Lunchbox: City Diner

The City Diner serves this corned beef brisket sandwich ($13.95), part of a “carving board” sandwich special available between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays. A 32-ounce pitcher of soda or iced tea, with a glass to serve it in, costs $2.50.

City Diner
3000 Minnesota Dr.
$7-$20 per plate
6 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week

There’s so much variety in Anchorage’s restaurant scene that I don’t usually feel compelled to revisit a location -- but when I heard that a Spenard standby had recently revised its menu, I put it on my list.

The City Diner hasn’t changed much at a glance since I last reviewed it in July 2012: it’s still got the same metallic-silver exterior, the same highly visible perch at the corner of Benson Boulevard and Minnesota Drive, the same ample parking lot shared with an adjacent strip mall. The same holds true for its interior, a booth-heavy L-shaped space wrapped around its kitchen, with a decent number of counter seats up front for those who like to talk up the service while they’re being served. Only Diner veterans like my mother and I would likely notice the addition of large butcher-paper sheets atop the tables or the sudden presence of cloth napkins around sets of silverware.

In a continuation of that upscale trend, board-bound menus have replaced the double-sided laminated sheets kept in holders at the tables, a spendier choice reflected by a modest rise in prices. Fortunately, much of the menu -- about two-thirds of it, at a glance -- is made up of the same standbys with which the Diner carved out a niche for itself alongside other Midtown greasy-spoon greats like Kriner’s Diner. Confining ourselves to the new choices, though, I was immediately drawn to a new “carving board” lunch special ($13.95) offering one of two sandwiches made with freshly prepared meats between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays; Mom took an interest in a roast beet salad ($6.95), which she balanced with her first-ever cup of corn chowder ($3.95). The restaurant was fairly quiet at the tail end of a weekday lunch rush, and we were served in about 10 minutes.

While the roasted sirloin with au jus on the carving board menu was tempting, I’d opted for a corned beef brisket sandwich, the scales tipped by a similar meal I ate at the Crossbar on C Street. The sandwich was served with its listed rye bread in lieu of the sourdough I’d requested, but I found myself pleasantly surprised. Unlike other ryes I’ve had, which can drown out the flavor of the meat, this one was light in both tone and flavor, adding a unique herbal kick to the dish without stealing the show. That honor went to the brisket, generously dumped into the sandwich as a tide of juicy bits blended with stone-ground mustard; the two mixed freely between the bread and effectively came across as a single ingredient, as if the low heat of the mustard had been cooked into the salty but savory meat from the outset. A pile of fries alongside the sandwich were a known quantity, the Diner’s shoestring potatoes seasoned with more pepper than salt; while you can substitute a soup or salad for $2.95, I looked across the table for an opinion on those counts.

Mom found herself digging into the salad with aplomb, quickly discovering that despite its simplistic description -- “mixed greens and crumbled goat cheese with honey herb dressing” -- the dish contained not one but two kinds of beets, one of which had been apparently marinated. “There's a heat to one of these beets,” she mused between bites. “It’s like they put something spicy in there.” While she’s not usually a fan of spicy foods, she said the coolness of the cheese and the sweetness of the dressing both tempered that initial zing, making for an overall balance she enjoyed. She didn’t have as much to say about the corn chowder, possibly because she ate it so rapidly, but did detect the same flavorful notes from cilantro, bacon and pepper I found when I sampled it earlier.

On the whole, I think it’s safe to say that despite the change in its immediate trappings, the City Diner remains a known quantity -- you can still order a chicken pot pie or a chocolate malt, since so much of the old menu is still present. The changes, which handsomely update the restaurant to compete with the new crop of local eateries popping up across town, come across more like an addition than a replacement, offering new choices without taking away from the Diner’s underlying equation. After two years, to quote the saying above the clock outside, it’s still “Time to Eat.”