America has given the world peanut butter and jelly doughnuts, the 98 per cent-fat-free turkey breast, three-cheese-stuffed pizza crusts, granola fondue, the festive hot dog soufflé, and really, really bad kawffee. Talk about the home of the brave.
I forgive it all, however, for the times and places in which America has elevated the simple to the sublime: the perfect oyster po' boy at Schiller's Liquor Bar in New York's Lower East Side; the great beef tongue on rye at Carnegie Deli; the foie gras-studded burger at DB Bistro Moderne; and the coconut vodka Martini at Pravda.
Tomorrow is American Independence Day, a time to celebrate the good and try to forget the peanut butter and jelly doughnuts. So I mosey on down to Automat, which recently opened in Mayfair billing itself as an " American brasserie".
The brainchild of charismatic New York restaurateur and nightclub owner Carlos Almada, Automat is the first stage of a complex that will eventually include a restaurant and bar, members' lounge and nightclub.
It is not a real Automat like the one opened by Horn & Hardart in Times Square in 1912, sadly, so dinner doesn't come from coin-in-the-slot windowed compartments. Instead, there is an ante-room of eye-catching black-and-white tiles reminiscent of a Parisian brasserie, leading to a long, narrow " carriage" of a diner complete with padded booths, curved wooden ceiling and venetianed windows.
Now you're talking. The American diner evolved from horse-drawn lunch-wagons pulled to busy city sites in order to sell simple fast food. These were replaced by renovated electric trolley cars, hence the long, narrow shape so emblematic of the diner. From then on, diners were purpose-built to look like railway dining cars, reaching their hey-day in the 1950s, before being decimated by the fast-food chains.
Automat's main dining area is to the rear, along with a big bright open kitchen, a communal bench lined with stools, and a light, airy split-level cafeteria space. No contest, it's back to the booths in the diner, with their lovely little electric lamps and highly polished timbers.
The menu is a happy mix of American favourites, from clam chowder to macaroni cheese, hangar steak and, of course, the Automat burger. Devised by executive chef Richard Turner and Boston-born head chef, Peter Tempelhoff, it's enough to bring out the Yankee doodle in any dandy. The place jives at lunch, when there are soft-shell crab po' boy and roast turkey sandwiches, and weekend brunch does eggs every which way, including benedict and three-cheese omelette.
I want the chowder, but there are no clams today, only mussels. As it's not mussel season I go for the soft- shell crabs (£10) instead, which probably aren't in season either, but they're great fun. Two quick-fried spidery crabs sit a warm escabeche-like dressing of olive oil, dill cucumber, diced tomato, and red onion. In spite of the oil, flavours are clean, and the crisp/squelchy contrasting textures are as much fun as Coney Island.
Gulf shrimp with cocktail sauce (£12) sees five large, peeled prawns diving into a bowl of ice. It's a cute 1950s Esther Williams tableau, but the prawns are consequently very cold, which deadens the flavour.
There's no American beer on the eclectic wine list, so I keep the faith wine-wise with a Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel 2002 from Lodi county, for £30.50. Zinfandel (aka Primitivo in Italy) is not the world's most esteemed grape variety, but this is classy, solid and powerful, with a nice hit of cherry. It's a good buddy for the Automat beef burger (£8), a massive medium-rare-as-requested meat patty sitting on one half of a toasted bun, with a lettuce leaf, tomato slice and slash of dill pickle on the other. Good meat, but nothing much has been done with it other than mashing and mushing, and it lacks seasoning and sizzling.
Not convinced I'm getting enough carbs, I go for a mac cheese (£6) which is perfectly acceptable, the macaroni coated in a light, cheesy sauce. It's very white-bread, but a good choice for kids who won't eat anything with yukky stuff on it (ie, parsley).
An iceberg wedge salad turns out to be a quasi-Caesar, with a rich mayonnaise-based "ranch" dressing (£6), cold croutons, cold bacon bits and cold hard-boiled egg. It leaves me, well, cold.
Dazed and confused by carb overload, I order a classic New York cheese cake (£6) baked in the Jewish style. It's a wedge of moist, light and almost moussey, vanilla-scented perfection; so damn good I don't leave a crumb of the biscuit crust.
Service is swift, and the staff are cute, although they would be more authentic if they wore beehives and called everybody "honey".
OK, so it's not the best American food, and it's not the worst. It's like the country itself, big enough to excel in some areas and drop the ball in others. That's what you get for being independent, I guess. Happy Fourth of July.
13 Automat 33 Dover St London W1, tel: 020 7499 3033. Lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat; brasserie noon-midnight daily; brunch Sat & Sun. Around £90 for dinner for two inc. wine and service
Second helpings: More American eating for Independence Day
The Pan American Club Unit 22, Britannia Pavilion, Albert Dock, Liverpool, tel: 0151 702 5849 Legendary cocktails, leather sofas, plush booths and water views make this speakeasy-style lounge/bar a magnet for Liverpool's monied movers, soap stars and footballers' wives. The mezzanine restaurant serves up everything from sushi to spaghetti, but the real attractions are American favourites such as popcorn shrimp, smoked pig nachos, crab cake Caesar and New York sirloin.
Momma Cherri's Soul Food Shack 11 Little East Street, Brighton, East Sussex, tel: 01273 774545 "You might come in skinny, but you ain't goin' out that way" is Momma Cherri's catch-cry. Not after Reverend Daisy's southern fried chicken, Brother Craig's smokin' BBQ ribs, and Lupita's fajitas, you ain't. And if that don't do it, the key lime pie and ice-cream sundae will. Gordon Ramsay gave this the Kitchen Nightmares treatment, but even he loved the home cookin'.
Bodean's 10 Poland Street London W1, tel: 020 7287 7575 The way to an American man's heart is through his ribs, especially if they are a slab of juicy baby back ribs, slow cooked on a barbecue smoke pit in a basement booth. If that don't tickle your fancy then stay upstairs and do the New York deli thing.
Email Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at email@example.com