The mechanical Texaco man bids welcome. His arm cranks back and forth. The iconic hat and bow tie are in place.

He stands amid an eclectic clutter of signage, including a Dutch girl with blond flip and clogs holding a burger dripping with cheese. Signs promise "Miller High Life," hamburgers, milkshakes and liquor.

The lights that circled Lake Como at Coney Island in the 1940s and 1950s shine brightly today at Terry's Turf Club in Linwood.

If you are close enough to see the displaced stadium seating along the sidewalk, it's time to park.

The clocks etched in neon tell you it's time to eat.

"...'This is art.' They are signs, but it's art. They just don't do this anymore. It's gone."

"” Terry Carter on his vast collection

Once you see the stadium seating along the sidewalk, it's time to park.

RECIPES, FISHING, FRIENDS

Inside, the scarred dark wood of the bar spans the width of the room "” it's just 20 feet by 40 feet. Bevador coolers stand sentry in the corners. Tables crowd the floor in this place where you could be seated with strangers, but names will be exchanged by the time you need a second or third napkin to wipe your chin. The burgers, touted by loyalists and acclaimed by food writers, bring long lines of customers every night to the tiny business. So, they've recently opened for lunch.

We came to talk to owner Terry Carter about the hundreds of neon signs that cover every wall and hang from the ceiling. But it's immediately clear that he's a collector of many things: recipes, fishing stories, friends and the roadside signs.

"Like I say, 'This is art.' They are signs, but it's art. They just don't do this anymore. It's gone," says the 67-year-old Carter. So, cities, including Cincinnati with its American Sign Museum, "are starting to redo all these old signs and stuff and make museums out of them to keep a part of Americana that's going to just get thrown away," he adds. Even the name of the restaurant comes from a sign that read: Turf Club. "All I did was put Terry's on it. And we're close to River Downs, so I'm saying turf. Turf racing. Turf club."

The recipes come from years working in restaurants, including the now-closed five-star Maisonette, his mom and sister (wonderful cooks, he says more than once) and life. Carter makes it clear that he's not a chef by training. "I watch every travel channel, every food channel there is and just, um, steal ideas," says Carter. "You know I normally travel a lot, too, and every country I go to, I'm always looking for new food ideas."

The fishing stories start at his grandmother's house in Kentucky with a cane pole. "We couldn't afford sinkers and stuff. So a sinker was a little piece of rock, and a floater was a twig. It works." Now, he visits places like the Galapagos Islands with friends for sport fishing. There is a two-inch stack of photos behind the bar.

The friends come from life.

At first glance, Jim Weiss seems out of place. Impeccably dressed and senatorial, he looks like a businessman who stopped for a burger, but he's the maître d'. Wiess says he makes sure customers are seated properly and actually having fun. "He's an old-time friend of mine, his wife cuts my hair >>she said, Get him out of my house,' " says Carter.

"It keeps me off the street," says Weiss, who, in a place famous for burgers, prefers the Foghorn Leghorn chicken.

How long has he worked here? "Too long," says Carter.

"Forty years now," responds Weiss. It actually has been about eight months.

BACK TO THE LIGHTS

The green, yellow and blue of the neon bring a gentle brilliance to the small room. Everyone looks good in the glow of neon, Carter says. "You can come up from a 10-day drunk, come here and look good," says Carter.

Carter bought his first neon sign in the 1970s, an Aztec clock hanging on the wall. "I thought it was neat-looking, and as I got into it more and more and got into the science of neon (the collection grew)." There is something to see in every direction.

A favorite? "All of them. People come in and ask about all of them," says Carter.

"I opened up Neon's in '88, and I had a lot of neon but nothing like I have accumulated in the last 20 years," says Carter. He sold the 12th Street bar in 2003 but kept adding neon to his collection. He is online every night looking for more signs, "looking for unusual things."

Authenticity is critical to Carter, who knows how to track down pieces and which dealers and collectors to trust. He points to a pellet of mercury in the bottom of a large thin glass loop on a sign proclaiming "Coffee & Donuts." The distinctive shade of yellow is created by the gasses the mercury produces in the tube.

"See the Old Style (sign), see how it's snaking? I have to take that down and shake it to roll that mercury around so it stops," says Carter. The beer signs are obvious: "Grain Belt," "Red Top," "Koerber's," "Genny." A small, simple "Schoenling Beer (sign) is a one-of-a-kind, a prototype that never went to market," according to his research. A "High Test" sign came from a bar in Phoenix.

The large "Charles Barber Shop" sign, complete with barber pole, is now back with Carter. "I had Charlie's at Neon's, and I sold it to a friend of mine," he says. When Carter changed his mind, his friend did not want to sell. "I coerced him. I had something he really wanted. I told him it was a one-time offer. I said, 'I'll go to my grave, you'll never get it.' " The deal was struck. Carter has Charles on the wall; his friend has a mug from the Bellevue Brewery.

THE FOOD, THE FOOD
We're not finished exploring the neon but the place is filling up. Cooks, bartenders and servers are prepping the grill, replenishing coolers and placing baskets of peanuts on the tables. They'll serve as many as 400 people over the next several hours.

We can't leave without talking about food.

Terry's Filet Mignon Chili is made with filet and pork tenderloins and fresh tomatoes blanched here in the kitchen. Forget processed sour cream. This comes with a dollop of crème fraiche. Halloumi, a cheese made of goat and sheep milk, is served fried as an appetizer or as a topping on a burger.

The burgers nearly span the plate. They are made with coarse-ground Nebraska black Angus ground chuck. Carter's mom taught him that the texture keeps it tasty and juicy. The buns are from Shadeau Breads in Over-the-Rhine, "Grains of Paradise" are from Findlay Market's Colonel De and the truffles are from France.

The signature sauce for the burgers is Burgundy wine with wild mushrooms and truffles. Maybe you were expecting Mango Tequila Jalapeño or the Wasabi Red Curry Ginger? They're on the menu right under lump crab, brie cheese and shiitake mushrooms.

"We even have restaurant people come in and say, 'You have the best food in town. You serve foie gras on a paper plate,' " says Carter.