If you listen closely, you'll hear Richie and Potsie planning their date night at the next table. Turn your head too quickly and you'll swear you see June Cleaver pulling cookies out of the oven for Wally and Beaver. And if you take a deep breath, you can smell Mom's meatloaf coming to the table.
OK, maybe that wasn't Richie and Potsie, and clearly not June, but that last sensory image really does happen at Circa 57, a '50s-themed restaurant anchoring Vail and Campbell streets in downtown Arlington Heights. From the chrome and Formica diner decor -- complete with a Chevy front end keeping watch over the counter -- and a menu of classics like potpie, meatloaf and buttered peas, Circa 57 transports diners and their taste buds back to happy days.
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Circa 57101 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, (847) 392-1957, www.circa-57.com
Cuisine: Classic American
Setting: Diner with 1950s flair
Entrees: $8.57 to $29.57
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday (coffee bar opens at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday)
On some fronts this cute place succeeds; on others it needs a bit of polish.
The restaurant opened in late 2013 -- the brainchild of Anthony and Kimberly Priola who transformed the former Grand Station into an almost museum-like eatery. Indeed in one room there's a 1950s-era kitchen and family room set up with pink electric appliances and 45s on the turntable. The main dining room is a mix of booths and tables rimmed with jukebox remotes and framed advertising of the day. There's also a soda fountain counter with chrome and vinyl seats. I imagine it's a popular spot to sip a Green River, cherry phosphate or chocolate egg cream after a children's show at the adjoining Metropolis Theatre.
On the menu you've got Retro Appetizers, Road House Burgers, Blue Plate Specials, Mom's Home Cooking, Route 66 Smokehouse and Dad's Backyard Grill. The Pickle Surprise was the biggest surprise on the appetizer list -- crisp slices of dill coated with cream cheese and rolled in ham. Simple, yes, and surprisingly appealing. Bacon updates the creamy Parmesan and artichoke spread on pumpernickel squares. Other familiar choices are the pigs in a blanket and cheesy crab melt also on pumpernickel.
The Circa 57 Cobb salad is a meal-sized plate full of chicken, hard-cooked egg, bacon, avocado, blue cheese and tomato tossed with romaine and iceberg lettuces. A Creole-spiced honey mustard dressing adds unexpected pop. A classic wedge and chopped salad are among the other salad options and a simple house salad can be added to your entree for $3.57.
Kids meals come on metal TV trays, problem is, there are more compartments than there is food, so the meal -- be it a burger, potpie, spaghetti or two chicken tenders -- ends up looking skimpy.
It's a good thing the adult meals come on turquoise Fiestaware, providing a burst of color to your meal. Popular '50s entrees -- meatloaf, croquettes, chicken potpie -- aren't the most eye-catching, and the food styling is stuck in the time warp. I get that, but the kitchen staff needs to keep in mind that they're serving 21st-century diners, so I would have liked to see more effort given to plating. And I'm sure frozen peas might have been a trendy vegetable at the time, but a more contemporary spin on the side would have been welcome.
That said the meatloaf and mashed potatoes weren't just like Mom's -- they were better. The beef-veal-pork blend gets brushed with a glaze that's more sweet than tomato-y and the mashers are babyfood smooth and buttery. The chicken croquettes were nicely crisp and come with the same potatoes, but the overall dish lacked any excitement.
The barbecue pork sandwich proved a generous heap of sliced pork with a smokey-sweet sauce and a creamy broccoli slaw. As one who doesn't care for traditional coleslaw, I loved the modern twist. The burgers, too, were ample, flavorful and well-crafted.
When there's room for dessert, keep your eye on the pie. The chocolate cake, unfortunately, was dry and uninteresting, but the homebaked pies get a blue ribbon. The raspberry peach didn't come out as a picture perfect slice, but the fruit tasted vibrant and the crust tender and delicious.
Service needs to come up a bit. On one visit my chicken croquettes didn't come to the table with the rest of my family's orders and the waitress didn't come by to inquire until my husband was halfway done with his entree. The benefit of the open kitchen is that I could see two cooks debating who was supposed to have gotten that meal together. In other restaurants, that entree might have been comped, but there was no consideration other than a blushing apology for the oversight.
On a subsequent visit our waiter seemed preoccupied, but the older busboy, who had a beachcomber vibe, was friendly and picked up the slack.
Because of its proximity to the train station, Circa 57 has a coffee bar that opens at 7 a.m. serving coffee and danishes.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.