Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Pleasures of a Good Diner

This morning I went with my wife and daughters to a local diner for breakfast, one of my favorite Saturday morning traditions.  When I was single I would walk or drive down to the diner with a newspaper and read and eat at a leisurely pace, enjoying the onset of the weekend.  Nowadays I appreciate diners because they are very kid friendly.  The food comes out fast, it pleases my daughters, and the loud noise of the diner makes any crying or fussing much less embarrassing to me and bothersome to others.

A good diner is truly something to be cherished.  Our diner of choice this morning was Tops, in East Newark near the mighty Passaic River.  Unlike many other diners, their coffee is really good, and the interior is sophisticated and kept spic and span.  Just down the road in North Arlington sits the North Arlington Diner, where my wife and I had shared some important conversations in our early courtship.  I'd much rather have moments like that in a place with advertisements for local businesses on the placemats, rather than a swank joint with fancy napkins and low light.  You can take the boy out of the rural lower-middle class, but you can't take the rural lower-middle class out of the boy.

It is a truly lucky twist of fate that I have landed in New Jersey, where diner culture is still going strong.  In other places where I've lived my diners went into extinction, here they thrive.  Outsiders i.e. snooty New Yorkers, might take the proliferation of diners in the Garden State to be a sign of Jersey's lack of sophistication, but I see it as quite the opposite.  Instead of going to Applebee's or McDonald's, people here would rather have a homier, higher-quality breakfast experience.

Over the years I've put some thought into what makes a good diner, and here are the criteria I've come up with:

Friendly Atmosphere
When I lived by myself diners were the kinds of places where I could eat out alone, but not be alone.  I would strike up conversations with the other customers at the counter with the wait staff.  Nowadays this friendliness comes out at places like the Parkwood Diner in Maplewood, where folks will smile at our daughters or ask how old they are. This is the type of thing that doesn't happen at other kinds of restaurants.  The classic Barry Levinson flick Diner is centered around diner conversations, I could never imagine a film called Bistro or Gastropub.

Skilled Staff
Since diner food is pretty predictable, the service at diners is what really distinguishes them.  In my experience, I've had the best service in diners, even though diner staff get lower tips because the food is cheaper.  (Which is an argument against tipping and for paying wait staff a higher base salary, but I digress.)  At my old place in Chicago, The Salonica, they pretty much knew what I was going to order when I walked in the door.  At the Grand Coney in Grand Rapids I don't think I was ever allowed to get to the bottom of a cup of coffee before it was refilled.

Decent Coffee
One regrettable fact about diners is that many of them have been slow to reflect the Great American Coffee Revolution of the past twenty years, where even gas station coffee has improved.  Some places, like the aforementioned Tops, actually have good coffee, but at most others it's bland, watered down Folger's crystals.  Sometimes I would just have my coffee at home, and then go to the diner and just have water or orange juice.  If you happen to find a diner with legitimately good coffee, hold on to it.

Unique Menu
Diner fare is pretty standard, but the better diners will have some menu items unique to their establishment.  At Mary Ann's in Champaign-Urbana they have a heart-clogging mechanism called the haystack which consists of a hamburger over biscuits topped with a haystack of hash browns slathered in white gravy.  It sounds gross, but hits the spot at 2AM.

The Corned Beef Hash Test
I have been to good diners, but I've also been to the kind bad diner described by Tom Waits where everything comes out of tin cans.  At the good places the food tastes fresh and made with care.  To determine whether a diner does take the proper attitude towards its food, I give it the corned beef hash test.  It's a dish I love for breakfast, but is so often just dumped out of a can at lesser diners.  At a fine establishment like Tops, however, you can actually see and taste real pieces of corned beef.  Many diners have passed this test, and they live on in my heart like old friends.


Kitts said...

Since I don't know how to drive, I've never been to either of those diners (when I am around Arlington, it's usually to go to Kamal Palace, which has really good Indian food). I've walked over to Andros' a few times. I can't get used to Jersey diners, though, because they're so expensive! The diners I grew up going to in Atlanta and Chicago tend to be a lot cheaper, and less glitzy.

Anonymous said...

I've got the same corned beef thing. It's the first thing I want, and always ask whether it comes from a can. Lack of rye bread also knocks a diner down in my estimation. - Steve

Brian I said...

William Least Heat-Moon says that the way you tell a good diner is by the number of calendars on the wall: 1 or 2 is barely worth stopping, but 5 or 6 is out of this world.

When I go to a new barbecue place, I have my own test: pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw (and fried okra or Brunswick stew if they do an additional side). If they can make those 2-3 things well, it's a good barbecue joint.