Craig returns from the bathroom and I’m lost in thought.
“What are you thinking about?” he asks, slathering mayo on to his turkey club.
“Diners,” I respond.
We are at the West Side Diner on 9th Ave. and we’ve just seen a three hour play about British orphans.
“What about them?”
I open one of those tiny plastic cream-containers–the kind you only see in American diners–and add it to my coffee.
“I’m thinking about how American they are,” I say. “I’m wondering what I would tell someone who wasn’t from America if they asked me ‘what’s a diner?'”
My whole life I’ve been eating at diners. For the first 11 years of my life, when we lived in Oceanside, New York, 80% of our outside meals were consumed at the East Bay Diner. My parents still talk about it like it was a second home: they talk about the people who worked there, about going there with family and friends, about how I would sit and color on the placemat and how everyone would comment that I was so well-behaved. (I still am!)
When I think diner, I am instantly transported to that giant room with circular tables and over-sized booths near windows overlooking either the parking lot or Long Beach Road. Spinning round and round in my memory is the refrigerator case filled with dense cakes slathered in frosting and crowned with maraschino cherries. I’d stare at the cakes, mesmerized, thinking that life couldn’t get much better. I remember the bowl of mints that weren’t really mints: more like colorful fruit gummies coated in chalk. And the machines that sold handfuls of M&Ms or Skittles.
A diner, I’d tell the non-American, is, quite simply, a place to get food. It’s America’s answer to the bistro, the trattoria, the noodle bar. It serves what could very well be described as American food. If you asked a random American to list the dishes he considered to be fundamentally American, chances are he’d list items you’d find on a diner menu: hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries, milkshakes, and so on.
Diners often have a Greek slant and that’s because many diners in America are owned by Greeks. So in addition to the American food, you’ll also see Greek classics: most notably the Greek salad, which–unlike the Greek salad I ate in Greece–often involves a great deal of iceberg lettuce. In fact, iceberg lettuce is emblematic of a diner: you’ll find it in all diner salads, wilting on top of the diner burger, cradling a scoop of egg or chicken salad. That’s because, according to Wikipedia, “Cultivars of iceberg lettuce are the most familiar lettuces in the USA.”
Last night, at the diner, I saw a tourist couple settle into a booth and study their menus with a great deal of enthusiasm. They each ordered a glass of wine (she white, he red), shared a basket of cornbread, and then he noshed on pot roast while she dug into chicken breast. I could sense their relief as they ate their dinner: here was food they recognized at affordable prices. Familiarity, reliability: these are the reasons that Americans favor the diner.
“Maybe I’ll write an essay about diners for my blog tomorrow,” I said to Craig.
“What new thought do you have to contribute to the conversation about diner food?” he responded, finishing his last french fry.
I stirred my coffee and didn’t answer. Instead, I worked on my usual diner fare: an omelet with American cheese and onions.
Comfort food at 11:30 PM: that’s what diners are all about.