Zoot suit riot: Ted’s Bulletin goes back to basics

Let’s begin this review with a simple thought experiment:

Imagine yourself on your comfiest couch, your favorite show cued up on the TiVo, a freshly procured box of Girl Scout cookies on your lap.

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Now, midway through that first sleeve of Thin Mints, do you stop and think, You know, these are great and all, but they’d be even better if I could liquefy them, blend in some Blue Bell ice cream and mix with a little bit of the hard stuff?

If so, Ted’s Bulletin, an old-timey little Barracks Row charmer from the folks who brought you Matchbox, might be right up your alley.

But we’ll get back to the Grasshopper — which is what the restaurant calls that particular variety of “adult milkshake” — in just a minute.

First we’ll say that the place may appeal to you for any of several other reasons: if, say, your wallet’s folding a bit too easily for comfort these days, or if you’re touring Eastern Market with the rugrats in tow. The neighborhood now teems with fine-dining hotspots, dimly lit joints offering up the trendiest exotic fare, but your clan may not be so appreciative of mezze, moules frites or luxe lounges — and you may not be in the mood to contend with the packs of young professionals crowding the entryways of the area’s tonier boîtes.

Enter the Bulletin.

An oasis of back-to-basics Americana, the restaurant walks that thinnest of lines between easy adherence to a chosen theme (in its case, a sort of vague, Depression-tinged prewar catch-all) and out-and-out kitsch. You don’t get the sense, for example, that the wait staff has been coached in Roaring ’20s slang; ask for a dessert recommendation and you’ll get an enthusiastic nudge toward Ted’s already-deservedly-famed Homemade Pop Tart or 7 Up Pound Cake, but at no point will your cheery, tie-wearing server say they’re the cat’s pajamas or tell you that now you’re really on the trolley.

All of which is another way of saying Ted’s is a tastefully executed theme restaurant that weaves in its subtle motifs — wrought-iron fixtures salvaged from the old Philly Convention Hall, dish rags masquerading as napkins, drab cafeteria-style plates — without bludgeoning you with their quaintness. By far the most eye-grabbing feature of the establishment is an overhead screen on which are projected pre-talkie cartoon shorts, silent films and classics like the original “King Kong”; by far the most bothersome is the lettering on the bathroom doors, which advertise a long-forgotten law office but offer no indication of there being a toilet within. Still, that’s no major gripe.

The place has also pulled off something of a miracle in its use of what are, in fact, relatively meager dimensions. An old-school drugstore countertop out front gives way to the ocher-toned dining room and its spinal column of six-seater booths flanked by smaller tables, all of them stretching back to an open kitchen in the rear. Orderly, clean and bright, the setup provides the ancillary benefit of maximizing seating. And the recessed skylight is a stroke of inspiration. Without it, the space would’ve become a dark, dingy backroom. With it, the dining area feels leagues larger — a long hall fit for post-bar booze-sopping meals and festive Sunday brunches alike.

It’s getting up out of the booth following one of those sessions that might present a problem. We won’t mince words here: This is not an eatery for those watching their girlish figures. The portions are huge; the sauces doled out with a decidedly heavy hand; the place is becoming best-known for its decadent desserts and gargantuan milkshakes.

There’s good reason for that. Viscous enough to eat with a spoon, sufficiently syrupy to sip through a straw, the shakes here are damn near perfect, rich but never cloying and intoxicating even minus the alcohol Ted’s so willingly tosses in. And while six bucks for a virgin variety might seem a lot to ask, rest assured you won’t need to order anything else. Polish off what comes in the oversized glass — no small feat — and you’ve still got the cocktail-shaker overflow to reckon with; on each of our visits, this effectively doubled the amount of creamy confection. Just don’t forget the Lactaid.

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The results are more mixed in the savory department. Drew’s Peanut Butter Bacon Burger is a revelation, a heaping hunk of fresh-ground beef still bright-pink and stewing in juices even at medium, the thickness of the patty and hickory heft of the bacon enough to offset the sweet stick of the liberally applied peanut butter and spicy Roma tomato jam. It’s a bizarre combination, but one that also manages to scratch all sorts of different itches along the palate.

Oddly enough, it’s when Ted’s plays it safe, hewing more closely to standard-fare belly-busters, that it falters. Despite the sinful name and wholehearted endorsement of our server, the Walk of Shame Breakfast Burrito proves something of a ho-hum effort, its resident sirloin overdone, scrambled eggs puffy and bland and green chile sauce barely noticeable. Same goes for the meatloaf, which, though pleasingly moist in its own right, suffers from a surfeit of sauce that tastes, smells and looks suspiciously like ketchup. Perhaps a swap-out in favor of a subtler, gentler coating would do the trick.

Again, though, these are trifling complaints, and surely a place as down-home egalitarian as Ted’s Bulletin will make the appropriate tweaks to keep loyalists fully sated — which, judging by its ample offerings, friendly prices and comfort-food leanings, seems to be the restaurant’s overriding mission.

In the meantime, you could do a lot worse than sauntering over for a Grasshopper, Peanut Butter Bacon Burger and Homemade Pop Tart. We think they’re the cat’s pajamas.