An Ode to the Hometown Diner

March 2017
Written in the afterglow of some especially fluffy diner pancakes. (I've been trying to recreate them in my tiny kitchen ever since.)

Full Text

The vinyl booth is sticky, the air thick with the smell of grease and burned coffee. It’s not the most sophisticated joint. A tinkling bell as the door opens is the first giveaway. The Elvis memorabilia is the second. You get a steely glare from the man in overalls eating pie at the counter as a waitress whisks by with an armful of plates and crumpled napkins. “Be right was ya, hon,” she says. She snaps her gum, her sneakers squeaking on the floor.

“What’ll it be?” The waitress pulls a pencil from behind her hair, licks the tip, and scribbles something illegible on her pad. “Order up!”

It’s hard to say what gives the hometown diner its je ne sais quoi or, in small-town-speak, somethin’ special. It’s certainly not the atmosphere. The laminate tables, still damp from the swipe of a rag, are home to crumbs nestled in the crevices, and their underbellies are dotted with discarded gum. And they don’t exactly boast five-star service either, even though your food is served at lightning speed and the waitress refills your coffee without charging you.

It should go without saying, but corporate-run chains that serve breakfast that tastes like regret and a weak attempt at imitation are not included in the definition of a diner. A diner is a place where the waitress calls you ‘hon’ or ‘sweetheart,’ maybe ‘folks’ if you’re with a group. The special of the day is scrawled on the white board behind the register, and pies are displayed in a glass case. At a diner you can’t get mad about things not being perfect. If the meal is fantastic, that’s great. If not? Well, it’s a diner. You can get a pastrami sandwich at 8 a.m. for god’s sake. There’s no façade of fanciness. There are no bottomless mimosas either, and no artisanal pickles to go with your grass-fed, organic, free-range burger. There are no copper light fixtures, no cloth napkins, and smooth jazz definitely isn’t playing over the speakers.

But try as you might, you’ll be hard-pressed to find fluffier pancakes—complete with a warm drizzle of syrup—anywhere but your neighborhood diner. Atop a paper placemat advertising the local auto repair shop your toast is slathered in butter, bacon crisped to perfection, and your yolks runny (if that’s your pleasure).

It doesn’t matter what time it is; a real diner serves the whole menu all day. If you feel like getting french fries and a milkshake to accompany your sunny-side-ups, well, no one’s going to judge you. Diners are the only place where chocolate chip pancakes, meatloaf, and steak and eggs have the chance to share a table. Your hangover doesn’t stand a chance.

Maybe the allure of the diner is purely nostalgic. As a kid, you had free reign. With no fussy menus you could order whatever you wanted. (Hot chocolate with extra whipped cream, please.) When the meal was over, you’d run up to the counter, check in hand, and pay with exact change before the cashier stabbed the paper on the little spike with all of the other checks. There was a finality to it. A handful of M&Ms and a toothpick wrapped in cellophane were your parting gifts.

Or maybe we love diners because they’re the democratization of eggs—everyone is welcome. Give me your tired, your hungover, your huddled masses yearning to eat waffles. Gruff construction workers rub elbows with sleepy-eyed college students. Retired grandparents swap stories with off-duty police officers. The menu is long, and the prices low, so there’s something for everyone.

A diner is the extension of your kitchen when you don’t feel like cooking, and the meeting place for your pre-work cup of coffee. (One solitary cup of coffee, by the way, is just as acceptable to order as a three-course meal.) There’s a sense of community; people know each other here. There are regulars ordering ‘the usual,’ and first-timers asking about bread choices. Though they may come for a hearty meal, they end up staying to catch the latest small-town gossip or linger over the newspaper.

Like pies in the glass case, a diner is not trying to hide anything, and it’s not trying to impress anyone either. That’s part of its charm. Take me as I am, it seems to say. Sticky floor and all.