A Lifetime Of Good Eats

I love diners. Love, love, love them. With a deeply-rooted, hands-on passion that leads me to eat, on average, at least half-a-dozen diner meals each week, happily nestled in my familiar, well-worn booths, reading my newspaper(s). I’m generally a creature of habit when diner dining, with a clearly identified “the usual” in each location, for each meal that I eat there: often breakfasts, occasionally lunches, rarely dinners.

I usually eat my breakfasts and lunches alone as part of my work-day routine, enjoying the quiet opportunity to read the sports page or check out the stocks while noshing a grilled cheese, crunching a crispy sausage, or slurping a bowl of chowder. Mmm mmm good. As often as I eat alone, I have come to believe that waitstaff seem trained to offend solo diners, as the phraseology of the greeting while I stand alone at the door is most often “[sniff of disdain] Just one today, hmm?” while the host looks over my shoulder to see if someone is emerging from the parking lot behind me. But, nope, it’s just sad, lonely old pathetic me. Just me. Just one. Just the way I like it.

Even as a proud, ex-pat Southerner who truly values the native cuisine of the Carolinas, I’m prepared to acknowledge that the diners of the Northeast offer a culinary niche that simply can’t, and shouldn’t, be effectively provided down South. Oh, sure, you could buy a shiny diner building and plop it down in, say, Salisbury, North Carolina or Orangeburg, South Carolina, but it wouldn’t be right there, just as Cheerwine wouldn’t be right if placed in the cooler cabinets of one of Upstate Yankonia’s many Stewart’s Shops. Some dining concepts are simply regional, and should stay that way.

Look at what happened when some bright bulb decided to bring a Krispy Kreme to Latham, New York, smack in the middle of Dunkin’ Donuts and Bruegger’s country. As the kids say today: Epic fail. Same thing would happen to a real diner down South. Folks might be awed by the chrome at first (we’re big on shiny stuff down South), but once the novelty wore off, folks would drift back to Duke’s, or Blue Mist, or Waffle House, or Whispering Pines, or whatever other traditional Southern restaurant they favored before the shiny diner showed up. And if a shiny diner did manage to succeed in the Deep South, it would just demonstrate that too many Northerners had already settled in those parts, disrupting the natural ebbs and flows of community, and forcing said parts to renounce their claims to Deep Southdom, instead being properly reclassified as exclaves of Florida.

All of this is not to say that my Southern upbringing didn’t uniquely prepare me for the diners of my adulthood. I come from a family that loves to eat, and loves its comfort food. My father spent much of his life in search of the perfect chili dog (I believe, in the end, it came down to a duel between Wiley’s in Woodbridge, Virginia circa 1974 and Tex Barry’s in Newport, Rhode Island, circa 1980), and I’m pretty sure that my grandfather on the other side was killed by Hungry Man Biscuits. While I have grown to have eclectic tastes in food, am a good cook with fresh and healthy ingredients, and appreciate high-end cuisine from many regions, around the world, I’m equally content eating a Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese straight from its aluminum pan, sitting on the kitchen floor. In fact, that’s exactly what my sister and I did after my Dad’s funeral, fighting over who would get the crunchy burnt bits around the edges.

The nearest thing to a diner that I can recall from my early childhood was Central Lunch in Albemarle, North Carolina, the town where my father grew up. You couldn’t help but feel part of a community while dining in Central Lunch, as there wasn’t enough space for you to feel in any way, shape or form removed from the cooks or other customers. It was cozy, if not sparklingly clean, featuring a long counter, and a grill, like most New England diners, but with food that was resolutely grounded in the South, where noodles are noodles, and red stuff made of tomatoes is ketchup, and the pickled eggs, pig’s feet, and cans of brains in milk are there for eating, not ambience. Cheerwine was, of course, the beverage of preference.

There was no multi-culti experience associated with eating at Central Lunch or virtually any other restaurant I can remember from my early childhood. The only distinctions I generally recall are whether a restaurant’s menu focused on fish (battered and fried), meat (battered and fried), or meat (smoked). I’m focusing on diners here, but there’s probably a whole ‘nother epic blog post to be writ about the undeniable superiority of Carolina B-B-Q, most especially from the Piedmont Region of North Cackalacky. Albemarle’s Whispering Pines opened in 1945, and it was the staple B-B-Q of my childhood, the standard against which all others were judged, and found wanting. It’s still around, and I still go it whenever I am in that part of the world, and it’s still the best. No argument. Nope. Stop. Shut your mouth. End of discussion.

The other diner-like precursor restaurant that I remember most vividly from my early days was The Plantation  in Ridgeland, South Carolina. (Yeah . . . I know, certainly not the most politically correct name, by a long shot, but those were different times, I guess). My grandmother and my aunt worked at The Plantation, and we’d often go eat there when I was living in Ridgeland while my father was overseas with the Marines, and during later visits to see the family after we moved away. Like Central Lunch, the Plantation offered simple, straightforward, stick-to-the-ribs fare, with lots of starches, lots of salt, lots of sugar in the tea, and pretty much any of the common creatures of God’s good earth available for eating, wrapped comfortably in breadcrumbs and eggs and fried to hide the rancid flavor that the stewy climate quickly bestowed upon meat in those parts. Add in the pungent smell of the highly-sulfurous water with which the ice-cubes were made, and you had a uniquely Low Country culinary experience, visceral and satisfying to all the senses.

Our family began to creep up the East Coast as my father’s Marine Corps career advanced, and we felt like real bohemians as we found ourselves eating at Manny’s Moon Pizza’rant (which we all incorrectly referred to as “Manny Moon’s”) and The Parthenon in Woodbridge, Virginia, getting way out there in our dietary habits with the exotic (to us) foreign food served there. Chef Boy-ar-dee Pizza and canned Old El Paso Tamales began to show up on the table at the home front even, as we marveled at the glorious and ever-widening bounty of richness and variety that was available to us in the commissaries of the bases near or on which we usually lived.

A quick one-year blip out to Kansas also introduced us to A&W Drive-Ins, which served as acceptable substitutes to the venerable What-A-Burger in Albemarle, another beloved childhood treat. Note well: these were not the same Whataburgers that are mainly based in Texas and are popular out west. The North Carolina What-A-Burgers were a small-in-number chain of drive-ins, but huge in the hearts of the locals. And not only were they small-in-number, but they were actually numbered themselves: our Albemarle one was What-A-Burger #9.

And then, my children, my friends, the scales fell from our eyes indeed, when in the ’70s we moved to Mitchel Field, in the township of Hempstead, in the county of Nassau, on the Island of Long, in New York, the holy land for diners and those who hold them dear. We were country fish out of water, at first, sure, as we gamely experienced our first Friendly’s and went to Borelli’s Italian Restaurant, which was comfortably similar to Manny Moon’s, providing continuity as we ordered our spaghetti and wondered what this “pasta” stuff was that people kept talking about. We soon discovered bagels and hash browns at Thomas’ Ham-and-Eggery in Carle Place, softening the sense of loss we felt as we left grits and cornbread behind us.

Finally, though, we ventured through the portals of the Empress Diner in East Meadow, and encountered a world unlike any to which we’d been exposed before, as a massive 20-page menu in its own folder (!) allowed us seemingly to order every kind of food from every country in the world, and to have exceptional onion rings as side orders for all of it, and to have it all on your table mere minutes after ordering it, as if they’d known what we wanted before we did ourselves. It was life-changing, as my horizons expanded to ponder an entire planet’s worth of provenance, all packed into a shiny silver box (oo! shiny!), with our own private jukeboxes at each table, and some meats even available without breading and frying! And the water didn’t stink! Bliss!

Thirty plus years later, I still love my diners, and still love the potentiality of all the goodness to be found therein, although I rarely partake of much of it anymore, instead settling for a waffle (on work mornings), or a grilled cheese sandwich on rye with a side of sausage (on weekend mornings) or a grilled cheese sandwich on rye with a cup of the soup of the day (if it’s lunch time). My main diner haunt in these parts is the Circle Diner in Latham (Seafood! Steaks! Chops! Bakery! Wow!), which opened soon after we moved here in 1993, though I occasionally stray to Latham 76 or the Metro 20, depending on where I am when the need to nosh arises. I have probably eaten at Circle Diner more than any other restaurant in my entire life (since this is the longest I’ve ever lived in one place, being a peripatetic type in my early years), and I am still happy to go there, day in, day out, to have “the usual,” to read my newspaper, to know that this, truly, is the just reward of a lifetime spent pursuing good eats at good value, even if they don’t batter and fry everything for me.

The Plantation of my childhood.

The Plantation now.

What-A-Burger #9 has also seen better days.

While Whispering Pines lives on and on, hallelujah!

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