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TODAY

Friday, April 20

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Detour

Approximately one year ago this week I moved back to my native Illinois from the foggy shores of San Francisco. I could give you all of the usual reasons I moved back — my family's here, I got a good job, I was sick of paying $1400 for a 1BR — but that would be leaving something out.

California's famous for its cuisine, but Chicago one-ups the City by the Bay in one significant area: the diner. Yes, that's a little publicized truth about my return to Chicago: I missed our beloved diner culture.

I'm a fan of fine dining and ethnic food, don't get me wrong. In fact, my portly figure demonstrates my deep love for triple chocolate cake. And I've never said no to the urban food log, a burrito. (Wait, I take that back — I have rejected a McDonald's breakfast burrito before.)

But the restaurants I love the most are undoubtedly the diners. Diners are where your life happens, and where you listen to the juicy details of others' lives. Is your best friend more likely to share the details of his recent break-up over chocolate martinis at Le Colonial or over a cup of coffee at the local Golden Nugget? The best quotes in life, the ones you write down in your secret journal and don't tell people — did you overhear them while sitting at Zorba's at 3am or while waiting to be seated at the 95th Room?

Fig 1. The classic diner menu. In silver no less. Perhaps too clean.

But what exactly defines a diner? They are certainly a species that you can say "I know it when I see it," but what qualities allow one to apply the label Diner? After thinking about this for the four years I lived in California, I'm ready to take a stab at an answer.

1. The Coffee. This beverage lies at the core of diner culture, and it must be bad and it must be plentiful. Even if the coffee tastes good, it has to be weak, since you can expect to drink somewhere between three and seven cups during your meal.

2. Breakfast. If breakfast isn't served all day, then it isn't a diner. You want an omelette at 9pm? You got it buddy. Pancakes at 2pm because you just woke up from a bender? No problem. You want coffee with that?

3. Waitresses. Diner waitresses are expected to be saucy and sassy. Grumpy isn't required, but a frequent characteristic. And for some odd reason, there are never, NEVER, waiters at diners. Always waitresses.

4. Open Late. This was the number one thing that annoyed me about going out to eat in California. The first time we tried to go out to eat late when I moved to Berkeley we struck out — the only place open was a Denny's. (How bad was it? We had a waiter with sweat stains on his shirt so large that it almost appeared tie-dyed.) Your neighborhood diner should be open 24 hours and within stumbling distance of your apartment.

5. Menu's Always the Same. There is undoubtedly a canon of diner menu choices — breakfast food, hamburgers, spinach pie, and a BLT. There are local variations of course — daily specials, flaming saganaki or the occasional fruit plate, but most menus are the same. And I think this is a big part of why we like diners — no matter what no-name place you visit, drunk after a show at 4 am, the menu is the same. Sure, the french fries might be cut differently depending on where you go, one might have onion rings while another might not, but it's all the same. And that's a good thing.

6. Time. More than any characteristics of food or location, visiting a diner is about time. Having time, wasting time, watching the hours tick by as you have another cup of coffee and read the entire Sunday Tribune.

Fig 2. Ah, all the necessities, the coffee cup, Tabasco, Coke and hash browns.

Looking back at my diner memories from the past 10 to 15 years, it was this last quality that defines diners more than any other. Sometimes diners are more than a location and a meal — they become places where seconds are punctuated by refills and smiles. Hours with friends spent chatting, hours by myself spent writing. More than a bad hamburger, this is what I missed in California — time to waste in diners.

 

About the Author(s)

Brian Sobolak is open 24 hours at Planet Shwoop.

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