Not A Diner
A Brooklyn Story
We wanted to find a diner—the kind with things like toast and cottage cheese but also a full bar and permanent cake display. I personally hoped for free pickles and worried privately that we might end up somewhere that gives you coleslaw instead, but I didn’t want to be difficult so I kept my preference to myself. I was just happy we were able to agree on something so quickly. We didn’t even have a preference of Greek vs. Jewish so long as we could sit down. It was me, a man with whom I had been on three or four dates, and his friend who was visiting from Massachusetts.
I had been living in NYC for 5 years to my handsome friend’s 1 year and this was early in the courtship so the pressure was on* to appear confident and at ease in the city I call home. However, and as I tried to explain, most Brooklynites tend to circulate in neighborhoods that reflect their own values (or more accurately, budget) and for me at this time this mostly revolved around the availability of $6 beer/shot combos and a preference for gnarled bartenders who don’t appear to have any nascent ambitions of opening a BDSM themed gastropub. In other words, I am not trendy and my knowledge of the trendy parts of Brooklyn is so limited that I didn’t even REALIZE that Prospect Heights is trendy. My ignorance would be duly punished.
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We had begun our stroll on the east side of Prospect Park near the border of Crown Heights and Lefferts Gardens. By the time we made our way into Prospect Heights it was already dark and everyone involved was clearly lying about how hungry and tired they were in the spirit of appearing relaxed. “No no. We can walk a bit further. I’m sure we’ll come across something appealing.” We had all committed to the narrative of the Romantic Wanderer, and the Romantic Wanderer does not consult Yelp.
I assumed the area must be littered with exactly the kind of diner we sought, so I didn’t second guess the pink neon sign spotted across the way which read “[Redacted]’s Diner. Good Food and Drinks.”
I lit up and scurried across the crosswalk gesturing to my companions to follow. I burst in, all smiles and relief, to a small dining room with a half-length corner bar. The tables and chairs looked like they have been lifted from a museum cafeteria and there was only one booth. Everything was in an appropriate shade of retro green, but something was off. I scanned the room for evidence of pickles, and saw none. I peered at other people’s meals and saw not even a brittle crust or the crumbs of a well-enjoyed slice of toast or the smear of runny yolk left behind after running a forkfull of pancakes through it. But we had come so far, and I was so hungry, and I felt responsible for dragging everyone over with such confidence, so I let a hostess seat us at a normal table (the booth was occupied).
The menu, which was only one page while most diners give you something approximately the size of a children’s encyclopedia, did not have a breakfast section or anything that cost less than $9. There was a reuben, but it was meatless, and had altogether too many words in the description for something that everyone is supposed to recognize. I was just leaning forward to whisper “I don’t think this is really a diner” when the waitress descended upon us.
She was the kind of woman who, in another era, might have made due by being a muse to various artists— too short to actually be a model but with the kind of glowing, racially ambiguous skin and enigmatic features that make you touch your own face and frown and a body with such impossibly appealing proportions that you must wonder how she even gets out of the house without stopping to admire herself in every reflective surface. I like my body but if I tried to wear what she was wearing I would look like a can of Pillsbury dough that had been half-cracked and left to sit on the counter too long. Her hair looked like it was perpetually underwater and also somehow reflecting an unseen sunset.
You think I’m being hyperbolic but I am 100% serious. What’s more is that this is not uncommon in Brooklyn for men, women and everything outside and in-between. I assume they spring fully formed from the reclaimed wood of some enchanted sycamore . I do not begrudge this fact, I just know that these sexy tree nymphs are rarely found within a half-mile radius of anything resembling a pastrami melt, so when I noticed that our waitress was not standing, but draped languidly on an effervescent cloud of sandalwood and peonies, I knew we were really in trouble.
“Oh hey there you guys. Have y’all had the pleasure of dining with us before?”
I always dislike being asked this question, presumptuous phrasing and strange mix of regional pleasantries aside. If I had questions about the menu I would ask, and if I fuck it up that’s on me, so I always just lie and say yes. However, not everyone at the table was aware of the implications and someone said no, so she proceeded to point out that some entrees come with sides and others do not, but if we wanted sides we could order them separately from the portion of the menu labeled sides. You know, like every other fucking menu on earth. But I digress.
As she was waxing poetic about the nature and purpose of appetizers, she surreptitiously produced from her apron a squeeze bottle similar to a classic diner ketchup bottle but smaller and set it down on the table. At first I thought it was vinegar, but then I noticed that there was a small printed label reading “chili oil”. No other condiments were offered.
We ordered drinks, all of which were some “twist” on a classic with a needlessly complicated name like “The Ascendence of Margery VanSlaughterhaus” or some such nonsense. To be fair, the drinks were well-mixed and enjoyable, but they were also $14. This is all fine and swell for cocktails in general but reinforces my thesis that this place had no business calling itself a diner.
Along with the drinks came a heavy pewter bowl filled with bright orange cheese balls and it was clear that we were meant to put the chili oil on the cheese balls. Those smug motherfuckers. The head chef might as well have come over to our table and jerked off into our cloth napkins while wearing a black t-shirt with the word “irony” printed in lowercase white letters on it and winking at us.
Even more enraging is that it was delicious and I will probably recreate this at home. But that’s not the point. The point is that Brooklyn is supposed to be cool because of its humble, industrious, immigrant history and the precisely percolated identities that thrived under the pressures of the industrial era. To be a diner that isn’t really a diner feels less like a nod to this history and more like spitting on the grave of the working class communities that have been pushed out of the area after making it what it is. There is more to being a community restaurant than making things that taste good and frankly it is tacky to assume that gastronomic parlor tricks are more important than history.
We ate our cheeseballs, finished our drinks, and then broke protocol by ordering sides without ordering entrees or appetizers. After consuming our annoyingly well prepared brussel sprouts we shuffled off into the darkness to find something with a little more character while I bummed everyone out with my curmudgeonry. Trendy Brooklyn can eat several hundred years of collective working class ass.
*I perceived the pressure to be on. The pressure, by any normal person’s measure, was not in fact on and no one should assume that anyone with me would have judged me one way or the other.