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Saturday, March 01, 2003
[ Ode to the Lost Art of Dining ]

Diners have littered the American landscape for close to three-quarters of a century. They provided a respite for harried and hungry millions along the country's desolate highways and throughout overpopulated cityscapes.

All with good food, at reasonable prices.

Since the late 80s, however, every year dozens of vintage diners have been demolished, moved or given a sterile makeover after being bought out by a large restaurant chain. "Joe's" becomes Coco's. "Rosie's" turns into the last thing that's needed, JB's. The "Lucky Strikes" transforms into another bland International House of Pancakes.

Where, I ask, will it end? For the moment, I regale you with some of my own diner tales...


= Kiss Mah Grits =

This morning, I finally had the chance to visit the "New Yorker" in west Phoenix. I hadn't eaten there in quite some time, and was really looking forward to it.

When my friend, The Artist Known as Jake Martinez (see archives, 2/17 entry, for more on Jake), and I got there - well, you probably saw this one coming - it had closed its doors.

Even worse, the diner was having a liquidation sale. Viewing the assortment of bric-a-brac inside, I saw a microcosm of America's lost dreams.

Once fine china, now chipped and cracked along the edges. Coffee cups forever stained brown from all the servings of "caffeinated courage" over the years. Forks and knives scratched, in silent testimony to meals enjoyed.

Viewing the leftovers at "New Yorker", I soon felt a tightness in the pit of my stomach. Part of it was a profound sadness, but it also could've been simple hunger.

At that moment, I felt as if I'd never eat again. At least, not good food that was reasonably priced.

The "New Yorker" had always had daily breakfast specials. A meat and cheese omelet with home fries and toast on Mondays. Two eggs, bacon or sausage, home fries and toast on Wednesdays. Two eggs, pancakes and home fries on Fridays.

Each meal was only $2.45. Now, at your run-of-the-mill establishment, you'd expect to pay at least $4 for the same meal. As high as $7 if you're at Coco's or IHOP.

Maybe I needn't wonder why "New Yorker" went out of business. Do the math. Damn. Still, it's a shame.

In the midst of my crying jag, The Artist Known as Jake Martinez carried me back to the car. We made our way across town to the Waffle House.

However, it was no longer in the stand-alone building it had long occupied. Instead, it had moved across the street, into a 'strip mall' - right next to Domino's Pizza.

I should've taken that as a bad omen.

Within a minute of seating ourselves, the waitress - a seventy-something woman who, despite her age, was apparently just bursting with energy - hovered over us like a hungry vulture.

"Have you decided what to order yet?"

"No, give us another minute or two."

I just couldn't decide. It seemed *everything* came with grits. Eggs and grits. Pancakes and grits. Grits and grits.

I hate grits.

After another sixty seconds, she was back.

"Are you ready yet?"

"No, I still need some time to collect my thoughts here. Try again, please."

Soon thereafter, I decided on the egg and chicken plate. It came with hash browns and toast. But no grits, thank 'ya lordy!

Of course, at that point, the waitress was nowhere to be found. The seasons changed. Years went by. Many people were born; while others eventually died of old age.

Finally, we ordered. We still had the menus in our hand when, as the waitress turned to leave, she barked at us, "Put 'em against the wall."

No, it wasn't a raid, with cops looking for illegal cholesterol or some such. She meant the menus. They went against the wall, held up by the salt-n-pepper shakers and other assortment of bottled condiments. I guess we were a little slow in putting them back in their proper place.

We got our food. It wasn't as reasonably priced as I had hoped, I might add. It was all delicious, except for the fact I was served white toast when I had specifically ordered wheat. Or maybe it was just really, really *light* wheat toast. Who's to say?

During the meal, the coffee refills weren't as forthcoming as I would've liked. Let's just say the "bottomless cup" did, in fact, have a bottom. Take my word for it, I saw it.

Just as we were finishing breakfast, the waitress was back with the check.

"Can you pay that now, because I get off work in less than five minutes," she asked. She even offered to take our money up to the register herself, and bring back the change.

All in less than five minutes. What a gal.

The Artist Known as Jake Martinez and I soon had a discussion about the 'tip' we were going to leave.

My suggested 'tip' was, "Slow the hell down, lady, and try to be a little friendlier to boot!"

The Artist Known as Jake Martinez wanted to leave her a dollar. Eventually he won out because, as he explained, "She's in her seventies and still working. At the Waffle House, no less... so just imagine how bad her life must be. Every dollar helps, I think."

Maybe every little bit does help.

Or maybe not.

= Diner Diary =

Dear Diary,

I'm still riding the Greyhound bus across the western United States, making my way home to Phoenix.

This morning, as we headed down another lonely stretch of asphalt, the sun broke over the mountains of Idaho and soon illuminated the valley in all its multicolored splendor. Blah blah blah, and all that.

Excuse me, diary, for being a bit snarky, but I can't seem to sleep on this bus. I've been awake for two days now. On a bus. In the middle of nowhere. Seemingly going nowhere fast.

We've pulled into another stop. It is a small town. Actually, it's not so much a town as a small gathering of buildings. A diner. A post office. A bar/casino. A run-down motel. In other words, all the necessities of life.

The diner is a clean, well-lit place. It is called the "Blue Bird" Diner. I shit you not, diary. Methinks somebody here was a fan of 'The Andy Griffith Show'.

I seat myself at the counter. The waitress is appropriately sassy. I have the eggs and steak, with home fries and toast. Please note, diary, this diner has home fries and not hash browns. God bless America. I order my eggs over medium, and my steak "bloody rare". It is, as the kids say, all good. The whole meal (including coffee) costs less than five dollars.

The other people in this diner, besides my bus-traveling compatriots that is, are your usual assortment of truck drivers and small town Americana. Where these locals come from, I don't know. There's a whole lot more of them than it looked like the "town" could hold, so one can only guess what woodwork they crawled out of this morning.

The sounds of eating-inspired contentment fill the air. Again, more blahblahblah here.

The whole diner is a-quiverin' with wholesome goodness.

This is the true Counter Culture, to turn a phrase.

After breakfast, with some time still to kill, I go over to the casino. I play video-blackjack. I win more than five dollars, effectively meaning I got a free breakfast.

Boy, do I love this country.

= Dining Emergency =

I sat at the counter at the "5 & Diner". The place reeked of stainless steel, tile and glass - all done up in the stereotypical art-deco architectural style.

I wasn't sure if I was in an actual diner, or on the set of the classic movie "Diner".

As I sipped my cup of cream and sugar, with just a splash of coffee, I noticed the people in the booth behind me.

It was an assortment consisting of an older woman wearing a bright green t-shirt, a twenty something white man dressed in the latest "gangsta rap" style, and a moderately successful looking couple in their thirties. They were eating a hamburger with fries, roast beef and mashed potatoes, and some 'blue plate specials' respectively. They weren't just eating that food; they were eating the hell out of it.

I sipped my coffee.

All of a sudden, the older woman started moaning, "I'm having a heart attack! I'm having a heart attack!"

Then, all hell broke loose. The younger woman and kid jumped from the booth. Much shouting ensued. The older man continued eating methodically, staring blankly. I think he was in shock.

Some of the "5 & Diner" staff started to come over. They looked worried. Yup, this could be bad for business.

Somebody shouted, "Call 9-1-1!"

The kid ran over to the pay phone. He paused, then turned and screamed, "What's the number? What's the number?"

And I thought that only happened in 'urban legends'. My bad.

Soon, the ambulance arrived. The woman was loaded onto a gurney, and wheeled out of the diner.

All of a sudden, I realized, I wasn't in the movie "Diner". I was on the set of TV's "ER". This was Doc Magoo's. A couple at the other end of the counter began to resemble Noah Wylie and Maura Tierney.

I sipped my coffee.

Soon things began to settle down. As the rest of that group got ready to leave, to follow their friend to the hospital, the owner of the "5 & Diner" came over to the afflicted booth. The owner looked a lot like actor Vic Tayback (of TV's "Alice"), if Tayback had been a short Chinese man with thick, wavy hair. Also, unlike Tayback, this man was very much alive. I wondered how he had come to own this particular "5 & Diner"; but then I remembered my friend Joe O'Connell, who owns a Chinese food restaurant.

The universe has a way of balancing things out, I thought.

He urgently whispered to the three remaining, "It wasn't the food, was it?"

This was a simple ode to the lost art of dining, documenting the vanishing breed known as the vintage diner, told through my own true-life tales. Or, perhaps, it was a metaphor for the diminishing soul of America.

Take your pick.


(In honor of this column, I've added a special 'Lost Art of Dining' LINKS section at left. It will remain up for approximately twelve days. So, "Let's Eat!")

posted by Pete 2:50 PM
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