I love diners. I'd go so far as to say that they are my favorite American invention. The thrill of sliding into a shiny pleather booth, however uncomfortable, never falters.
When I was a kid and living on West 10th Street, I was a regular at the Joe Jr.'s on 12th Street and 6th Avenue. We would eat lunch there as a family on Saturdays, after my sister and I played in a basketball league at the nearby P.S. 41. Once I was in my early teens and could be out and about without a chaperone, it's where I dined most frequently with friends and went on dates with my first boyfriend. After all, it was cheap: a cheeseburger—griddle-seared, impressively juicy, served on a soft bun, and very good—cost less than $5. I probably sat in every table and most bar seats in that worn-out greasy spoon, where the waiters were as friendly as the line cooks and most of us customers were treated like real neighbors. It closed in 2009 to much of Greenwich Village's dismay. I've heard the burger at the other Joe Jr.'s in Gramercy (different owners) is similar, but going there never felt quite right.
In high school, we used to go to diners after house parties were shut down or we got kicked off the roof of Pier 40. Even though we weren't up late enough that eating at a 24/7 institution was necessary, it felt cool to do so. We didn't have one go-to, but rather several: Waverly Diner on Waverly Place and 6th Ave (or Avenue of the Americas, if you will); Good Stuff Diner a few blocks up, on 14th; and The Diner (which is no longer) a bit further west, on 9th Ave. My order was always fries and a milkshake, either vanilla or black-and-white. Many of you know how I feel about ketchup, which is that if it isn't Heinz, it shouldn't be called ketchup, and I want nothing to do with it. Don't get me started on Sir Kensington's. The real stuff—whether served in the classic glass, new-aged plastic, or a refillable bright red squeeze bottle—is a mainstay on every table in a proper diner. Hot and salty fries, even the mediocre sort, are irresistible when drizzled in the sugary, acidic, and lukewarm condiment. Add to that a thick and ice-cold solution of frothy milk-blended ice cream, and you've got late-night food excellence. Especially after a couple of hours of unsophisticated drinking.
There are Greek diners that I love, too. At John Papas Cafe in East Hampton, emerald green lamps hang over each booth and the Greek salad—topped with perfectly cooked chicken and warm, grill-marked triangles of pita—is best enjoyed alongside a fountain Diet coke with a wedge of lemon. The exterior of Athenian Diner in Middletown, CT is made of reflective panels, so that when you drive up your car stares back at you. It's giant and ugly, with multiple rooms, fluorescent pink lights bulbs, a cake case, and a fully-stocked bar. I used to eat eggs over easy with an English muffin and hash browns during weekend brunch surrounded by families and old folks, the occasional dinnertime turkey club (which was dry and not very delicious at all, and yet I kept ordering it) when it was borderline empty, and always mozz sticks at 2 am. The best part? A claw machine by the entrance, where I probably spent $25 worth of quarters throughout my four years of college.
In Brooklyn, I get my fill at Tom's Restaurant on Washington Ave. At peak hours (read: Saturday and Sunday from 10 am–noon) a line wraps around the corner and forms on Sterling Pl. I'm not usually one to want to wait, but Tom's treats their devotees well, bringing out trays piled with slices of beef sausage or lemon ricotta pancakes to those who are patient. Inside, the house condiment is chipotle mayonnaise, fluffy New York bagels are stacked on display under domes on the counter, and the floors are checkered in black and white. Tom's is especially magic in the wintertime when the all-season string lights feel more appropriate, the kitschy decor is turned up a notch, and being shown to a table feels like a hug.
Most diner food is not exceptional, although it can be. What's remarkable is that no matter where you are in the country, you can walk into a diner and know more or less what you'll get: retro vibe, straight-up service, a lengthy menu that's optional to order off, eggs cooked to your preference, quick turnaround on your food, a local cast of characters, and a rush of deja vu. If you leave a diner unsatisfied, that's on you; every establishment equipped with a griddle can do certain things well. Know your order, read the room (i.e., what's everyone else eating?), and explain yourself well. The beauty of the diner is that's all it takes.
Things I read and liked:
RIP, Joe Jr. and Another Classic Diner Burger [Serious Eats c. 2009]
Joe Jr., We Hardly Knew Ye [NYTimes]
Greenpoint continues to be the best neighborhood to eat in right now. [NYTimes]
A trend I'm excited to watch: how restaurateurs are leveling the playing field [Bon Appétit]
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