Wednesday, August 17, 2011

diner

I grew up in New Jersey, where diners are everywhere. What is so special about this quintessentially American eating place? It is just an interpretation of the cafe, brought to this country with immigrants from the old world to the new. But there is something so comfortable, so social about a diner. And not social in the new media sense.

My family would eat out occasionally at restaurants when I was growing up — we didn't eat out as often then as I seem to do with my daughter today — when out-of-town relatives or friends would come to the shore for a visit. Going out to a restaurant would be a treat for my brother and me. But even better would be summertime weekend mornings, when my dad, instead of going out to the local convenience store or bakery for his fresh rolls and the paper (he was very old world, buying the day's food each day) would instead tell everyone to get in the car and we'd go out to a diner for breakfast.

Dad taught me to eat my eggs and hash browns with ketchup. To contemplate whether to have orange juice or grapefruit juice or tomato juice (in those improbably small glasses) with my meal. To order a side of rye toast, which came buttered, with the little novelty jellies in packets on the side.

New Jersey, The Diner State
New Jersey, The Diner State, R.L. Segal

When I left New Jersey to go to college in New York I noticed that in the big city the diner had given way to the coffee shop. It was a step more "restaurant-ey" than a diner, with an even more expanded menu. My friends and I would spend countless hours talking and eating and laughing in the coffee shops on Waverly Place or Canal Street, or the Ukrainian versions in the East Village. Like my beloved Jersey diners, you could still order breakfast all day, but now it would include new choices, like challah bread french toast and kielbasa and eggs.

Starbucks started to move in and replace many of the diners and coffee shops, in New York City and the rest of the country. But it wasn't just the spaces that changed. A bunch of kids sitting around a table for hours yakking has been replaced by the internet culture of people plugged in to their laptops, hoarding seats near outlets for recharging, conversation making way for texting. People do business from their local Starbucks.

I'm not a dinosaur. I love technology. But I do miss the days of arguing about art or music or comparing notes on men and movies, all things you can still do at Starbucks, but somehow not in an as leisurely manner as when we used to hog a table at the local diner. It's far more common seeing a bunch of people sitting at a table together these days with their eyes all trained on their smart phones, rather than looking at each other and telling jokes, or just generally goofing off.


Sculptor Louise Bourgeois in an Upper Westside coffee shop, Inge Morath, 1992.

Diners and coffeeshops offered a myriad of menu choices. Spaghetti? The retro '50s burger and fries and milkshake? A whole meal, like moussaka or pastitsio, with soup, vegetable and salad? Or what about some dessert? The omnipresent counter with cakes and the pies underneath glass covers, intended to entice. And they did. People now are on the move, on the run, no time for a piece of pie.

When I moved to D.C. from New York I was suddenly bereft of diners and coffee shops. There was a decent theme chain that tried to replicate the look of a '50s diner, but it just wasn't the same thing. D.C. has a lot of things to offer, but coffee shop culture is not one of them.

When we moved last year to Florida I was prepared for the worst. But to my pleasant surprise, at least where we live, there are diner-like joints everywhere. I quickly realized it must be all the transplanted New Jerseyans and New Yorkers (and other east Coast-ers) who brought their diner culture south with them. So when we go out for that weekend brunch treat I have been trying the club sandwich, or the tomato soup and grilled cheese special, or the greek salad with soup combo, or the dijon chicken salad plate, or, if I'm in the mood, eggs and homefries with ketchup on the side — at any time of the day. It's like a little bit of home.

Diners and coffee shops are loved in the movies, too:

A scene from Diner
Maybe Jack should have ordered rye toast
Dumb and Dumber and diner
I used to live two doors down from the famous Katz's — famous even before Harry and Sally went there
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