Souvlaki Elegy

I was sad to read about the coming extinction of the local diner in New York this morning. For the price of a cup of coffee, anyone in a diner could spend hours doing mostly nothing; people-watch; short-order cook watch, if they were sitting at the counter; or bullshit an evening away in a style that people don’t do anymore in the age of smartphones. There’s lots of jokes about safe spaces, but in many ways, that’s what diners were. Disaffected teens and broke freelancers and single moms and people with tiny apartments could post up and get some breathing room. Coffee shops serving third wave coffee simply cannot afford to offer the same.

Growing up, my parents took me to the Plaza Diner in New Paltz to learn “proper restaurant behavior.” Patrons at restaurants with laminated menus are more patient with this process than elsewhere. We’d get the local paper, and I’d work my way through the funnies and Dave Barry’s column in the Poughkeepsie Journal. It’s strange that we never went to the College Diner, which was closer to the house, but I suppose they wanted to save the diner with secondary education for when I was older.

In high school, with a driver’s license, but decidedly underage when it came to doing anything fun, diners were a window into adulthood. We could sign out at lunch, go to the Acropolis, and bullshit (or smoke cigarettes, for those who did). My school even offered a class on diners, which I took, and for which my parents gave me endless shit for well into my 30’s. The first meal I ate out, without adults present, was almost certainly in a diner.

When I moved to the East Village, I was lucky enough to be near two diners. The superior one was Teresa’s, on First Avenue and Seventh Street. It seems quaint now that it was possible to get breakfast for two people for under $15. There was also the slightly more upscale Bendix Diner three blocks to the north, which had a model train running through a model New York City wrapped around the inside of the restaurant, a move Roman + Williams chose not to copy in any of their iconic designs.

People who grow up eating at diners are better at parsing menus than those who do not. There are things on diner menus that, while listed, one does not eat. People who are familiar with diners know this, and apply that logic elsewhere in the world, protecting their bodies from bad ideas like vending machine sandwiches or anything with lobster in it beyond the transmitter range of WEEI.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of eulogizing diners; like skinny first basemen or whatever was happening to Julia Stiles’ eyebrows in the 00’s, they belong to a specific time, and they’re not coming back. I will miss them, and I hope that people growing up today have their own spaces to eat new things, learn how to behave in public, and dick around with jukeboxes.

FIVE ICONIC DINER ORDERS

Denver Omelet: Do these exist outside of the diner food extended universe?

Tuna Melt: Beloved by some, smelled by all.

Chicken Souvlaki: A first exposure to Greek food for countless people; tzatziki sauce cures many ills.

Short Stack: How many pancakes are in a short stack? See, you don’t know either.

Happy Waitress: Grilled cheese tastes better when it’s cooked on a flat-top with 30 years on the odometer.

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