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Cheap Eats - Bluebird of blandness

Ria's Bluebird packs 'em in but doesn't pack a wallop

The spires of headstones, crosses and angels peek over the edge of the brick wall. Grant's buried over there; so is Miss Mitchell. There's not much along the desolate strip of Memorial Drive leading into gentrifying Grant Park except Oakland Cemetery, with its historic dead, and a little diner, tucked in amongst the junk shops and barricaded businesses.

Named after Ria Pell, the chef and owner, Ria's Bluebird appears to be a piece of urban art in the surrounding cityscape. The reclaimed space is a former liquor store and took months to hammer and mold to its current shape of chrome siding and rustic charm. A bank of glass lets diners look out onto the facing cemetery wall, and the light shines in to brighten every inch.

Inside, a large, brightly colored mosaic bluebird is a focal point along the wall of wood paneling, a touch of homey tranquility. A collection of seats and booths fill the interior that easily gets crowded — there are fewer than 10 tables available. A stainless steel bar provides room for a few more, otherwise the recently opened outdoor seating provides a little extra space for that long line of diners waiting for their Sunday brunch.

The staff, like the owner, is pierced and tattooed. But that doesn't mean you won't see a suit sitting next to chains and boots in the eclectic crowd.

Many people come here for the breakfast, served every day until the place closes at 4 p.m. But there also are a fair number of sandwiches and lunch items available. Unlike other diners, Ria's offers a selection of vegetarian items and meat eaters are still welcome.

Instead, I ordered the pepper turkey melt ($7.50) upon the server's insistence, with a side of skillet potatoes. The sandwich was fairly standard. The thinly sliced turkey with caramelized onions was sweet and a bit mushy with sliced chunks of avocado poking out between the slices of bread. Melted Swiss cheese glued the whole thing together, but a lack of zippy flavor failed to hold the sandwich together conceptually. The turkey, avocado and cheese, all being of mild flavor, began to taste the same; the sandwich didn't distinguish itself with spice, bite or tang.

The side of potatoes also lacked luster. Chunks of potatoes appeared to be heavily seasoned but turned out to be no more than gritty bits of tuber. Even a little salt would have sparked some flavor.

One of my dining partners took the server up on the lunch special, a made in-house veggie burger. It arrived on a sesame seed bun, the patty shaped into a normal-looking burger, containing large bits of vegetable including asparagus, corn and mushroom as well as oats. It's unusual that you can ascertain the individual veggies in one of those burgers, but here the bits were not processed to a pulp and provided a bit of novelty. Unfortunately, the "burger" was a bit bland and required large doses of ketchup from my friend to get more taste into it.

Another of my dining companions ordered a meatless, "bionic" breakfast ($5.50), a mound of skillet potatoes topped with sauteed mushrooms, roasted corn, red and poblano peppers. She added cheddar cheese for an extra $1. A side of spicy tofu sauce came on the side and seemed to be the salvation for, again, an otherwise bland meal.

The potatoes were in the same vein as those ordered as a side, cold and without flavor. The addition of cheddar didn't do much for the taste, and the bright tofu dressing, despite looking spicy, wasn't.

Despite the lack in great flavor or much true innovation, Ria's has no lack of popularity. There are always people lined up to take a seat at one of the in-demand tables. And as long as Ria's keeps packin' 'em in, her bluebird will keep singing its sweet tune and not become one of the funereal neighbors across the street.??