Home on the Range – A former New Yorker's guide to the Texas adjustment

Last week, my husband Lindsay turned 40

Last week, my husband Lindsay turned 40. A friend of mine back east, whose husband happened to be turning 40 the very same week, was throwing an elaborate surprise party that involved roasting pigs on spits, hiring magicians, and flying in long-lost friends all the way from Japan. “Oh, you have to throw your hubby a party for his 40th,” she emailed me brightly. “It’s obligatory. OK?”

I was at a loss, not to mention kicking myself for having wasted dinner at Le Rêve on Lindsay’s insignificant 39th birthday. The pressure was on me to acknowledge this milestone, but pregnancy has made me the ultimate party-pooper. Luckily, Lindsay is pretty easy to please. I asked him how he wanted to celebrate and he said he’d like to have a family dinner at the Magic Time Machine.

If you mention the Magic Time Machine to just about anyone in San Antonio, the response seems to be (a) “That place still exists?”; (b) “I haven’t been there since I was 10”; or (c) all of the above. Lindsay hadn’t been since 1976 (three years after it opened), but cherished memories of the restaurant as “the coolest place I’d ever been in my life” — a warren of trippy rooms patrolled by a wisecracking waitstaff dressed as knights, ancient Romans, and cowboys. He fondly recalled playing pinball and drinking Cokes in the sprawling Flintstones-esque lounge, where women resembling Suzanne Pleshette and Adrienne Barbeau quaffed Harveys Bristol Cream.

Sounded good to me. I’m always up for checking out an old-school, unique-to-San Antonio establishment (yes, there’s a second MTM in Dallas, but two restaurants make a pair, not a chain). Plus, I was so relieved to be off the hook — I really have no idea how to roast a pig on a spit and the restaurant’s online menu revealed an entree roughly equivalent: “The Roman Orgy,” buckets of meat for just $17.99 a person.

From the moment we entered the green windowless building, I felt like I was trapped inside a grimy kaleidoscope. Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz led us through a dark labyrinth of booths that reminded me of the Hobbit houses in Hobbiton, except for their totally random decorative themes (Persian, mineshaft, Christmas). Ours was swathed in cowhide. And I’d been expecting something along the lines of Jack Rabbit Slim’s, the ’50s theme joint in Pulp Fiction, but staffed with time-traveling historical figures like Joan of Arc and Ben Franklin. I was mistaken. You wouldn’t need a time machine to encounter the pop-culture figures the waiters were portraying — Willy Wonka (the Johnny Depp version), Obi-Wan Kenobi (the Ewan McGregor version). A trip to Blockbuster would suffice.

Basically, MTM is a theme restaurant whose theme is unclear. It’s not Polly Esther’s. You may feel like you’ve stepped through a wormhole to the Me Decade, but that’s just because nothing appears to have changed since 1973 (or, ahem, judging by the psychedelic carpet, been steam-cleaned either). So back in the ’70s, maybe it just felt like … a groovier version of home? If home was a place where your parents dropped acid and threw swinging costume parties every weekend?

While I was busy puzzling over these issues and Lindsay was contentedly munching on his Proustian madeleine (chased by a couple of Miller Lites), our 3-year-old daughter Dale was enchanted by everything. Wow, the salad bar is a car! Whoa — our booth is furry! And, hello, did you see that man — he’s a pirate! And that lady, she’s … well, most of the pop-culture references were lost on her. She did not recognize Willy, Dorothy, Obi-Wan, or Velma from Scooby-Doo (actually I also had trouble identifying Velma). But she was besotted with our waitress, Alice (as in Wonderland), although I found Alice’s banter a tad caustic for the pre-school set. (Parents who are potty-training, beware: Mildly humiliating bathroom humor is the waitstaff’s schtick du jour.)

I don’t think that at 40 Lindsay can say — or at least I hope he can’t — that the Magic Time Machine is still the coolest place he’s ever been in his life. But for Dale, I think it ran a close second to Disney World. And she didn’t appear to be alone. Despite the fact that no one you know goes there (or at least not since 1976) and the food is, ah, not the main attraction, the place seemed reasonably busy for an early Thursday evening. We saw families with goggle-eyed kids. A table of shrill tweens celebrating a birthday. And over at the next booth, a young man observing his 21st “barfday.” When given the opportunity to order his very first legal drink, what did he get? A whiskey sour. Weird.

But, hey, this is a weird place, and I’m happy to see such an unrehabilitated relic survive here in the land of anonymous chains, especially in the wake of the Esquire Tavern’s recent close (funny how that did not go down with the hue and cry of Earl Abel’s — clearly barflies don’t get organized and write their local newspapers the way fried-chicken-loving seniors do). Who knows? The next time we get the urge to sit on a furry chair and eat a bucket of meat while a Disney character mocks us, we may really need a time machine.