Friday, 3 April 2009

The Great American Diner

USA, Day two. I was excited. And hungry. Time to find the Great American Diner.

This was one of the quintessential American experiences I’d been looking forward to - part of the good ol’ America eulogised in films and modern literature. The authentic America, unique and untouched by modern chains and their homogenising tendency.

Influenced by a hundred movies, books and magazines I had a vision in my head of what my ultimate diner would be: a fifties-style restaurant, intimate and noisy, crammed with ravenous customers, the back-to-back tables lined up along windows lit up by neon signs.

Smiling waitresses would patrol the black-and-white tiled floor, chewing bubblegum and offering endless coffee refills, whilst behind them on the red vinyl-topped seats along the chrome-fronted counter locals would plop themselves for sustenance: a lardy trucker scoffing down scones and gravy; a gaggle of peanut-butter kids slurping noisily on milkshakes, perhaps even a harassed-looking cop stopping by for a gallon of coffee.

The jukebox would be on, pumping out Elvis and Jerry Lee and out in the car park a gang of brylcreemed bikers would pull up on their Harleys…

My stomach rumbled and I came back to New Orleans.

My mouth was salivating like Pavolov's dog by now and I approached the reception in our hotel and asked the friendly chap behind the counter if he could recommend anywhere good to eat.

“How about I send you to MacDonalds?”, he replied. Without a hint of irony.

Stunned and starving we wandered through the soulless streets of the Central Business District, resolving to enter into the first diner-looking place we came across. Shortly one came up ahead - ‘Krystal’ - surely it would be ok.

We couldn’t have been further from the truth.

From behind the counter stony-faced staff stared fiercely back at us, clearly loathing both their job and their unfortunate patrons.

We munched on rubbery chicken nuggets and starchy chips, observing the schizophrenic woman nearby who was jabbering away to herself about the swingers club which is apparently opening opposite.

Looking up at the wall I was amazed to discover that this emporium of misery was not alone but indeed one of chain, each one offering an identical experience. Synthetic. Plastic. Soul-destroying.

Time to start again. America can’t all be like this, there must be my diner out there!

I resolved there and then to scour this land in search of it, my mission to hunt down and devour the finest food they could offer in a bid to create my own hit parade of American diners.

Tom’s top ten American diners

1) Louis’s café, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

In a scruffy part of town, some way out from downtown lies this gem of a diner. It was everything I hoped for and more - the good old American diner in all its glory.

There were red leather and chrome stools lined up along the counter, just as they should be. Behind it a couple of two cooks busied themselves over steaming pans behind and a large flat hotplate piled high with streaming hash browns.

One of them, a dozy fellow in a Mickey Mouse hat threw more onions on, muttering to me ‘only a few months and I’ll be getting’ me a proper jawb’ while his colleague - a gruff old timer with a deep cajun drawl - hurried frantically between pans to keep up with the orders. He wore a Louis’s café t-shirt, the owners face staring out from behind the grease, along with the slogan ‘Warrior. Statesman. Frycook.’

Black and white checkered tiles covered the floor, where back-to-back benches were arranged against the windows, above them hung neon signs for American beers and the café’s sign, reflecting in the puddles of water gathered on the swampy ground outside .

Back inside a skinny young waitress with large hoop earrings took our order. A Chicken breast sandwich with crispy bacon, salad, three cheeses and chicken, served on a po-boy (grilled French baguette) with hash browns (chunks of potato fried with spring onions).

I washed it down with tea and copious free refills and admired the scene all around me: lively, happy, families, swathed in beads, heading home after Mardi Gras parades.

I’d had hit the jackpot first time! Could anywhere else better this?

2) Mama Hamil’s Southern Cooking, Jackson, Mississippi

Welcomes don’t come any warmer than those at Mama Hamil’s. Perhaps it was because we were foreign and they all wanted to dig our accents but then everyone else seemed to leave with a smile as well.

It must have been the food. This is southern hospitality at its finest: the best ‘country cooking’ and the best service around.

We were enthusiastically greeted and introduced to the head chef, the entire staff seemed to come and introduce themselves before a place was reverently cleared for the matriarch herself.

Mama Hamil was the deep south personified - god-fearing, polite and hugely hospitable - and beside herself that she had customers ‘all the way from ingerland’. Her voice was wonderful and sing-song in that Mississippi manner and she regailed us with stories from the area and her own trip to London.

We tucked into a buffet that’d vanquished an army of Mongols. There was a a huge spread of vegetables and meats, all of which the staff insisted we tried.

I munched my way through fried okra, butter beans, black-eyed peas, boiled sweet potato, turnip greens, sweet corn, rutabaga, BBQ ribs, pork hunks and meatloaf. Then, as my stomach started to protest I was steered towards the puddings - well it would be rude to refuse. So I tried just three: banana pudding, bread pudding and peach cobbler, all sweet and delicious.

Finally, feeling like Mr Creosote , the grotesque Monty Python character who little explodes from overeating I had to refuse kind’s Mama’s offer of ‘just another piece of pie’ and call it a day. We bid our farewells and left with big smiles and a complimentary bottle of Mama’s special BBQ sauce.

3) Arcade restaurant, South Main St, Memphis, Tennessee

This famous old diner has been going for some time and over the years has become a much-loved institution.

It stands at the southern end of Main Street, an area which was once buzzing back in the sixties, before falling victim to the inner-city decay which characterised Memphis in the seventies.

Now with the regeneration of the area and situated just around the corner from the Civil Rights Museum the Arcade is starting swinging once more as people come back to the area.

It’s popular with locals and tourists alike and we joined the queue waiting for a table as our trolley driver stopped by at the counter for coffee.

Elvis used to be a regular here back in the day and the place has featured in a plethora of movies including ‘Walk the Line’; ‘Mystery Train’; ‘Great Balls of Fire’; ‘21 Grams’ and ‘The Firm.’

It still retains much of its fifties-style ambience whilst the décor also hints at the owner’s Greek background, with photos of busy moustached chaps on the wall and a light Mediterranean feel.

The chow was certainly marvellous and I highly recommend the ‘Number One Breakfast’, a veritable feast featuring biscuits (scones), gravy (not the British version: a thick, creamy white sauce), bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, hash browns.

Plus they brewed the finest cuppa I found in the country - worth travelling some distance for.

4) Mickey’s Diner, St Paul, Minnesota

Mickey’s is one of the few old dining cars still running. Founded in 1939 it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and the big corporations have found themselves having to build around it.

It stands there defiantly, a cream and red cabin anomalous amongst the tall sleek modern buildings, holding out against the tide of sameness that seems to sweep all before it.

Inside Mickey’s is small and cosy, with little elbow room between you and your fellow diners within its narrow confines. Customers squeezed up along the counter while we squashed around a small table, fiddling with the mini-jukebox which each table boosted though none seemed to work.

It seemed overwhelmingly popular - with a queue of waiting customers patiently stood against wall - and has played host to the famous, from featuring in Easy Rider, to feeding the Beach Boys, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Meryl Streep.

The gruff though humorous waitress baffled me with range of egg options that only an American can offer and soon I was tucking into a delicious feast described as an ‘All American breakfast’: two sausages (round slices), two eggs and potatoes O’Brien (an an enormous pile of hash brown potatoes, onions and green peppers).

We left, making room for some long-suffering people in the queue. Well worth the wait.

5) City Café Diner, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Open 24 hours, Chattanoogans are lucky to have this place, located right in the heart of downtown. It’s one of those serendipitous places that you only chance across by accident or - in our case - on the recommendation of a cabbie.

Outside the frontage is draped in star and stripes, inside it’s the full works. Jukebox pumping out rock music, neon lights, busy kitchen, happy customers and, somewhat strangely, purple seat covers.

The attentive waitress kept the drinks flowing as we poured over the large menu. Seeing I was hungry she helpfully suggested the ‘Hobo’s Banquet’.

A fine choice: homemade fries with American cheese melted on top, fried eggs piled on top of that, and top off with gravy (of the American, white sauce, variety). Biscuits (scones) accompanied this, along with a side of Canadian bacon, just for good measure.

A very welcome place for this little hobo.

6) Lou Mitchell’s restaurant, Chicago, Illinois

Another place which seems to be a bit of a local institution. It’s certainly got a venerable history, being founded back in 1923.

Situated just around the corner from Union Station, on a busy avenue, it proudly its status with large flashing signs.

It’s a larger, busy affair inside, tables and chairs, with a few set around several mini-serving counters. We opted for the latter amongst the coffee-and-a-paper locals.

Customers are welcomed at the door and each given a doughnut hole. Ladies and kids also get a mini box of Hershey’s duds. Nice touch.

My fry-up came served in a skillet (saucepan) - it was more presentable than it sounds and the sausage and eggs slipped down a treat.

Not as filling as I’d hoped though for that price. Perhaps it’s the cost of the ingredients, most of which seem to be organic. Organic diners - whatever next?

7) Leo’s Diner, Cambridge, Massachusetts

A modest little place which belies its grand surroundings, situated as it is just off the Harvard campus.

Leo’s is a decent little place for lunch, albeit one where many people seem to call in for takeout rather than linger.

Inside it’s all sit-up stools and yellow vinyl counters, pictures of famous patrons plastered all over the wall, from the rubber-faced Rolling Stones and Carlos Valderrama, the Colombian footballer with the electric shock hair, to local boys Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

A busy little moustachioed man in a beret beavered away quietly and efficiently behind the counter, calling us up to the counter to collect our food. No bubble-gum chewing waitress here.

There was something else missing as well: noise. This was a curiously quiet diner, perhaps the studious atmosphere over the road has rubbed off it - I spotted at least two Harvard students in earnest discussion over their fry-up.

As for the food? Well it was worth the weight, with a generous thick omelette stuffed with bacon and broccoli, complemented nicely by thick fries and buttered toast.

Leo’s - a greasy spoon to oil that large brain of yours.

8) Comfort Diner, New York City, Manhattan, New York

Situated on East 45th Street this place is in a great location for refuelling after burning the credit card on Fifth Avenue. It’s in the heart of Manhattan - Grand Central, the Chrysler Building and the UN are all nearby.

Inside it looked like an upmarket Burger King: booths and tables and stools around the serving counter. The jukebox played a fine selection of Motown and Rock & Roll hits; the staff seemed, not unusually for the US, all Mexican.

The menu also offered a slightly classier (and pricier) selection than the average diner.

The general ambience seemed to suffer from lack of natural lighting giving the place a slightly cramped feel. This was Manhattan after all.

We took a booth near the door and ordered the buffalo burgers. They proved to be mighty filling, coming in a toasted bap with salad, coleslaw and sweet potato fries. Look out for their own mustard too, a mild yet tasty concoction, coming in their own labelled jars.

A cosy, albeit slightly sterile, place to come on a cold, wet day.

9) Miss Syracuse Diner, Syracuse, New York

Another dining cabin and one surely not known to the outside world. Downtown seemed empty, almost abandoned as we made our way here on a cold, wet Sunday morning. Perhaps that’s why it was so quiet.

And perhaps that’s why it felt more homely and hospitable. The staff seemed on first-name terms with many of the customers who were clearly regulars.

Small but perfectly formed inside, the cabin was filled by booths along the window, a couple of small tables in the corner and a kitchen out back, watched over by a gangly youth.

The local radio station garbled away as the overly-attentive waitress took our order and kept returning every couple of minutes to apologise for the ‘delay‘.

It was worth the wait and soon I was digging into links (sausages), fries (cubed potatoes) and onions, two eggs (over easy) plus toast, tea and juice.

The real American deal, Syracuse-style.

10) The Filling Station Café, Bryson City, North Carolina

Not a diner by any stretch of the imagination but still worth squeezing in due to its distinct character and great service.

The owner turned out to be a New Yorker, a ’half back’(i.e: he’d moved to Florida only to soon get disillusioned with the place, move again and end up half-way home, here in North Carolina).

He turned out to have an interesting story and proceeded to tell us it as he shouted our orders to his staff.

We’d gone through the motoring-themed menu chalked up on the wall - ‘Dipstick’, ‘Timing belt’, ‘Filler Up’ - etc before settling on the Cuban, a mighty sarnie I’d heard about back in the bar across the way (I’d be given specific instructions on how to order it).

Anyway it was brimming with meat, cheese and salad and certainly delicious. Well worth a little detour - you never know you might get a free chocolate cookie…

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