken tortellini soup reminded me that I ought to make chicken and dumplings more often; it’s bland but rich, if that’s possible.

Whatta deal: You can get a bowl of soup, a salad and bread for $4.50. Or take home a gallon for $18.50.

Don’t bother with the chili; it’s overly pureed and spicy, yet with no distinct spices that you can single out.

Another dish I loved was the seared steak salad. The steak is warm and spicy, the veggies include thick purple onion rings, and there’s a lot of it (all servings are large at Meaghan’s). The creamy horseradish dressing has just the right amount of bite. You can also try the dressing on the veggie salad, which changes according to what’s available.

The meat loaf dinner comes with a good, rich gravy and real mashed potatoes. I like my meat loaf looser in texture; this is the compact kind, but the taste is fine and you get three slices.

Baby back ribs are neither too meaty nor fall-off-the-bone tender. They come with excellent hash browns, not your usual side.

Americans tend to overcook their pasta, and perhaps Meaghan’s mom did the same. I found my pasta marinara primavera way too soft, almost soupy, with just one taste — spicy tomato juice. The vegetables in primavera should be crisp, and distinguishable by more than their appearance.

Perhaps it’s asking a bit too much for angel hair pasta to be al dente, but I found it on the soft side too. Otherwise the angel hair pasta with pesto, Jamaican relish and chicken is on the right track, with broccoli, red peppers and mushrooms all adding to the glee. If asked, I would increase the pesto — but then I would just about always increase the pesto.

Meaghan’s breakfasts, served till 11 a.m., have got to be loss leaders: a three-item omelet for $3.50, her version of an Egg McMuffin (your choice of meat) for $2.75. Asked about the low prices, she replies, “Well, it’s eggs and potatoes.” Not everyone thinks that way, judging by the over-$7 breakfasts available elsewhere. At lunchtime, deli sandwiches go for $4.25, and a half-pound hamburger is five bucks.

But you can also get dinner for lunch — or lunch for dinner. Meaghan aims to please. To that end, she’s asking the City Council if she can serve on the sidewalk when the weather gets warm.

Eats: 3 stars

Experience: 3 stars

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].