IN THESE WANING days of summer, nothing could be finer than a ferry to a diner. If you're in the mood for a little hoofing, you don't even need your car: Some evening after work, just breeze past the lineup of autos and right onto the Bainbridge Island ferry; when you debark, hang a Louie on Winslow Way and a Roscoe on Madison Avenue. About half a mile from the dock you'll spy The Blue Water Diner. The Blue Water Diner
305 Madison Ave N, Bainbridge Island, 842-1151
7am-9pm every day
MC, V; beer and wine You won't miss it; the Blue Water's the kind of place that will make you want to say things like "hang a Louie" even if you've never said them before. It's an actual dining car built in 1948 by the Fodero Dining Car Company of Newark, New Jersey, authentic right down to its floor tiles. In the '50s and '60s, the car lived in Pennsylvania, its kitchen churning out patty melts and chocolate malts and its individual in-booth jukeboxes warbling Frank Sinatra and Frankie Valli. A new owner abandoned the car after moving it back to New Jersey, which is where current owner Al Packard found it in 1991. Packard, a retired Bainbridge Island airline pilot whose protracted layovers in the Northeast ignited a fascination with diners, dreamed of importing its inimitable casual comfort to the Northwest. He moved the car to its present location and began the painstaking job of renovating, rebuilding, or recreating every knob, fan, and light sconce in the place. The result is a picture-book vision of a diner: a masterpiece of Naugahyde, vinyl, and chrome, with booths and a countertop and a milk shake machine, and, yes, individual in-booth jukeboxes. (They don't work, alas.) The only thing missing is the uniforms and perky little pointy caps on the waitresses, who deliver such an engaging apple-cheeked cheekiness you feel like you've landed back in the '50s anyway. They also deliver your food, whaddaya know, and here's what it might be: a plate of sourdough breaded onion rings ($4.50), crisp, hot, not too greasy, and highly scrumptious; halibut and chips ($9.95), fried in beer batter or grilled, that are great, dense of flesh, and light of batter in their fried form; the seafood medley ($10.95), featuring oysters and plump, pink shrimp along with the halibut, all reverently treated and accompanied by crunchy golden fries and a dish of cole slaw, a little on the dry side. The burgers are fine: You choose from a salmon burger, a blue cheese and mushroom burger, a chiliburger with onions and cheese, a chicken burger with honey-mustard dressing, or a plain old regular burger ($5.25)—the one we ordered. Big and heaped with onions, lettuce, and tomato, this was a dandy. We got it with fries, but we could have chosen potato salad or soup instead. Our shakes ($3.25) arrived in tall fluted glasses with whipped cream and maraschino cherries—long spoons and frosty metal canisters on the side, just the way diner milk shakes ought to come—but they weren't as richly flavorful as we'd hoped, owing probably to too scant an ice cream-to-milk ratio. Mind you, we still drained them dry. The Cobb salad ($7.95) we ordered to split amongst the three of us arrived at the table on three separate plates—a thoughtful touch from an alert waitress—and was terrific, loaded with meat, eggs, crumbled bacon and crisp veggies, and presented with a little cup of zingy homemade blue cheese dressing. Ditto the meat loaf ($7.95), which was moist, flavored fragrantly with fennel, and draped in gravy. Alongside came a baked potato loaded with sour cream and a little dish of a vegetable we haven't seen in a restaurant this side of Peoria: creamed peas. Not half bad, creamed peas. THE MEAT LOAF CAME off a section of the menu labeled "Entrees" that includes the fried chicken, New York steak, pork chops, and other selections that comprise the star attractions of The Blue Water Diner. In addition to those and the aforementioned appetizers, burgers, seafood items, and salads, the diner also offers a handful of pastas, a kids' and seniors' menu, a vegetarian list, a daily Blue Plate Special, and a selection of all-day breakfasts. I ordered from the last and suffered the one real disappointment of our two visits to the Blue Water. Pork chops and eggs ($6.25) was dead-clunk ordinary at best, with overcooked pork chops, cold toast and scrambled eggs (a greater insult to the universe I can't imagine), and nondescript hash browns. Hopefully breakfast is better at breakfast time. No, best to stay with the correct time of day at the Blue Water. Make that the correct day and time of day. Saturday after 5pm, for instance, when the light on Bainbridge Island is beginning to shimmer with the goldens of evening and the Blue Plate Special is prime rib. For $12.95, you'll start with a fresh, crunchy garden salad, and just as you're dredging your last ripe tomato wedge through its little bath of homemade honey-mustard dressing you'll be presented with an inch-and-a-half-thick slab of luscious meat with a little pot of au jus, a little pot of horseradish, mashed potatoes with gravy, and a saut饤 squash-and-pepper medley on the side. For my money, this is the best the Blue Water has to offer: The prime rib is tender and beautifully cooked from blushing center to salt-crackling crust, the potatoes are smooth and comforting, the vegetables are lightly handled and delicious. The whole plate is, indeed, much better than one might expect a Blue Plate to be. Which is but one of the reasons The Blue Water Diner is so much better than one might expect a diner to be. It's open nearly all the time, with outside seating, a beer and wine license, and even the occasional live musician. It has its down moments, no question, but presents the whole experience with such aesthetic charm and persistent goodwill you can't help be elevated by the end. Particularly if you order dessert. The apple pie ($3.50) and the coconut cream pie ($3.50) are sumptuous and fine, and altogether worth missing the ferry for.