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Tasting Totally Tubular

A St. Albans restaurant goes back to the future - er, the past


Published January 23, 2008 at 12:14 p.m.

"Just one?" The waitress steps from behind the counter in her uniform — stonewashed blue jeans, white Pepsi T-shirt, big hair — and greets the robust trucker at the door.

"Actually," he mutters, "I just need a bathroom."

"Oh, sure. Straight ahead. Turn left at Hulk Hogan."

The trucker grins as he passes the Bulging Blond One in all his red-and-yellow Hulkamania glory — made of cardboard, of course. When he emerges from the men's room, he requests a menu.

So many choices: Does he want the "Dukes of Hazzard" extreme nachos topped with chili and jalapeños? Rambo's Reuben? Or the Doug Flutie, a popular sandwich among female customers, who can boast afterward they had a football player for lunch?

Were it dinnertime, he could go with the A.L.F.redo Pasta, Tina Turner's Wild Mushroom Chicken, or Honey . . . I Broiled the Scallops. (Not to mention the Top Gun House Sirloin, which comes highly recommended. Kenny Loggins theme song sold separately.)

If it appears our trucker has unwittingly buckled up inside a DeLorean with Christopher Lloyd, he has. Sort of. He's just crossed into another dimension: the Always 80's Restaurant.

"I want people to feel like they're walking into an '80s museum when they come here," says owner Christian Smith, who opened the St. Albans city eatery on December 3. "We're not there yet. We will be."

The Hard Rock Café has Johnny Cash's guitars. Planet Hollywood has 007's trick-car devices. Christian Smith has a working Atari, with games. This is the place to get your Voltron on. (Actually, he's the maitre d'.) It's fun, family-style dining, and the food is "totally awesome" — to quote Jeff Spicoli, the stoner in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It's easy to imagine the mind behind this place: say, a thirtysomething who matched memorabilia from his childhood with a chuckle-inducing menu.

Thing is, Smith is only 25. Tall, gangly and goateed, he looks more like a Weird Science extra than a restaurateur. It's hard to focus on a conversation with him — about how he overcame a troubled adolescence to fill a gaping hole in St. Albans' dining community — when Labyrinth is on the television over his head.

Nearly $1000 worth of artifacts from the "Greed Is Good" decade fill Smith's walls and windows. He bought it all on the Internet, mostly eBay. The movie posters (Ghostbusters, Mystic Pizza, Flashdance). The album covers (Squeeze, Wham!, Joey "Greatest American Hero" Scarbury). Even the giant cardboard cutout of the Police Academy gang. Eighties music is all Smith's customers can hear, and it's common to see "G.I. Joe" (the TV show, soon to become a movie) or Sixteen Candles on the three TV monitors.

"To me," Smith says, "this is about childhood memories. I just remember it as a fun time."

Blame — or credit — his older sisters, Stephannette, now 29, and Melissa, 27. They coerced young Chris into singing Billy Idol songs on car trips to the beach and turned him on to Harrison (Star Wars) Ford, who became his favorite actor. As he hit adolescence, Smith emulated the rebellious Han Solo type rather than squeaky-clean Luke Skywalker. In high school, he says, he smoked too much and drank a lot. Smith's traffic-ticket collection earned him a suspended license. He also quit jobs without notice.

"I was nice," he recalls, "but I did bad things."

When he did work, Smith made pizza and harbored dreams of owning his own restaurant. At 19, he took a business class, and, in May 2001, he landed a cook's job at the Waterworks restaurant in Winooski's Champlain Mill. About two years later, he accepted a management position at a Wendy's in Essex.

"It was a culture shock," Smith says. "Much different clientele. Much different people you were working with. And the food was cookie-cutter. But I got a sense of why the corporate restaurants succeed," he notes. "They all have their foolproof systems, and you learn to cover your bases."

At Wendy's (remember "Wheeere's the Beef?"), Smith educated himself on labor relations, operational costs, profit and loss — knowledge he needed to run his own place. "That made me know I could do it," he says. "I thought, "If I'm going to run a restaurant, why not just run my own?"

When Smith left Wendy's, he still lacked experience in full-service cooking, and he wavered between operating a full-service restaurant and a pizza house. Last spring, he went to Rí Rá in downtown Burlington and cooked alongside Paul Moran, the former head chef at Waterworks. Smith considers Moran a friend and a mentor — his culinary Miyagi (remember The Karate Kid?). "He taught me most of what I know about the culinary aspects of this business," Smith says.

Moran, 44, of Underhill describes Smith as a diligent, trustworthy worker — "a good guy." He hasn't yet made it to Always 80's, he confesses, but he says of Smith's headlong venture into food service, "I commend him highly. This is a tough business," Moran continues. "There are so many variables, and you're on your own a lot, especially when you own your own place.

"But we share the same philosophy," he says of Smith. "Hard, consistent work gets you where you want to go. That, and good food."

Rí Rá's success with its Irish motif helped Smith realize he couldn't just serve food. He needed a niche. A theme. It came to him last summer, while he was watching TV in bed: What about the '80s?

Some of his relatives were skeptical, but not his grandmother, Annette Coch, with whom Smith and his family — wife Kim, 21, and daughter Violet, 4 — share a house in Fairfax. Smith secured some small loans for Always 80's, but it was the $120,000 home equity loan he co-signed with his grandmother that allowed him to close on the restaurant last October.

"I'm in debt up to my ears," he admits. "If the place fails, I will certainly have some major losses."

To stay afloat, Smith has to overcome the "curse" of his address: 141 Lake Street. The site has gone through restaurants like J.R. Ewing went through women. Still, there are plenty of potential patrons nearby: Always 80's is within walking distance of a Catholic church, a Salvation Army store and a discount beverage mart, and it's just a short trek from two of the area's largest employers — Mylan and the monstrous immigration service center.

Besides, Smith believes he serves a need. There is no shortage of Italian or Chinese restaurants in the greater St. Albans area. Depending on wind direction and body positioning, the city smells like either Sicily or Hong Kong.

"Honestly, I really wanted to go to Chittenden County first," Smith says. "But when I saw what families in St. Albans had for dining options, and what they had to pay, I decided to come here. It needed a place like this."

Jennifer Savage agrees. "I think he's absolutely filling a gap for families in St. Albans," says the 34-year-old mother of two young children. A child of the '80s herself, Savage says, "I am completely comfortable bringing my family there."

At first, she admits, she had misgivings — how could anyone design a restaurant around the '80s? But when she and her husband, Sean, stepped inside, they saw the posters, heard the music, and began singing long-forgotten songs from classic '80s sitcoms. Their children looked at them like they had stepped off a spaceship and asked to phone home.

"I laughed out loud when I turned around and saw a full-sized Princess Leia staring back at me from the corner," Savage remembers. "It's fun to see that some of the characters I enjoyed as a kid have come back around, and my own kids are enjoying them now. It makes the atmosphere in the restaurant relevant for all of us."

To liven up that atmosphere, Smith has gone interactive. He holds a weekly '80s trivia contest — top prize is a $10 gift certificate to the restaurant — and posts an '80s timeline at each table to encourage "Remember when. . . ?" conversations. He envisions waitstaff theme nights — imagine being served by the "Facts of Life" gals — and has even considered displaying his massive personal collection of Star Wars and Transformers collectibles. (The potential for theft keeps him second-guessing that move.)

So far? He's happy.

"I think things are going well for us," Smith says. "But I'm a positive guy."

He's learned he can't please everyone, such as the middle-aged man who saw the neon sign burning Rainbow Brite outside and decided to try the new place. Then he met Voltron in the doorway. The Norwegian band a-ha (remember "Take on Me"?) pierced his ears as the waitress showed him to his table. He grimaced.

"What is this?" the man asked, turning to his wife. "The '80s? Why?"

Turns out, he thought the sign said "Bob's." But he asked for a menu, anyway.