I thought I knew everything there was to know about the America and – New York for sure. I knew all the facts: I knew that I needed to spend an entire afternoon at Times Square and several afternoons in Central Park. I prided myself on my knowledge of all things a brand new expatriate in the United States should know. I stood head and shoulders above the ocean of tourist misconceptions and gilded perceptions of the Land of the Free. I had visited almost every tourist hangout in the country and thought I knew a thing or two.
Boy was I wrong!
It all started at the office, when colleague asked me if I had ever been to Crazy Otto’s.
My vacant stare must have communicated that I neither had visited nor even heard of any such establishment. So, after a leisurely drive and a stroll down West Albany Street, I found myself in a chrome-and-steel structure that looked like a mobile home that had been taken off its wheels. The words ‘Empire Diner’ ran across the top in unlit neon signage. Inside, the burgundy and grey vinyl seats and the gleaming steel counter with chrome trim was unlike any eatery I had ever seen. License plates from almost every US state occupied every square inch of space and over enormous portions of their Chopped Buffalo Salad and a dish aptly named ‘The Train Wreck’, I learned about one of the great American traditions – the Diner. The rest of the evening passed in a haze of diner history, food and some of the friendliest service I have ever experienced.
I was hooked.
While street vendors, carts and pubs are not uncommon in the city, diners are where you will find the conversationalist, the perpetual dreamer and in some ways, the true American. As I ventured outside New York, I found more diners like the Bendix Diner, a greasy spoon trucker’s diner on Route 17, just a short distance from the Interstate 80. I’ve never seen greasier burger patties in my life – but they were the most delicious burgers served with a mountain of fries and some great conversation about the town, its history and the lives of regular people like me. Never mind the few additional calories; this is what makes for an awesome diner experience.
I joined a group of friends in early autumn for a drive down to Detroit, Michigan. We stopped at Tommy’s Diner on Broad Street for a scrumptious breakfast of buttermilk biscuits and sausage gravy along with some freshly brewed java. It was here I learned an important thing about ordering at a diner – ask for recommendations. Diners are usually privately or family owned and they love serving up freshly made food and will recommend what’s just off the stove, at an unbelievably economical price.
Every diner has its own character, a little bit of Americana – an autographed portrait of Elvis Presley, a signed Yankees baseball, the owner’s old baseball glove and his Purple Heart medal inside. There are the famous diners like the Route 66 Diner in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Avalon in Houston, Becky’s Diner in Portland and Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul. Every one of them has their story and memorabilia from all over this great land.
Deliciously unhealthy, wallet friendly food is always nice, but for me, the big draw of a diner will always be its people, as I add my story to the wealth of anecdotes and stories shared within the stainless steel walls in the glow of a neon sign.