The little California town I go to every summer lost its diner a few years back, and I am convinced Bubba’s demise was due to the slogan: “Where grease meets organic.” Because let’s face it, American diners are all about good old-fashioned, fat-dripping, don’t-count-the-calories comfort food, preferably dished up at 2 AM by a uniformed waitress with attitude and a tendency to call you “hon.” Bean sprouts and tofu just aren’t part of the mix.
On my recent trip to New York City, I was thrilled to discover that the city is still home to hundreds of American diners, the kind that stay open all night serving up sloppy joes, patty melts, and other indulgences of yore. One morning, Rich and I wandered out of our Chelsea district hotel in search of breakfast, and after bypassing various trendy, soulless coffee houses, we eventually found ourselves standing on the sidewalk in front of the Star on 18.
The exterior was unassuming, even a bit sketchy, and as I pulled open the door I said over my shoulder, “What does your sniffer say?” (Rich’s “sniffer” is his legendary nose for terrific dive bars, greasy spoons, and other downscale delights.) One glance at the worn Formica counter and chrome-and-vinyl barstools, one whiff of the frying bacon, one earful of the buzz of contented conversation as regulars sopped up egg yolk with buttery toast, and I didn’t need Rich’s sniffer to tell me we’d found our spot.
I slid into a booth and plucked the grease-stained laminated menu from the condiment rack. Unfortunately, we were a trifle too far from the counter to hear the chatter, but I can only assume the cooks were back there slinging around traditional diner lingo. I picked up a bit of this unique dialect when I was nineteen and worked at a diner-style lunch counter in Boston. My first day, a co-worker kept shouting “drag it through the garden” until I realized he was instructing me to add lettuce and tomato to a sandwich.
In case you don’t speak diner, here are some phrases to get you started.
Adam & Eve on a raft – two poached eggs atop toast
Bloodhound in the hay – A hot dog with sauerkraut
Burn one, take it through the garden and pin a rose on it – A hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and onion
Bossy in a bowl – beef stew
Cackleberries – eggs
Cluck and grunt – eggs and bacon
Cluck and wrap — chicken enchilada
Eve with a lid – apple pie
Fish eyes – tapioca pudding
Heart attack on rack – biscuits and gravy
Hockey puck – a well-done burger
In the alley – served as a side dish
Maiden's delight – cherries
Make it cry – add onion
Make it moo – add milk to coffee
Nervous pudding – jello
On the hoof – cooked rare (for meat)
Put wheels on it – to go
Shingle with a shimmy and a shake – buttered toast with jam
Two dots and a dash – two fried eggs and a strip of bacon
Wax – American cheese
Wreck 'em – scrambled eggs
Like all great diners, Star on 18 had a huge menu stuffed with old-school, fat-rich, meat-based dishes such as the patty melt (aka a hockey puck with wax and make it cry). If your mouth is watering and you don’t have a diner nearby, here’s how to fry one up at home.
In these fitness-obsessed times, some will seek a healthier alternative to the patty melt (admittedly a low bar), and I wondered what the Star had to offer its lighter eaters. On page three of the menu, I found the “Diet Delights.”
“They call this a California Salad?” I said incredulously. “When was the last time you saw anybody on the West Coast eating cottage cheese with jello?”
“I think LBJ was in the White House and the Beatles were still together,” Rich replied.
Other menu items had a distinctly Greek flavor: spanakopita, moussaka, souvlaki, nine Greek sandwiches, and four different Greek salads (all of which looked considerably more appetizing than the Californian). Such fare is common on diner menus, especially in New York, where a majority of diner proprietors can trace their ancestry back to Greece. A century ago, there was a happy accident of timing in which the arrival of 360,000 Greek immigrants coincided with the development of prefab diner buildings by a New Jersey Irish-American named Jerry O'Mahony. “Their story is a classic American one,” wrote George Blecher in the NY Times, “that combines entrepreneurs putting in long hours, families helping one another and informal associations creating a safety net of connections.” For many, diners are more than a place to eat, they’re an antidote to isolation. “For the past 25 years — since the divorce — I’ve lived a good part of my life in diners,” Blecher wrote. “Without them I might be slimmer, but also crazier and more unhappy.”
In the past twenty years, changing economics and eating habits have forced half of New York’s diners to shut their doors. It’s hard to compete with Starbucks when you’re charging just $1.55 for a bottomless cup of coffee. Regrettably, their enduring charm has given rise to a host of pseudo-diners, replicated by corporations in chains such as Denny’s (“Welcome to America’s Diner”), IHOP (“an American multinational pancake house/diner-style table service restaurant chain that specializes in breakfast foods”) and Peggy Sue's plasticized version of its original 1954 diner, now found in countries around the world. I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat in such places — OK, yes, I guess I am saying that. Or if you must, know that it’s a replica and not the real deal.
Luckily, you don’t have to live in New York City to enjoy something more authentic. Here’s a list of great diners in every state, and of course you can always Google “diners near me.” Not sure if one you’re considering is authentic? Try asking the waitress for “a hockey puck with wax and make it cry.” Regional diner slang varies considerably, so she may not understand a word you’re saying, but you can be sure the conversation will be off to an interesting start.
Know a great diner? Have a story to share about one you loved — or didn't? Tell me all about it in the comments below.
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I'm an American travel writer currently living in California.
My weekly updates contain tips for keeping our mental equilibrium and living more authentically during these turbulent times.