Whatalya have, Hon?

There’s a newly reopened landmark in my city and I’ve been watching with some excitement if not out right glee for it to officially welcome the public in through its doors. Only one kind of establishment could get me this pumped up. It has to be a food related. Specifically, it needs to be a greasy spoon. Preferably, it should be a diner. It is!

When Action Girl and I moved to our adopted hometown in Maine, we did so with little working knowledge of the city. We knew generally how to get around and where the city anchor stores were but the back roads, cut throughs and eating establishments were mostly unknown to us. This was fine. We were, after all, broker than broke so the prospect of going out to an upscale eatery was practically laughable. Diners, on the other hand, were not only with in our price range but had the added bonus of being one of my favorite places to find “nourishment”. Food designed to give a thick, protective lining to heart and arteries. Now all I needed to do was find one.

The only fly in the soup was that at the time, Action Girl was a vegetarian. This didn’t rule out diner eating, but it mostly forced it to be a breakfast only option. Lunch menus at such placed tend toward the carnivore aesthetic, rather then tasty quiches and portabella burgers. For those meat free years, I had to pretty much let go of the notion of eating at such places.

This wasn’t always the case. When my wife and I had first met, she was still an omnivore. She was never a big fan of meats in general, but she tolerated it and eating out at these types of establishments was not that big a deal. Being younger and possessing a stomach lining made from space shuttle heat shields and Kevlar, we happily stopped at diners wherever we found them and partook of their greasy bounty.

There’s just something about a proper, old diner. To qualify in my book, it needs to be the real McCoy. A long and narrow restaurant that found its way to its current home by being driven there. Once in place, the wheels were removed and substituted with cement block and a decorative skirt added to hide the now useless axles. Inside is a long counter with backless stools that spin easily. On the opposite side are the booths, capable of seating two full grown adults or four midgets. The countertops are Formica, the surfaces behinds the counter, stainless steel and the floor, made up of a mosaic of itty-bitty tile. To finish the picture and for extra points, add a rotating display rack of pies and a waitress who will call you, ”Hon” or “Sweetie”. Put these all together and you have a slice of heaven.

The diner in my hometown was always my favorite place to go and seating was at a premium. You had to be fast and early, At one point in my early working life, I had the double benefit of not only being located just next door to this diner, but also having a boss who liked to eat heavy, greasy breakfasts with company to chat with. I often didn’t get a lot of work done until after ten, but I did get to have second breakfast on company time, sanction by the individual who signed my paychecks. Not great for my cholesterol but it made the day easer to take.

When I visited my girlfriend, Action Girl in Vermont, we often haunted a diner that sat on the main drag on the way out of town. Though the original diner car had been all but obliterated through numerous expansions and renovations, it stayed true to its roots and more than a few tractor trailer rigs and other delivery trucks filled the parking lot. I specifically remember a waitress my mother’s age with peroxide blond hair piled high on her head calling me, “Hon”

I love these places.

When we moved to Maine, I heard about a diner that was hidden down in the rough end of town, and by “Rough”, I mean literally rough. On the back side of the city where the roads are still partially paved in heaved cobble stone through disregard and lack of caring rather than preserved as a kitschy tourist attraction or in the conservation of history, sat the diner. Surrounded by scrap yards and the municipal truck garage, the little blue diner fed the blue collar and black fingered inhabitants of this corner of an otherwise polished town. I wanted to go.

My wife however, though never one to shrink away from the rugged, hard working crowd, wondered aloud if this was a good idea. It was the look of the establishment rather than the clientele that put her off. The diner was obviously on hard times and she surmised that the condition of the kitchen must have been suffering right along with the façade and roof. She begged off and we simply never went back. A year later it was closed by the health department. Sometimes she has a good eye for the better decision.

Being a landmark since the 1930’s and having been constructed to be mobile from the start, city officials did something astonishing. They made a choice to save the structure from the wreckers, though it would have only needed to be dragged a few hundred yards to the car crusher down the street. Saved for the moment, it was put back on its wheels for the second time in its life and parked in a city lot next to the snow plows and earth moving equipment and wait for a knight in a stained apron to take it home.

One day, not long ago, a publishing executive living in New York read about this wonderful old diner and how it languished, unloved and unused. Being a native son of our fair city and remembering the diner from the days of his youth, he took a look at his life and career in the Big Apple, and decided, “Screw it”. Moving his family back to whence he came, he bought the diner and did what needed to be done.

It can’t have been cheep.

As luck would have it, new college housing was being put up in the vary area where the diner had sat for over seventy years. The scrap yards are disappearing and the roads repaved and widened. This portion of the city is really starting to come into its own. The diner’s benefactor moved right next door to the college apartments, made some improvements and enlargement and opened for business. With a building full of fresh faced college students not more than a few steps away, this beacon of all things fried will no doubt do well.

diner

The aesthetic of the rejuvenated diner is just right. The stainless steel is polished and shines nicely, the ice cream bins are loaded with chocolate, vanilla and strawberry and though on my visit, I didn’t find a waitress to call me “Hon”, hope springs eternal. Everything is just as should be. The food is basic, good, hot and filling. The booths, though small, are intimate and comfortable. I can’t wait to go back.

diner2

The best part? After thirteen years of vegetarian eating, three years ago, Action Girl had a change of taste. Meat was once again back on the menu. With that decision, our dining options have blossomed. You can guess where I hope that will take us.

If you want to find me around lunchtime, I’ll be at the counter with the cheeseburger and side of onion rings.

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2 Responses

  1. I love sitting at a counter and eating. There is just something very gratifying about it.
    I used to work in an old Woolworth’s store with a 15 seat lunch counter. The early morning clientele were mostly pensioners who had been coming there for years. They even started brewing coffee and putting out the glass sugar containers before the lunch counter staff arrived in the morning. I bet they are still doing it!

    I LOVED the counter at the Woolworths! There was one right on Main Street in my home town and I always wanted to stop and get a hot dog and Coke when my Mother brought me in. Even as a kid, I noticed how worn it looked and you just knew that it woudn’t be there for much longer. It closed some time in the 80’s. I miss places like that.

    -TP

  2. I got a crush on diners this year when I was in New York, its probably not as big as yours but still… First of all, I was shocked/surprised that this kind of venues still existed, I thought it was just the stuff from movies. And then, I was served with the toughest NY accent I again thought was only the currency of old BW movies.
    Loved the ambient, the counter seats, compartments built for midget families, checkered tiles on the floor. And than there were of course the local variety of pensioners clientele planetross talks about. Even the coffee seemed OK in that place (this coming from a self declared coffee snob like me simply shows my affection for the institution of diners).
    The only one really satisfied with my leaving was my stomach, having had quite enough of diner breakfasts after four days 🙂 Aparently on my previous visits to the States, my sister managed to filter out a few things, so I still have some little discoveries to do/look forward to next time I’m around.

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