Eat your nostalgia

Illustration by Mark Stivers

Just eat it: Diners with ’50s decor have become cliche, but never had I seen an ’80s diner until walking into the new Back to the 80s Cafe & More in Rancho Cordova.

Owner Christopher Knecht says that’s by design. “In the ’70s and ’80s, they wanted to show their kids how it used to be in the ’50s, so they created these ’50s diners,” he says. “Adults now want to be able to show their kids how it was in the ’80s, and so that’s why I created the ’80s cafe.”

On its opening day December 2, a line formed outside before the doors at 3084 Sunrise Boulevard had even opened, Knecht says. You might chalk up the restaurant’s early success to its made-for-Instagram concept.

The walls and custom-made furniture brim with neon blues, pinks and purples, movie marquees, record covers and tchotchkes that bring back memories in a flash, like Cabbage Patch dolls and Garbage Pail Kids—the ’80s were a strange time when kids longed to cuddle things that smell bad.

What doesn’t smell bad? The cooking of chef Dewayne Browning, whose menu recalls the gleefully unhealthy cafeteria food of those days: monster burgers, french toast strips, chicken tenders and doughnut holes. There’s a long list of milkshakes with fun names—Hubba Bubba, Banana Rama—as well as a Cap’n Crunch shake that tastes like the cereal. A kids’ meal, fittingly named “Kids Just Want to Have Fun,” comes in an era-specific cafeteria tray that has triggered school memories for a few customers, Knecht says.

Knecht gathered most of these supplies from his previous venture, an ’80s gift shop in Midtown. His grandfather had owned an antique mall in Iowa. The inventory was then inherited by his father, who was an avid collector in his own right. When Knecht announced his intentions to open up the retail store, his father offered access to his bounty. Knecht drove across the country with two tractor-trailers full of memorabilia for his store.

“It felt like my garage, being able to show everyone all the toys I had as a kid,” Knecht says. “Their eyes would glow and they’d be all ecstatic. I was just like: ’Man, maybe I have something here.’ … You’d have people crying—they would literally cry and say, ’I remember this when I was a kid, and I can’t believe you have it.’”

Certainly, the decade is back in a big way with the popularity of Netflix’s Stranger Things and a remake of Stephen King’s IT, as well as fashion trends that just won’t die, like bell sleeves.

Knecht hopes to capture more of that nostalgia by expanding his restaurant another 1,000 square feet. There, he hopes to add 27 arcade games and a bar—though the space will be all ages. Plus, he’ll sell knick knacks from his former store.

“I have 16 storage sheds—about 1,600 square feet—just full of stuff from the ’80s,” he says.