You claim you’re a diner. It says so on the sign. There are cooks in greasy whites behind the counter, and the pies are spinning away to nowhere in their carousel. But how do you know that the establishment serving your eggs and toast is a true American diner? Just check off each simple requirement to find out if it’s a real diner, or a café in disguise.
1. A real diner is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We don’t take no stinking holidays. Where would the truck drivers and mumbling weirdos get their coffee if the diner was closed on Christmas at 4 a.m.?
2. Breakfast must be served all the time, no exceptions. If a bunch of drunken slobs need waffles and grits after happy hour, the diner is there for them.
3. Coffee. Dark, strong, hot and plentiful, good coffee is the hallmark of the best diners. And the waitresses better be quick with the refills, or else.
4. Booths. Everybody loves a booth. People demand a booth before they are even in the door. You should never have to sit at a table.
5. There should be at least one waitress that has worked in the diner since it opened. She will immediately be visible to the trained eye by her sensible orthopedic shoes and the fear she inspires in lesser mortals, such as busboys and younger servers. You want this waitress. The cooks are afraid of her wrath, so your table will get the less-burnt toast and fresher day-old muffins.
6. Counter seats. This is where hurried people, who are willing to sacrifice the all-consuming booth need, can suck down their coffee and ham loaf special. Without a counter, you cannot call yourself a diner.
7. The 10-page menu. Not only can you get breakfast any hour of the day, you can get anything from Greek spanakopita (spinach pie) to a wide variety of unappetizing “Specials” such as liverwurst and onions, veal a la Oscar (what is that anyway?), or anything with the suffix “loaf.” Meatloaf, cod loaf, ham loaf – it’s all just ground-up leftovers, but if you want to call yourself a real diner, it better be on your sticky menu.
8. A really dirty bathroom. Any respectable diner is too cheap to pay someone to clean the bathrooms, so they just forget about it and let nature take its course. I’ve been in one ladies’ room that actually had a hole in the wall, through which you could see the dishwashing station. I do not think this was an accident.
9. At a hardcore diner, there will be no accommodations for vegetarians. If you don’t eat flesh, you get a salad and grilled cheese. If you make a fuss, expect to get bacon grease smeared on your sandwich as revenge. Don’t even ask about vegan food.
10. Cheapness. The essence of a diner is that you plop in your booth and speedily chow down for a few bucks. $9 pancakes on the menu? This is no diner. The most expensive thing on the menu should be a New York strip steak, and it will cost $8.95. After all, we wouldn’t go to real American diners and endure the greasy food, surly gum-snapping servers and mumbling bums at the counter if we couldn’t have it all for just three bucks.
Now that you have the guidelines, go test them out on a roadside eatery. Inspect the stained aprons and giant omelets. Ask for an ashtray and see if they look horrified or bored. Then when you emerge from your meal, full of coffee, pie and grease, you can say “Whoa! That is truly a finer diner!”
Felicia D’Ambrosio can be reached at Caspian@temple.edu.