Thursday, January 24, 2008

Night With Armor (Just Arthur's, 22-08 Steinway Street)

The mute façade of Just Arthur's, at the strangely desolate corner of Steinway and Ditmars, has always struck us as mysterious. The restaurant has somewhat lavish signage and what looks to be roof-deck dining, but it always seems eerily forlorn, an inscrutable relic from a previous time, perhaps from when people like us didn't live in Astoria.

We had never heard of anyone actually eating at this Italian place, and it seemed to us plausible that it was a mob front. And the name invited questions: Why "just" Arthur? What happened to the others? Was there a falling out? Foul play? On a cold Saturday, we decided that we wanted answers, so we made a reservation for 9:00 to get to the bottom of things.

When we arrived, a sullen quiet seemed to have settled on the scene. It seemed much later than 9:00; we seemed out of time altogether. Hardly a soul in sight, just a vacant bus shelter and a dour man having a cigarette in front of the pair of windowless doors that lead into Just Arthur's, the smoke blending with the steam from his breath. He didn't smile, wouldn't even move aside to let us enter easily; instead we had to edge past him, through the door that wasn't marked "This is the exit."

Once inside, we were surprised to find ourselves deposited in a run-of-the-mill old-man bar, complete with blaring flat-screen TVs and half-drunk regulars. It had the air of a private club, and we felt like gate-crashers at a party we wouldn't have wanted to be invited to anyway. But then we were brought into the dining room by our eventual waiter, an amiable teenager who was quick to see that we received wine but strangely slow about providing us menus. At one point, we wondered aloud if it were one of those menuless places, like Elias Corner. Perhaps we would have to eat whatever Arthur in his wisdom felt like providing.

The dining room had some interesting accoutrements -- a working fireplace with whiskey decanters on the mantel, a piano with a set of foot-high jazz band figures arranged atop it ("please do not touch" read the attached sign, presumably applying to both the keys and the figurines), and, weirdly enough, a suit of armor. Apparently it was obligatory at some point in the history of American restaurateurship to procure a suit of armor, but what this was intended to signify is something we have yet to fathom. Were diners in the 1970s nostalgic for feudalism? Or was the suit of armor so patently gratuitous that it signified the kind of luxurious abandon one should feel when eating out?

Eventually we did get menus, though the Mystery of the Missing Waiter was soon replaced with the Mystery of the Waitstaff Switcheroo, as halfway through the meal the teenager vanished from our table (though he was still hanging around the restaurant) and a ponytailed, suntanned woman started tending to us. She gave us a casual but sincere eye-roll apology to us for the boisterous table across the room, and later made a mob reference that showed us that we weren't the only ones who'd had suspicions about Arthur and his ilk ("I can say that — I'm Irish," she said with a wink).

The food? We ordered the recommended Pasta alla John (for meat lovers, the first waiter said carefully, though he was unable to tell us who John was, or why John and not Arthur), and one of the specials -- the pork chop pizziola, which was a pounded piece of pork topped with cheese, prosciutto, marinara sauce, and fried peppers and onions. Neither of these were revelatory; both were satisfactory. But really, the food is beside the point at Just Arthur's. You can get better food at other places in Astoria, and probably "better" ambiance, if you're after fine dining or a down-home feeling. But nowhere else can you get its peculiar mix of jollity, frowsy elegance, and nostalgia for an era of the neighborhood we never knew.

Price: Under $25 for entrees.
Will we go again? There's better food to be found, but the suit of armor just might bring us back. And we aspire to become the sort who could hang out at the bar.

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