But you won't always find it in the most obvious places -- like, say, Crown Center's American Restaurant. A lovely dining room, you bet, with gorgeously polished service and an elegant attention to detail rarely found even in fancy restaurants. But it still takes its cues from European traditions, with a stuffy formality and reserve straight out of an Edith Wharton novel. American it may be called, but American it ain't.
True American food doesn't always show up in fancy locations. The stretch of Main Street that represents "downtown" Grandview, for example, is a charmless line of plain buildings plunked down in the middle of nowhere, their plate-glass windows revealing a view that's more ordinary than grand.
That's what makes the Main Street Inn such a surprise. From the outside, it's a drab brick building. But once you pass through the red entrance door, it's a sensory overload of Americana: Roy Rogers and Elvis Presley movie posters, an Esso gas pump from the 1940s, old advertising signs and gewgaws galore. You tell me any other local restaurant that makes room for a glass-front cabinet packed with expensive Barbie dolls in Bob Mackie outfits, dozens of neon beer signs on the walls and a sound system that plays both "Shake Your Groove Thing" and the Rocky Horror Picture Show's "Time Warp." Baby, this joint is really American, right down to its rec-room-style paneling and plastic Budweiser "Tiffany" lampshades.
Some of the items are original, though others are reproductions; some of the stuff's on display as in a museum, but a good portion of it is for sale. If there's a wait for the dining room (which isn't all that spacious), you can poke around the narrow gift shop, which is drenched in the scent of perfumed candles and packed to the rafters with stuffed teddy bears and porcelain Betty Boop figurines, Ronald McDonald cookie jars, floral bath salts, Valomilk candy, Raggedy Ann jewelry boxes and cellophane bags of potpourri.
The gift shop is a relatively recent addition by owner Shawn Sanders, the grandson of original owners Bill and Claribel German. Their restaurant has survived for 43 years, weathering two fires as well as the ups and downs of the Grandview economy. And there's a reason it's always packed: The food -- honest American food -- is good. Also, everyone is nice.
How can you not like a joint where the waitress calls you "lovey" as she fusses over you? My own mother isn't as nice to me as Carol, the honey-blond, smoky-voiced veteran server. She even talked me out of ordering a top sirloin steak -- "Oh no, honey, I won't eat that myself. We cut our other steaks by hand. You want the strip." -- and insisted that I order my baked potato with "everything."
"Trust me," she said, looking at my belly. "You want the works" -- as in bacon bits, cheese, butter and sour cream.
As my friend Bob observed, "This place is the Grandview version of 'Cheers.'"
Or "Mayberry RFD." As I sat in our booth drinking iced tea out of a red plastic tumbler, I looked over at the bar to see one of the regulars order a Canadian Club and Coke -- and the bartender served it in, I swear, a Bugs Bunny glass. Then I looked down to see that my mozzarella sticks had arrived, stacked in a neat square like an unfinished log cabin. Bob was already attacking a puddle of ketchup with one of his crunchy onion rings -- the restaurant's only other appetizer.
Deep-fried onion rings may seem a strange way to start a meal (most people treat them as a side dish or an accessory to a hamburger), but the Main Street Inn considers them a delicacy, best eaten with cold ranch dressing. In fact, a hot onion ring is vastly superior to the dinner salad's alternative accompaniment: cellophane-wrapped crackers.
A basic tossed salad is included in the price of a dinner, but if you're ordering a la carte, there's a vital decision to be made: regular or deluxe?
"What's the difference between the dinner salad and the deluxe dinner salad?" I asked a waitress (whom I took to be Carol's sister).
She explained that the deluxe salad includes shredded cheese, bacon bits "and one extra cucumber slice."
Little touches like that make all the difference, you know?
The Main Street Inn's menu isn't extensive, but it's solid: juicy steaks, hickory-smoked pork ribs, barbecued meats and deep-fried chicken. That doesn't, however, mean that everything's perfect. Side dishes that came with the barbecued beef were hit-or-miss -- the fries were crunchy, but the baked beans were too dry, and the cole slaw swam in a teeth-jarringly sweet mayo-and-vinegar dressing.
And be warned: On a slow night the fried chicken takes 25 minutes, and the wait is much longer on a busy weekend night. It turns out to be worthwhile, though -- delicate and hot under a crackly armor of golden, lightly seasoned breading. And I made quick work of a platter of lean smoked beef and pork drizzled with a mildly tangy sauce, stuffing it into crusty Texas toast that came liberally spread with butter and garlic powder.
On a second visit, my friend Jeanne went into rapture over her eight-ounce filet mignon, which was just as tender and luscious as the menu promised. I was less entranced with my sixteen-ounce strip, which was perfectly grilled, but -- despite Carol's recommendation -- almost as tough as a high school wrestling team. Baked potatoes arrived steaming and fluffy, though, waiting to be heaped with "the works."
This combination of red meat and cholesterol was all very self-indulgent, but wars have been fought so we could have the freedom to eat this kind of food and, damn it, I was exercising my rights.
I might have inquired about dessert -- a list of pies is usually posted somewhere near the cash register -- but "the works" had done their job. Bob declined too; he'd stuffed himself but still took home a Styrofoam box crammed with leftovers -- two chicken breasts, a sugary corn muffin and a fistful of fries -- saying he could get two more meals out of the bargain.
And if that's not the American dream, what is?