They might as well be on Mars, as far as modern dining goes.

The ancient restaurants of Edmonton have stood unchanged, frozen in time.

To walk into the Saratoga, the Flamingo or Billy Budd’s is to head back to the ‘50s or ‘60s, to walk into a world of rec-room panelling, thin carpeting, naugahyde booths, room dividers and fake plants. Everything is 50 shades of brown.

But there is comfort. While the foodie world searches for the latest pork belly, bouillabaisse, octopus or carpaccio, many Edmontonians loathe such foods. They don’t want surprises. They want normalcy, familiarity and friendliness. No matter how old they may be, they want what their mom made for them. Or a good steak.

Just before the 23rd Avenue turn-off, The Saratoga (2610 Calgary Trail) has faced Calgary Trail for 59 years. Despite being open since 1958, it has no real dining reputation. It’s just been there.

As I drove to The Saratoga, I wondered what I’d find. Would the gravy be the all-purpose brown goop? Would liver be on the menu? Would the friendly waitresses be 20-year veterans, wearing black outfits and offering endless cups of slightly stale coffee?

Yes, yes, and yes.

I had to chuckle at the old-fashioned Saratoga entrees – turkey, roast beef, ground beef steak, liver and onions, breaded pork or chicken cutlets, chicken fingers, chicken parmesan with spaghetti. The desserts were rice pudding, Jell-O or pudding, $2.35 each. Frozen in time! The Saratoga is open for breakfast and lunch, but closes at 3 p.m.

The ground beef steak with onions and gravy was on special for $14.99. Pretty simple. A hamburger without the bun, a big patty of good-quality minced beef, topped with fried onions, all drowned in brown gravy. The fries were rustic, with a bit of peel. The carrots were awful – soft, tasteless, overcooked – just like hospital cafeterias 30 years ago.

The serving ladies were old-fashioned friendly. “How’s the lunch? How’re we doing here?”

The 40-year-old Flamingo (15835 87 Ave.) on 87 Avenue across from Meadowlark Mall is truly old. Everything’s clean, but nothing has changed. Fake plants sit on wood-panelled room dividers. The air is stale.

The food was the same as the Saratoga, veal cutlets, beef dip, chicken fingers, etc. Both restaurants have a few Greek dishes.

Old-fashioned liver ‘n’ bacon was on the menu for $12.95, with two bucks extra for onions. Old-fashioned liver that Terry Jones would love, breaded and fried, with that all-purpose brown gravy, a pile of garlic-tinged fried onions and crispy bacon on top.

The liver was overcooked, but still had a satisfying firm but soft texture. A bite of liver on the fork with the gravy, the onions and a bit of bacon. Good!

And yes, the main waitress was jolly and had probably worked at the Flamingo for decades.

Billy Budd’s Restaurant and Lounge (9839-63 Ave.) on the corner of 99 Street and 63 Avenue is 31 years old. Billy Budd’s is an archetypal prairie bar – dimly lit, wooden plank floor, pool tables in one corner, VLTs in the other, banks of TVs. The Doobie Brothers’ Listen to the Music was playing quietly in the background.

But … the place was clean! The air was clean! The original owners, the server tells me, sold Billy Budd’s to a former staff member a few years ago. She’s fixed things up, including the menu with multiple pages of classic bar food. I ordered the Reuben sandwich and a beer.

The Reuben was delicious. Sizzling hot from the grill, butter-soaked toasted rye layered up with melted mozzarella, rich, tasty layers of corned beef and a lashing of fresh, maybe home-made sauerkraut.

As I’m leaving, Crosby Stills & Nash’s Carry On is playing. Love that song …

What other eateries have been around, relatively unchanged, for 30 or 40 years? Coliseum Steak & Pizza, Bul Go Gi House, Creperie, Blue Willow, Bistro Praha and The Rose & Crown come to mind. The Hat (once the Silk Hat) doesn’t count. It’s been millennialized.

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