By Arthur H. Gunther III
Small diners in my part of the world in lower New York State a few decades back were known for tasty, homemade food served by owners and their staff who seemed like family, especially for the regular customers. They were homes away from home. And they could be small theater for the characters within.
Each diner — Hogan’s, Tiny’s, Sparky’s, etc., often several in every village and town — was small enough — like an old railway dining car — that you were intimate with the other patrons but also, if you buried yourself in your newspaper, you could be by yourself. Not unlike the table at home where your siblings might be jabbering away but quiet you wanted to be, lost in your thoughts.
Our diners, like small-town eateries anywhere and even the intimate ones in cities back when they were simple, too, knew their customers. Regulars would be greeted accordingly, usually with voices loud enough so that the rest of us took notice and either said hello or mentally checked off our list that another member of the “family” was in the “house.” Reassurance, again.
Diners offered further intimacy with staff, including the waitress who knew all about you, who had your order placed even before you sat down, who kept a pencil in her hair and a check pad in her apron pocket, even if she took your order by memory.
And there was the grill cook, the fellow at the “flat top,” who had home fries simmering on low heat in the back left and who used the full surface to griddle pancakes, eggs over easy, burgers, onions, without burning anything, his hands quick to open up the left-side refrigerator where he took out American cheese or reached overhead to pull bread from the Pullman loaves left by the local commercial bakery, Ramapo or Widman’s.
The cook was truly intimate with the customers, some of whom would purposely sit in front of him to watch him work. One advantage was that you could fine-tune the time on your eggs.
Some of these grill cooks, like others in the old diner industry, were itinerant, and they came for a few months in summer and went south in the winter. But they were as regular as a clock in showing up at the right time.
The customers were regular, too, in their often quirky ways, as in any family. One fellow I recall stirred his coffee about 15 times, after loading it up with five spoons of sugar. Then he banged the spoon on the rim of the green java cup as if to wring out the last drop. Finally, with an “ah,” he began to literally slurp the coffee. Did this each and every time. Did that routine for years. And, funny as it was, it was reassuring to the other regulars in the old diner. Reassuring to him, too.
In those days, the police chief came in, the mayor, the auto mechanic, the principal. Everyone knew each other or of one another, often going back generations. So there would be nods and small questions, like “How’s the vegetable patch this year, chief?” Overall, it made for trust, especially with the police. They were your neighbors.
Maybe the world, at least parts of the American world, especially our cities and anonymous suburbs, could use a few of the old diners, their staff, their food, their patrons. They could use reassurance from “family.”
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay was adapted from an earlier version.