The bad news: The food still stinks.
Yes, yes, I know that the cozy little brick-walled dining room is famous for its thick sandwiches, homemade potato pancakes and inexpensive suppers. I know it isn't on the same culinary plane as other Johnson County restaurants, such as the new 40 Sardines (see review).
Pumpernik's was wildly popular in the 1970s -- which is when most people I know last ate there. It hasn't helped that, especially among food sophisticates, the place doesn't exactly evoke the memory of traditional New York or Miami delicatessens. "It has as much in common with the Carnegie Deli," fumes my friend Sunny, "as Denny's does with the Four Seasons." Pumpernik's still has a loyal following, but one that has grown smaller since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
Last month's announcement that Ed Capers (still the executive chef of the fine Farradday's at the Isle of Capri casino) and former casino chef Peggy Petersen had bought the place also included a pledge that the new owners would "return the restaurant to days of glory."
I suggest that Capers and Petersen, who have excellent culinary credentials, take a second look at that promise. A friend and I had dinner at Pumpernik's last week, and there was no glory whatsoever at that meal.
To their credit, Capers and Petersen have given the place a tidy interior facelift: new carpet, a spotless ceiling, newer kitchen equipment. But though cleanliness is next to godliness, cold food and fumbled service are still a sin in my book.
Maybe my friend Bob was out of his mind to order something as fancy as a shrimp cocktail appetizer in a restaurant that uses paper napkins and plastic water tumblers. But it is on the menu. The kitchen must have sent someone to Florida to get the shrimp, because it never arrived, before or after dinner. Neither did the "fresh baked rolls" that were supposed to have come with the salads, which had been made with an attractive selection of wilted lettuce.
What did arrive with Bob's greasy, anemic fried chicken were frigid green beans and lukewarm french fries. My Rumanian-style Reuben sandwich, which was heavy with pastrami, might have been good if it hadn't been cold.
But we were the only ones who seemed to be unhappy with our fare. The rest of the clientele on that Tuesday night -- all of them old enough to have voted for Harry Truman -- were obviously regulars. One even waved to Petersen on her way out and said, "I'll see you tomorrow."
Not me. I promised myself I wouldn't go back. Until the new owners make good on their pledge, I'm sticking to mine.