by Marty Demarest

I feel a certain amount of trepidation every time I enter a place that is "a Spokane institution." I'm not sure if it's the word "institution" that scares me, or if it's the notion that something that survives for years in Spokane might not be keeping up with the rest of the world. In any case, there's an equal potential for comforting nostalgia or tired clich & eacute;s.

There is no reason to worry about Benjamin's, however. Located in the middle of downtown, with its dining area looking out onto the Parkade Plaza, Benjamin's can seem like a welcome surprise even when you're just looking for some fries. Every downtown needs a diner, but unless you know about Benjamin's, you're going to have to walk to some of the area's borders to find a place like Frank's or Dolly's. They're both great, certainly, but hardly within walking distance when you find yourself craving a basic burger and fries, and the only things at hand are the high-production values of Red Robin.

The restaurant itself is barely more than a corner - it even juts out into the Plaza - and the size and arrangement give the whole place the feeling of a sunroom filled with surplus Americana. It's not just the flags and patriotic garlands that are currently on display that cause this effect. The roots in this place run deep, from the bottles of Heinz on each turquoise vinyl tablecloth to the plastic seasonal decorations hung in each of the many windows. Franklin Mint collector's plates alternate with framed covers of the Saturday Evening Post on the knotty pine walls, and each windowsill is covered with violets resting on lace doilies. The waitstaff even says "please" to the cooks when placing an order.

The menu itself, restricted to breakfast and lunch options, prides itself on its fidelity to the classics. Forget the obnoxious changing of French fries to "Freedom fries." Benjamin's still calls them French, but anyone who looks at the description and reads the qualifier "We cut our fries from fresh RUSSET POTATOES!!!" will know what country they're in. (Only Americans are so enthusiastically certain.) And one of the specials on the day that we visited was a burger, fries, and soda combination at a reduced price.

The other special that day was a plate of Cadillac clams and fries. Unlike many restaurants which limp through the week with a tired rotation of tried-and-true dishes, the specials at Benjamin's deserved the name. The back of the menu even featured a calendar for the month, detailing the daily specials yet to come; and while hot turkey sandwiches and fish and chips had their place, there were also days devoted to the "Jack Daniel's BB-Q Burger" and "Coney Island."

Caught up in the comforting allure of the place, however, we opted to stick with the basics. The standard burger ($3.25) comes in the usual variations of cheddar, bacon, ham, and double. We had to try the Chili Burger, since the menu promised that the restaurant's chili ($2.99 for a small bowl, $3.99 for large) was "Made from Ben's own special recipe!!!" It arrived not only lost under a mountain of rich, vegetable- and bean-filled chili, but the whole thing was topped with a generous sprinkling of minced red onion. That's the sort of touch that sets Benjamin's apart from other restaurants. Milder than the usual white onions, and minced finely, the onions swirled into the chili and lent a satisfying sweet crunch to each bite.

There wasn't a grilled cheese sandwich on the menu, but the six different salads sounded tempting ($2.99 for a dinner salad, $4.75 or $5.79 for one of the specialty salads). Lentil soup was also a fixture, which, when paired with the rotating pie-rack in the center of the restaurant, shoots Benjamin's to the top of the comfort food list. But the fish and chips eventually won out. Three strips of cod breaded in substantial, buttery batter arrived resting on a heap of the much-promoted fries.

The fish was good. The fries, quickly ordered by everyone, were astounding. Each basket that arrives must contain several full potatoes' worth of fries, each one a perfectly squared stick as thick as a finger. And the best surprise was nestled among them - a small container of Benjamin's homemade tartar sauce. The Inlander's recent "Best Of" issue didn't have a category for it, so I'm willing to start a friendly battle and claim that Benjamin's tartar sauce is the best around. So thick that it doesn't pour out of the container when turned upside down, this sauce is loaded with chopped vegetables and spices, and makes the sauce that some restaurants serve seem like mayonnaise with relish. It was an eye-opening experience for us, but judging from the extra orders for the sauce that were appearing on tables around us, it's an open secret. And when you think about it, that's exactly what you want in a "Spokane institution": just enough secrecy to make it feel special, but food good enough to eat for years.

Publication date: 04/10/03

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