It was a busy afternoon. My lady and I checked out a pretty old school diner in Los Angeles called Canter’s Deli.
This place wasn’t any kind of well-kept secret. It’s a 24 hour joint that’s been open since 1931. It was packed. It was the kind of place that would always be packed. But still, there’s always an underrated quality about a good deli or diner, especially when it’s in a city of glitz and glam. What I like about places like this is that you can be grumpy all you want, you just can’t be a prick.
The place was hitting every cylinder on what you want out of a diner. Big laminated menus. Free refills. Seats that look like they came out of a car from the 70’s. A complimentary plate of the best pickles I’ve ever had dusted with black pepper. All the employees looked like they’d just barely dodged three or four bullets in their lifetime. No gimmicks, no frills. Authentic Jewish Deli.
They’ve sold over seven million pounds of pastrami and over ten million matza balls.
I ordered corned beef hash with eggs and Lena got a Rueben with a cup of coffee.
“How’s the coffee?” I asked my babe.
“It’s a diner,” she said, smiling. Yeah.
A good diner is a staple of America. You don’t really find them in other parts of the world.
Think about it. A place you can feel fine about just elbowing up to the counter wearing the same outfit you wore yesterday. You can keep your sunglasses on if you were just outside hotboxing. The place ain’t gotta look pretty cause you probably ain’t looking pretty. And the wait staff isn’t there to take any shit. I remember I was in a Waffle House in New Orleans with the Rain one time. Well past four A.M. On that post shift get right yaherdmeh. We were wet as hell, no umbrellas. I was getting a little heated that I couldn’t figure out the jukebox. The manager on duty slid up, this cool charcoal black motherfucker, and said, “First off, you’re gonna calm down, young man. Rod Stewart ain’t worth all that. Second off, let me see what I can do.” I chilled the hell out and let the man work his magic and goddamn if he didn’t wear it well.
The beauty of a diner is that there is a ceiling to your expectation. You’re not expecting a Michelin star Benedict, you know? You can’t get mad if the coffee is cold. You just ask for another cup like a normal human being and they give you the first one off the fresh brew, and they’re happy to do so. This isn’t some place to yelp about and if you do, go fuck yourself, you cold son of a bitch. You go to these places because you need some solid predictable grub and you don’t want to have smile for no reason or ask any dumb questions like how do you prepare that or what pairs with this. You go with someone you’re gonna talk to or maybe you’re not gonna talk to. Maybe there’s even a real decision you’re trying to solve, sitting there on that table. But with certainty, there’s no dance. You’re there. Everyone else is there. You eat your food. You drink your coffee. The ticket gets laid on the table. Maybe you wave thank you to the wait staff, the hardworking bastard peeking out of the pass in the back. You pay, and you get out. And God help you if you don’t tip.
All the best scenes of a tough movie happen in the diner. You gotta wonder how much time Tarantino spent in these places. Even when you go to a diner with a piece of shit, for that small window, they let their guard down a little more. Maybe confess to how they got to be a piece of shit. It’s real. It’s touching. I appreciate that kind of thing. And any kindness bestowed on you in that place, you just cherish it a little more. Our waiter at Canter’s, an almost exact replica of the dude in Slingblade, was quick on the draw to replenish my pink lemonade. (That’s right. Fuck it. I ordered pink lemonade.) He always asked if we were OK. We were always OK.
They had this killer Russian mustard right there on the table along with the Tabasco. You better always have some hot sauce in a diner.
An older woman behind me made a sound likea demon crawling out of Hell and I jerked up. Lena started laughing her ass off. I guess the lady was just getting comfortable or something.
I think just about anybody can give you a memory of a diner. Maybe they were on a sad but funny road trip in Jackson, Mississippi. Maybe they were some reckless college kids in Richmond, Virginia. Maybe they’re a good looking couple newly moved to Los Angeles trying to enjoy the little things in a storm of change and hard feelings. The food at Canter’s was great and it was dependable and the waiter told us to come back. The ceiling looked like autumn. I liked the place so much I almost bought a shirt. Don’t you worry, hoss. I’ll come back.