When the fifties ended, so did my mother's love of turquoise (though never her need to mambo). The sixties ushered in a new house, and a new kitchen, this time done in too-rich brown and terrifyingly brilliant orange. Canteen's furniture mimics these hues with Twilight Zone precision. Despite its name, however, Canteen's desire to dally with memory and pop-cultural mythology is not as whole-hearted or as determined as Isla's. In fact, the first impression one gets of the vast cellar space is that, after filling it with the most spectacularly molded and sublimely comfortable chairs ever to be upholstered in persimmon, owners Matthew Kenney and John McDonald stopped writing checks. When you consider the architectural one-up-yours-manship of many of the spaces just within Manolo distance (and that ain't far), Canteen appears startlingly unfinished.
Yet that may be the very reason it is packed with young people who look far more comfortable here than they do at the equally popular Fressen or Lot 61. Once you settle into one of those amazing chairs, there is absolutely nothing intimidating about Canteen. Its big, thick, unadorned cream support columns; bare walls; and matching uncovered, unlit ceiling resemble an unfinished basement minus the hot-water heater in the corner. How, or why, would you put on airs in this space? No wonder everyone looks so relaxed.
The menu lacks focus, but that too may be part of a plan. Some items deliberately aim for those-were-the-days cuteness, like macaroni and cheese, chicken potpie, cobb salad, and rice pudding. And they're actually pretty good. But the dishes that trigger no nostalgic impulses -- chicken-spaetzle soup, clay-pot mussels in beer, pumpkin-crusted red snapper, chili-barbecued salmon, spit-roasted chicken, and pork chops -- are even better. Other choices fall numbingly flat: blini, almost soapy tuna tartare, the pizzas, a syrup-sweet pan roast, lamb with a sauce defined only by its color.
But there're enough choices here from which to pull a satisfying meal for a table of four. More important, there's enough good cheer all around to spur you into having a really good time. Canteen flows like a party -- not the ones you remember in a frat house but the ones in the student union. Bet a dance floor wouldn't hurt, neither. But I doubt if anyone here could cha-cha.
Canteen, 142 Mercer Street (212-431-7676). Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 2 a.m.; Sunday and Monday, noon to midnight. Appetizers, $8 to $13; entrées, $16 to $26. All major credit cards.