Thursday, January 10, 2008

Diners: Like Snow to a Snow Man

Diners serve the food we long for, the food we ate while growing up, that our mothers used to make, and what is sometimes referred to as road or comfort food. When I lived in New England, being an unabashed road food junkie, it was sort of like being in heaven, because New England, and in particular Rhode Island is after all the motherland of the American diner, and they were everywhere.

To put it into a metaphor a diner is to a road food junkie what the Internet is to an information junkie. Don’t like that, how about a diner is to a road food junkie what snow is to a snow man? Anyway, you get the idea.

Diners are also part of our bulwark against the flattening (to borrow a word from Thomas L. Friedman) of America, because they still reflect not only the heritage of their owners, and the mobility of our population, but the uniqueness of the local experience. For example, on the menu alongside the usual suspects like meatloaf (arguably the most common of all our road foods) you will find gizzards if you’re in Joe’s Gizzard City in Potterville, Michigan, “calf fries” if you’re in Clinton’s CafĂ© in Vinita, Oklahoma, or falafel if your at the Falafel Drive-in in San Jose, California. In comparison, your "local"mall has the same stores, selling the same things, as if you walked into a mall a thousand miles away.

Diners have a few other important things in common: The food they serve is nearly always prepared from fresh ingredients, often from recipes handed down from an earlier generation, and maybe most importantly they do not have absentee ownership in that they are usually operated on a day to day basis by the same people who own them. They are no-nonsense places to eat, and their focus is on serving you good food cooked on location, fast. That is not to say they are fast food restaurants because they most certainly are not.

By the way, diners are primarily defined by the food they serve, not by their architecture. Some look like a lonely circus wagon, or a streamlined rail car, left behind when the train left town, and others like a drive-in restaurant. Its indeed fortunate that their appearance is not important because some are just plain ugly.

On a drive with my wife and daughter from Boston to Philadelphia we stopped for breakfast at the Blue Colony Diner on I-84 in Newtown, Connecticut. It was about 9:30 AM, and the place was busy, but not full. Almost before we sat down our waitress showed up to drop off the menus, and take our drink order. She returned with our coffee and we ordered; mine was a short stack of pancakes with a side of bacon. We had taken no more than a few sips of our coffee, when the waitress was back at our table with our food. Now, as you would imagine I have eaten in more than a few diners, and have experienced fast service many times before, but I have never been served anywhere, fast food place or otherwise, as quickly as on that morning in the Blue Colony Diner.

When a copy of Richard J.S. Gutman’s book, American Diner, a great source of information for all things diner including the location of every vintage diner in New England was given to me, I was off on a quest; I would eat at every vintage diner in New England. Now living in Texas I will probably never finish that journey, but I sure enjoyed some good food, and met some great people while traveling that particular road.

The Food Network’s wonderful TV show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, hosted by the very entertaining and enthusiastic Guy Fieri, does a wonderful job of presenting some of the best road food places in America. From the their web site I printed a list of the places visited by Guy on the show to use as a reference as I travel around the country in my Airstream.

Wilson’s Diner in Waltham, Massachusetts is a wonderful vintage diner, and when I was there for lunch the following exchange took place:

The cashier, standing behind the register, said, “Food alright?”
Customer, in the process of taking a few bills out of his wallet, replied, “Always is.”

……and that says it all.


thixotropy said...

I wish we had taken you to The Breakfast Club when we were still in Boston. It was a gorgeous bullet-style little diner just north of our neighborhood in Boston. They played only 80s pop music and had posters for 80s teeny bopper movies. It was like the 50s-nostalgia diner reinvented for my generation. Anyway, you would have loved the food!

Ernestine said...

Stuart - I'm enjoying reading your blog. Wish I would have been to several of the eating establishments you have mentioned.