Two skinny cooks, backwards baseball caps and shriveled biceps, split buttermilk biscuits, fry them on the flattop, and slop them on fake china. Thick glutinous gravy ladled over biscuits: medicinal when taken beyond the brunch hour. Nevermind the inch of snow shutting down St. Louis County—I hunkered down in the Olivette Diner, drinking coffee, eating fatty ham, safe from white collar traffic. My biscuits cost three dollars, a cheap prescription for comfort. A perceptible layer of grease coats everything in the diner, from teal vinyl seats to the saltshakers. Once called the Riteway, “the Diner”—as I have always known it—lays a small claim on history. Head East, “the Midwest’s Legendary Classic Rock Band,” photographed the back cover of Flat as a Pancake behind the counter. The album’s front, of course, depicts a beautifully browned pancake complete with melting butter pat and maple syrup. I wolfed down BLTs three decades after the diner’s Riteway days, but the menus, manual cash register, and malteds cling to past allure—not during long thin days (of construction workers eating hash and lonely business lunches), but at night, hot September nights after soccer games in the park, after the roar of mosquitos drowned out sneakers scuffling on dry grass. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Diners
“Are we that conspicuous?”
We are walking around the Goody Goody Diner, looking for the entrance. On a warm January morning—thin blue sky, no breeze, sun like unsalted butter—the parking lot looks half-full. A man wearing a red apron chats into an open car, smoking, on break.
“It’s around that way—” he points, smiling and squinting. I start wandering between cars, completing one full lap around the diner to find the door. My brother, Zach, follows, camera slung over shoulder, but my mom pauses. In a strained, uncomfortable voice, she laughs—forcing breath out through the nose and teeth with a tightening around the lips. (Having inherited this habit, I understand its mechanics well.)
“First time here?” The cook asks, and I call back over my shoulder “Yeah,” but my mom slows, laughs, stands for an obvious millisecond.
“Are we that conspicuous?” She says. We are indeed that conspicuous—because she carries a black Kate Spade bag, because despite my Einsteinian tangle of hair and half-shaven cheeks and defeated corduroy coat I wear jeans washed in a certain dark blue/black dye not available at So Flyy Hair Gallery and Mr. Fish—because we are white and walking around Pine Lawn (St. Louis suburb, 95.96% African American, 36.9% below the poverty line). Of course, we also look lost and confused and hungry and in need of assistance. But we mainly look like we don’t belong here, on Natural Bridge Avenue, down the street from Hair Graphics and Princess Beauty Supply and Fashions, Reynolds’ Bar-B-Que, and a lineup of empty nightclubs. Continue reading
Zach Bell, Yale University
The diner holds a coveted place in American culture. Open from the earliest hours of morning to past a reasonable man’s bedtime, diners serve casual food for people who just want a place to sit and eat. Joints like the Olivette Diner and Steak and Shake carry strong memories for me of biscuits and late night burgers past.
Walking the streets of New Haven, Connecticut I did not expect to find a steel diner on the corner of Chapel and Howe, street lights glinting off of its polished metal exterior. The interior was polished too, steel, chrome, and mirrors wall to ceiling. For a moment I was transported back to St. Louis, waiting for my chocolate shake and coffee… until I heard the sitar music. The Indian restaurant Tandoor occupies that steel can of a diner, a trailer with samosas that in appearance does justice to the original hotspots of Americana.
Cardomom and curry scented the air and I ordered vegetable tikki, chicken patiya, and tandoori roti in curious bewilderment. I faced a serious case of cognitive dissonance; I should not be eating vegetable tikki in Steak and Shake! I mean, Tandoor! I mean, diner?
The food was fine in itself, nothing special, vegetable paste fried in chickpea batter, pleasantly spicy chicken in a mango derived sauce, tender whole wheat flatbread. The menu, style of food (North Indian), and price range is similar to ninety percent of the Indian restaurants I have eaten in. The only aspect of Tandoor that stands out is the diner factor. They try to serve formal Indian food in a diner! The novelty of the setting amused me, but also prevented me from taking the food seriously. Tandoor takes its food as intensely as every other Indian restaurant in New Haven, but the steel walls speak of a more casual time. The casual diner juxtaposed with formal Indian food evokes a discordant note. Eating in a diner, I don’t want Zaroka’s (another New Haven Indian restaurant) chicken patiya, I want the equivalent of Indian diner food. I want to feel casual, relaxed.
Tandoor fails to use the power of it’s unique decor. Instead it tries to be just like every other Indian restaurant, and succeeds to a certain degree. Yet, I still feel disappointed with Tandoor. Even though the food was just as good as Zaroka or India Palace, Tandoor could be so much more. It could be unique, taking a symbol of American culture and transmuting it into a haven for ultra-casual Indian cuisine. Instead Tandoor takes the beaten path, and as a result, fails to stand out from the crowd.
The best diners are the dirtiest.
Determining the authenticity of a diner proves difficult in a town like Cooperstown; a proliferation of tourist traps confuse the eye and bewilder the tongue; main street, three ice cream parlors, a wax museum of baseball legends, the hall of fame: everything dances wildly between the bases of reality. Nevertheless, somewhere between the Triple Play Café and a hidden ballpark hot dog joint the Cooperstown Diner takes a daring leap. No gimmicks, no cheap tricks, no sideshow thrills. This diner is “dirty”—the tablecloths feel waxy and get a quick wipedown after each guest (a hint of stickiness remains), and dinge crowds the walls with a veneer of shabbiness. A fly buzzes idly and then nosedives into a recently poured cup of coffee, drowning. The Cooperstown Diner feels dirty without the actual grime, age and wear accumulating a palpable presence. It is deliciously authentic.
I finally yielded to practicality and decided to head home, back to the Midwest and the Mississippi.
Although I engaged the assistance of a few contacts, no concrete opportunities arose. With the days ticking away till my inevitable departure from the city for Vermont, continuing the search seemed useless. This morning, I went to El Castillo de Jagua for breakfast, a gritty Dominican diner serving regulars and hungover hipsters alike. Crouched over a plate of mangu, boiled green plantains, I felt a twinge in my stomach. While the thick, olive tinted mash topped with pickled red onions and two fried eggs probably contributed to my brief gastronomic distress, I attributed this sensation to failure. Proof of the James-Lange theory of emotion? A firm no. Reason to question my homecoming? A tentative yes. Continue reading