Everything about C&D Burger Shoppe has that pleasant glow of a hazy, nostalgic time somewhere in between the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even the slideshow accompanying this week's cafe review of the little burger joint in South Houston looks as if it could have been shot on Kodachrome.
And although I quite like the petite cheeseburgers and overflowing Frito pies at C&D on their own merits, I'd be lying to myself if I didn't admit that nostalgic charm of the place didn't contribute -- in a rather significant way, too -- to my appreciation of the restaurant.
Would I love it quite as much if it didn't serve grape Kool-aid and extra-thick chocolate milkshakes? Would I love it if it didn't have veteran employees who've been flipping burgers there longer than I've been driving? Would I love it if it didn't have mementos that could have come straight from my own childhood decorating the walls? Perhaps not.
But that's the taste of nostalgia, an intangible feeling that can be every bit as vital to a restaurant as its food or service.
For many years, I dutifully went to Sam's Deli Diner for my traditional Texas burgers (thin patty, lots of mustard) out of a deep sense of nostalgia. Growing up, I'd scrounge together change and ride my bike to Sam's for a scoop of Blue Bell butter pecan and a cone of seasoned fries. As an adult, cheerful childhood memories muted my tastebuds as Sam's gradually grew worse over the years. I finally had to admit one day -- after it moved to a new location across the Katy Freeway -- that Sam's was no longer the great burger joint of my memories, and set out to find a new place to make memories.
But that's a difficult thing to admit, and one that subconsciously clouds our tastes and better judgment. To admit that a nostalgic favorite has gone downhill is like cutting a favorite cousin out of the family reunion after his fifth parole violation.
If you're lucky, you find places like C&D that fill that gap and play on those sympathetic feelings of nostalgia -- even if you didn't grow up there.
It reminds me of an old New York Times review of Primavera from 1991, in which Patricia Brooks wrote: "In many ways Primavera's decor is more ambitious than its menu, which is mostly of a homey nature, suggesting the kind of old-fashioned, neighborhood Italian restaurant in almost everyone's memory."
C&D is the same: a burger shop that exists in the collective subconscious, inspiring one of my dining companions to remark that he felt as if he'd just stepped out of Dazed and Confused upon leaving the joint one night.
Restaurants have played off "manufactured" nostalgia for years, of course, as seen in local favorites like 59 Diner and chain restaurants like the 1950s-themed McDonald's in South Carolina. And as new eras and decades become trendy again -- we can thank Mad Men for bringing back the 1960s -- you can see the manufactured nostalgia creep into newer restaurants, following suit. Consider the mid-century modern charm of benjy's in Rice Village, or the swank '60s vibe of Up in Highland Village.
Of course, the most important thing that nostalgia serves to do is convince us that food and drinks back in "the good old days" were somehow inherently better, playing off of our distorted memories of "simpler" times.
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As historian Christopher Lasch once wrote: "A society that has made 'nostalgia' a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today."
And life may not have been better in the 1980s, but that doesn't mean I don't like revisiting an era of my own innocence with a burger and shake at C&D.