Michael Neill
November 30, 1987 12:00 PM

Let us take a trip back in time, back through the Me Decade and the Love Generation, back to a half-forgotten time of crew cuts and panty girdles and saddle shoes. Back to that fun decade, the ’50s, when Ike was President and Rocky Marciano was champ and heaven was a Buick with the top down. Naah, let’s go instead to Ed Debevic’s diner in Beverly Hills, where the ’50s—or at least a designer’s version of them—reign once again in all their Naugahydian glory.

For instance, there’s the music—rock from the years when they still had the hang of it: Chantilly Lace, Splish Splash and Tutti Frutti, pounding out from primitive tabletop jukeboxes. And the waiters and waitresses look familiar too—Filmore the nerd, Rusty with her cat-eye glasses and curlers, Toots in her beehive—all the uncool archetypes of that dear dead decade.

By tapping into the collective semiconscious of an entire generation, Ed Debevic’s has become hotter than watching submarine races. Open only since May, it has already attracted big names. Tom Cruise threw a 25th-birthday party there for Emilio Estevez. Eddie Murphy likes the last booth on the right. Even Donna Rice has dined chez Debevic.

Debevic’s is the brainchild of Chicago restaurateur Richard Melman, who opened the first Ed’s in Phoenix four years ago. There are five of them now, the Beverly Hills branch being the newest. “I wanted to recapture the teenage years in a restaurant,” says Melman, who is 45 and lived through the ’50s at an impressionable age. “I wanted it to be real; I didn’t just want it full of Elvis posters.”

To recreate the era, Melman hired Alfred Bauman, who collects ’50s artifacts. Bauman’s research produced a treasure trove of memorabilia—malteds in silver shakers, vanilla Cokes, gin rickeys and pink ladies, leatherette chairs, chrome-base tables and kitschy lamps—not to mention the role-playing waiters and waitresses. There are 250 of them covering the seven-day-a-week lunch and dinner schedule, but there is a core of 10 who work all the parties and most of the high-profile night shifts. Each has a specific role to play and shtiks it to the customers at every opportunity.

John Hurley portrays Tiny Debevic, Ed’s nephew. “I wear a green leisure suit or yellow-checked polyester pants with polyester flowered shirt and blue bow tie,” he says. “My bow tie is rayon, the fabric of the future.”

Then there’s Trampolina—Jennifer Heath—who gets up on the nearest table and does a wild bump-and-grind whenever Twist and Shout comes on the jukebox. “Just call me ‘Tramp’ for short!” she yells, in character. “I love everybody, and you’re next!”

Toots—the one with the beeyootiful beehive—is played by Ingrid Berg. “I like to coordinate my look with what I’m eating,” she says. “If you come in and order Caesar salad, I might say, ‘How would you like that burger cooked? ‘Cause, honey, green is not your color.’ ”

The routines are all scripted by the actor-waiters, but Melman writes a sort of screenplay for each of his themed restaurants, as well as character sketches for the help. There is a weekly acting class for the staff, and prospective employees must audition for jobs. The stereotypes Melman aims to reinforce include almost every animal from the ’50s menagerie—the class clown, the brain, the jock, the goody two-shoes, the car buff. “The idea,” says Melman, “is that you identify with someone or something.” Something else ’50s buffs can identify with are the prices; nothing on the menu is over $5.50.

There are a few things missing at Ed Debevic’s though. One is Ed Debevic; he just doesn’t exist. Melman heard the name once and thought it would sound good on a restaurant. “He really is the conscience of the place,” Melman says of the mythic Ed. “I see him as being 57, Polish, from Chicago, a guy who loves beer and bowling.”

But there’s one ’50s activity that’s restricted at Ed’s. If you were the kind of ’50s type who went in for the pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of your T-shirt, forget it! This is Beverly Hills, and Beverly Hills doesn’t approve of smoking in restaurants, regardless of decade. But you can use all the Bryl Creem you want.

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