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Slice of Americana Delights Russian, Expats Alike

February 6, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ There’s probably more neon in the Starlite Diner than existed in all of Soviet Russia. There are definitely more root beer floats.

A chrome-covered piece of Americana like this would have been unimaginable in Soviet times. The diner is everything that Russian Communists and nationalists love to hate.

But don’t talk politics to regulars like Ilya Smirnoff and Andrew Masonsky, night auditors at a nearby hotel who come in after work every morning for what they call their ``nightcap.″

``I just LOVE this place,″ Smirnoff said, happily sucking down the last of his chocolate malt with a discreet little honk. ``It’s 100 percent American.″

Masonsky grinned. ``If you close your eyes,″ he said, ``you can imagine you’re someplace like ... someplace like Texas!″

The jukebox is a big part of the carefully crafted illusion. It’s a shrine to hits from the 1950s and ’60s like ``Chapel of Love,″ the immortal ``Be-Bop-A-Lula″ and ``Wooly Bully″ by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.

The menu, too, is a tribute to American pop culture _ comfort foods like creamed corn, chocolate milk, macaroni and cheese, applesauce and chicken pot pie abound. They put marshmallows in the hot chocolate here and bottles of ketchup on the Formica tables. And you’re expected to linger over refills on the coffee.

Open just a month, this modest palace of American pop culture is already a hangout for a devoted clientele of Russians and homesick foreigners alike.

``There’s no place else in Moscow where you can just sit, just hang out,″ said Eric Burd, a 27-year-old American polishing off an order of waffles. ``It’s like what we used to do in college: Sit around and shoot the bull for hours.″

How often does he eat at the diner? ``Too often,″ his companion, Eleanne Hattis, 26, says laughing. ``But oh my god! A big bowl of the chicken chili _ it’s just amazing.″

So is the atmosphere.

Maybe it’s the rosy glow of the pink neon lights that rim the long room lined with aqua and pink booths. Maybe it’s the milk shake machines or cake stands on the counter or the homey bottles of Tabasco sauce all in a row.

Maybe it’s the decor. Memories of a younger, more reckless America are evoked by framed ads for gas-guzzling road hogs with fins as big as fantails like the 1958 Edsel (``It Says You’re Going Places!″) or the ``wide-track″ Pontiac.

Covers of vintage Life and Look magazines recall what amazed or amused Americans a generation or so ago: Elvis in the army, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (``The Most Talked-About Movie Ever Made!″), Nikita Khrushchev in Iowa (``Cornball Act Down on the Farm″) and a handsome young Rock Hudson (``Why He’s No. 1″) before the age of AIDS.

The Starlite Diner is a place for familiar brand names. The menu promises Hellman’s ``real mayonnaise″ on the sandwiches and the chocolate syrup is Hershey’s all the way. A little packet of Lifesavers comes with every check.

Perhaps the only anomalies _ concessions to local custom _ are the ash trays on the table and an extensive bar menu featuring such non-diner delicacies as the strawberry daiquiri and a Bailey’s shake.

Moscow has dozens of American-style restaurants these days, many of them mediocre and overpriced. There are pizza parlors and Mexican food joints and steak houses and sports bars. But none seems to have attracted a following as fast as this diner.

Maybe it’s the friendly service, still a relatively alien concept in Moscow, or the prices. Six bucks will buy you a hamburger and for another $3.50, you can have an ice cream soda with it. The most popular dish on the menu, meat loaf with mashed potatoes and gravy, is $10.

Some regulars are so devoted they never miss a day at the diner, which is open `round the clock. A few even show up twice a day.

``It’s just like back home,″ said one expatriate American who’s faithful to the point of fanaticism. ``We come in around 2:30 in the morning for waffles and talk about what idiots we work for.″

The diner was manufactured in Florida and shipped _ complete with pictures on the walls and booths bolted in place _ to Russia in four pieces. It took just three days to assemble, said manager Jo Jo Massimiani, and not many more for lines to form at the door.

``It was an instant success. It was unbelievable,″ she said. ``The word-of-mouth spread like wildfire.″

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