A Diner Chord
Odd Charles Village Noshery Works Much Better As A Denny's
Not for nothing did nobody exclaim, "Good lord, they're closing Tamber's Nifty Fifties Diner," when the Charles Village restaurant shut down for renovations last year. The place's nostalgia element never really took, and its menu's incorporation of traditional Indian cuisine into the classic diner menu wasn't weird in the right way, just odd. Tamber's was also two long blocks away from the action, such as it is, in Charles Village--and two blocks on a city grid can feel like a country mile. But that's all changing now, thanks to a new Barnes and Noble opening just across the street.
Timed, presumably, to take advantage of the Charles Village revitalization, the restaurant has expanded, remodeled, and reopened as just plain Tamber's (3327 St. Paul St.,  243-5777). A few physical vestiges of the 1950s theme survive--a soda fountain, Elvis posters--but Tamber's now boasts a more institutional look that works to its credit: Think backdrop of a nice senior citizens' residence. A little more artwork on the walls wouldn't hurt, but fresh sunlight cheers up the square room, and diners squeeze themselves contentedly into burgundy booths. It's a quiet place, and the neighborhood's residents, students, and hospital workers could do much worse for their money.
Biryanis and curries feel more at home in this neutral space, at least no more incongruous with blue-plate specials and hot-gravy sandwiches than would be moussaka or spanikopita. Tamber's Indian menu is of the completist kind, which makes the success of individual items a pleasant surprise. The stuffed nan ($3.75), coated with real bits of roasted onion and garlic, is the best around--crispy on the surface and warm and pillowy soft on the inside. Chicken sagwala ($11.95), chunks of marinated meat coated with shreds of spinach, was fragrant with coriander and cinnamon. Its sauce was of a lovely consistency and looked, and tasted, freshly made. Lamb vindaloo ($12.95) was a mild disappointment, and disappointingly mild, its sauce overbright with tomatoes. The lamb, however, like the chicken in the sagwala, betrayed signs of having been marinated before cooking. The meat in these dishes is tender and doled out in comfortable dinner-size portions, and the basmati rice, decorated with green peas, was blameless.
The balance of the menu is that how-can-it-all-be-good? combustion of pastas, burgers, hot and cold sandwiches, salads, and entrées: meat loaf, shrimp parmesan, chicken pot pie, deep-fried chicken. What we tried was good. While skimping just a bit on the corned beef, a Reuben sandwich ($8.95) offered up all of the hoped-for molten and greasy pleasures--a good, patient grilling that fuses together cheese, kraut, and beef is what makes a sandwich heroic. A couple of appetizers were dandy, too. Buffalo wings ($6.50) had a tangy, crispy skin, and yielded plenty of good, clean meat. Zucchini sticks ($5.50), which featured a peppery coating, were crunchy on the outside and steaming hot inside. An accompanying ranch dressing, unlike the chunky blue cheese dressing that cooled off the wings, was too thin.
Midmorning might be the best time to visit Tamber's, if only because not many other people do yet. It's the right place to spread out the paper and hunker down with some well-prepared egg dishes. Corned beef hash ($6.95) is served with two perfectly turned out sunny-side-up eggs, a pile of well-seasoned potatoes, and toast. The hash, dotted with plenty of lean corned beef, gets fried into an oblong slab--perfect food for a cheat day. French toast ($5.95) is a humble affair, the kind you might make when you're learning to cook, with a layer of yolk visible on the edges of thickly cut slices--not much flavor, though. A side of too-lean bacon ($2.25) arrived overcooked, and sides of sausage are available only in patties. Tamber's pork needs some work.
The same waiter provided excellent service at night and the following morning, giving honest answers to questions about what was made on premises. Tamber's is fundamentally a neighborhood place, and its ultimate fortunes will no doubt depend on how reliably it serves the surrounding community. The staff appears to be enormously hard-working here, and the food, while not compelling, was beyond decent. One visit, maybe two, should be enough to decide whether or not it's going to work for you. And if the room strikes you as a little too subdued, the whole menu is available for carry-out.