There’s a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on at Route 76 diner, inspired by the breezy, hopeful 1950s.
My definition of a diner is equal parts roguish Mickey Rourke lounging and smoking in a booth in 1950s Baltimore in the 1982 movie Diner and Richie Cunningham in his letterman jacket eating a burger and fries on a Naugahyde seat at Arnold’s drive-in in “Happy Days.” As in the Rourke film, the Arnold’s diner and its habituées epitomized a post-WWII era of economic growth and pursuit of the American dream. It captured that feeling in a ketchup squeeze bottle.
Milwaukeean Omar Hamdan is much younger than the baby boomer generation but something draws him to that time period, its pop culture, food, cars and generally hopeful outlook on life. With his background in commercial lending, Hamdan understood what it takes to be a successful restaurateur. He also was active in community outreach organizations, so starting a business that allowed him to give socio-economically disadvantaged people a lift was also key. Once he found the Greenfield space, rundown but full of promise, he knew it was the perfect frame for Route 76, serving the first Bliss Burgers and RT76 hot dogs in November. He also made the local news for launching a free Thanksgiving meal initiative at the diner for homeless and at-risk vets that he hopes to build into future established events.
Hamdan’s altruism and the diner’s nostalgic/infectiously positive environment are a tight fit. He scoured eBay to find decorative memorabilia. The one-room joint was outfitted with a digitally operated jukebox and curved lunch counter with chrome swivel stools.
Hamdan says he put equally rigorous effort into perfecting the menu, which continues to grow. Breaded deep-fried cheese curds ($8) are a tongue-singeing, addictively greasy cold-weather warmup, which needs to be followed by an all-beef hot dog or burger. The plump dog ($6), topped with mustard and relish, releases a delectable snap.
My heat-appreciating mouth yields readily to the Hot Rod burger’s ($11) crispy mix of Cajun candied bacon and cheddar jalapeno poppers, plus creamy chipotle mayo and melted pepper jack cheese. The definitely not plain-Jane creation arrives in a basket with crisp, brightly seasoned crinkle-cut fries. The thin patty looks like your basic fast-food burger, but it’s juicy and decently charred. The assertive toppings are deliciously sweet and salty, not hot. The Jabari Parker-approved turkey burger ($11) starts with a toasted bun, which just enhances the pre-formed patty covered in cheddar, chipotle mayo, crunchy shredded lettuce and tomato. Healthyish? Maybe. The diner prepares this burger to the Bucks star’s exacting specifications. Wash it down with a milk shake ($5) made with Madison-based Schoep’s ice cream. The thick vanilla creation is creamysmooth – hard not to finish in, er, two shakes.
Shortly before this issue met the printer, Hamdan added breakfast, including biscuits and gravy and corned beef hash, with plans to extend the savory mid- to later-day selections with chili, a Reuben sandwich, BLT and “Wimpy” burger, named for the “Popeye” cartoon character for whom a good life was measured in the number of hamburger patties. Hamdan wants patrons to look around the diner and smile, leaving their cares at the door. It’s easy to do. Hamdan’s vision is a time-traveling escape (old “The Andy Griffith Show” episodes shown on TV!) for feel-good, not necessarily-good-for-you food. ◆
7510 W. Layton Ave., 414-249-5150.
Hours: Daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Service: Working on bugs like timing.
Reservations: Not needed.