Jersey girls are born with two strong preferences: A loathing of pumping their own gas, and an eternal affinity for diners. Being born and raised in this tradition, I’m steadfast in both preferences.
Diners are the comfort food of restaurants, and have the distinct advantage of actually serving, well, comfort food. It’s not the food mother made, which, in my particular case is a strong advantage, but it’s food that you know and recognize, with only a few ingredients, and no surprises. There is no Top Chef Challenge going on in that kitchen, so you don’t have to worry about getting your grilled cheese with caviar and port wine reduction sauce, or some other fancified mess that simply ruins the integrity of a basic, greasy, delicious grilled cheese sandwich. No, you get American cheese, on white, grilled in butter. Done. And if it’s a typical diner, you will get a pickle and a tiny cup of inedible coleslaw on the plate. No one sensible eats that coleslaw, and having worked in a diner as a teenager I can tell you that I applaud that decision, but it’s nice to know that it will always be there.
Besides the comfort of familiarity, there is usually a warmth factor in the people that work there. Middle-aged women who call you “Hon” and make sure your coffee cup is always filled are the backbone of the diner experience. If you go to a diner often enough, you become a “regular”, and the good waitresses will remember your name, or at the very least, your preferences. As a waitress of yore, I prided myself on knowing which regulars took coffee as regular or decaf, which liked their toast dry, and which liked their eggs really well done. There’s something special about being remembered and catered to in these tiny ways that make you feel like you are eating at a friend’s house, not just an anonymous place.
Diners also have their own cast of characters that seem to have endless time on their hands, and are always there at the counter. If you like the give and take of banter, diners are for you. Of course, if you choose a real greasy spoon that hasn’t been cleaned since Jesus was a boy, you are also going to find some characters that match the décor.
My father was fond of “characters” – which explains much about my parents’ marriage – and that preference sometimes spilled over into where we spent our time as a family. When we were kids, my brother had a paper route, and every Sunday my Dad would take the two of us out early in the morning to deliver all of the fat newspapers, and then we would go visit the greasiest of greasy spoons, where a cast of old stew bums and amputees would crowd around the small counter and booths, and have a running commentary about what we were eating, the weather, politics, and their crazy lives. It was demented breakfast theater, without the presence of a comforting waitress to give a wink that said that you wouldn’t be mugged before you left, so I sometimes wonder why, of all the diners available to us, my father picked that one. If you ever wonder what the hell is wrong with me, you can picture my young, innocent self scarfing down a jelly omlette and hot chocolate under the watchful one good eye of a fellow patron. I think that explains a lot.
Even though there have certainly been bad diners, weird diners, and occasionally sad moments in diners, they are still my comfort zone. I have recently found a new diner, which is actually a rather old diner, that is small and comfy and just greasy enough. How this particular place escaped my notice for so long is beyond me, but whenever I need to have a quiet little hidey-hole, I will be in that diner, getting a refill on my coffee from an older woman in a sweater who calls me “Hon” and already knows what I like to order. A little slice of greasy heaven.