Jim and I are sitting in a corner booth at American City Diner on Connecticut Avenue, bantering with our waiter with the bone-dry wit. When Jim asks if the OJ is really freshly squeezed, the server says it says so right on the carton. When I ask him if the diner really has a brick oven for its pizzas, the waiter says pfft, mocking the stupidity of the very question. He’s playing the role of stand-up comic, and his punch line is his place of employment.
Coming to American City was my idea, part of my research into local diners, but Jim and I don’t spend much time discussing the food. Instead, we talk about our mutual friends, Jim and his wife’s search for a new house, and what lies ahead for our careers. Jim’s looking for a job; I’m hoping the economy doesn’t kill mine off. There’s something about sitting in a diner, sipping coal-black coffee and shoveling down a syrupy stack of silver-dollar pancakes, that makes you want to spill your guts for hours. I think it has to do with the joint’s complete lack of pretension—and its iron-clad will to live. Americans love fighters.
American diners, after all, are stone-cold survivors in the Rambo/Kurt Warner/Texas cockroach mold. They’ve lived through every economic calamity this country has faced in the past 100-plus years, from the Great Depression of the ’30s to the oil crisis of 1973 to the dot-com bust in 2001. And now, at a time when America’s once rock-solid industries are crumbling—banks, media companies, auto manufacturers—the diner is forced once again to step up and assume its patriotic duty. It must remind us that we’ll get through this damn mess. If it can.
“Even in the depths of the Great Depression,” writes William H. Young and Nancy K. Young in The Great Depression in America, “Americans took to the highway for work, for travel, or for a Sunday afternoon family drive. But once on the road, if no one had packed a picnic basket or lunch pail, a place to eat needed to be found. The diner, a miniature restaurant, served as one source of roadside food and grew in popularity.”
Pre-fab diners, of course, weren’t always so cuddly. They began as horse-drawn lunch wagons in Providence, R.I., and, in short order (sorry, couldn’t resist), developed reputations as greasy spoons that attracted the kind of palookas no self-respecting woman would associate with. But diners could adapt; over the years, they became larger, more sleek and modern, and then outright grandiose. The fast-food explosion of the ’60s forced diners to retreat to homier, wood-and-stone designs to counter the cheap, fluorescent glare of the burger joints. Diners also proved flexible: They adopted Greek accents (like Amphora in Vienna) or embraced cultural kitsch (like American City, which shows classic Hollywood movies). These days, diners even pay homage to themselves: The retro-chic ambience of the Diner in Adams Morgan proves it.
But no matter how they choose to package themselves, all diners share one trait: They try to remind you of home, when you were young and satisfied with such simple pleasures as a grilled cheese sandwich, a slab of meatloaf, a slice of coconut cream pie, or a plate of scrambled eggs and flapjacks at midnight. A diner is the parent you always wanted, a loyal guardian who doesn’t mind if you stumble in at 3 a.m., drunker than Amy Winehouse, and start barking out orders for cheese-covered fries and a chocolate shake.
OK, maybe I’m getting carried away with my metaphors, but it’s hard not to when you read about the diner’s place in history. “Because of the prevalence of extreme malnutrition among the children of Harlem, the Children’s Aid Society,” the New York Times wrote in July 1933, “is opening today a new Pullman diner for 100 at its Harlem children’s centre.” Nearly four years later, in 1938, the Times reported that, “Borough President Harvey of Queens ordered a hamburger sandwich yesterday when he inspected the new trailer-diner which will start out Monday to make hot lunches more accessible to WPA workers on highway projects in the borough.”
Diners even lent a hand during the energy crisis of the ’70s. Tony Akaras, owner of Plato’s Diner in College Park, remembers how his folks, who ran a diner on the Eastern Shore, would dispatch an employee to sell coffee, pastries, and muffins to those irate drivers waiting in line to buy gas. As a boy, Akaras used to tag along with the diner’s designated salesman. He remembers how happy those drivers were to have a hot cup of joe and a Danish to pass the time.
To put it simply: Diners have built up decades of good will. But I wonder if it will be enough to get them through this current economic crisis? The dining landscape is far different than during the Great Depression or even the recession of the early ’80s. People have a lot more options for low-cost meals. Comfort food has even gone gourmet, which seems to appeal more to our pampered palates. Could this downturn finally be the one to prove that diners aren’t recession-proof after all?
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a friend and I are plowing through a pile of food at Amphora, one of several operations run by two Greek families. We’ve already slurped down the tart avgolemono soup and polished off most of the meze platter, including these amazing Greek meatballs, when we strike up a conversation with the waiter. He tells us that late-night business has really dropped off, which he attributes to high school kids having less discretionary income.
A few days later, Amphora co-owner Maria Cholakis confirms the waiter’s story but adds a surprise ending: Business is actually up from the previous year, about 15 to 18 percent. Breakfast accounts for much of that increase, Cholakis says, but she’s also seen a rise in comfort-food orders, whether meatloaf or turkey dinners or even hot dogs. “When one is hit by the recession, one seeks comfort,” she says, “and I think diners offer that.”
Things, though, are not quite as comforting at Plato’s, where Akaras says sales are holding steady, or at American City, where owner Jeffrey Gildenhorn says business is down about 10 percent from the previous year. But Gildenhorn says his diner is in a good position to withstand the year ahead. His operating costs are low, he has a long-term lease, and he has 20 years’ worth of loyal customers. Besides, he thinks, it’s hard to beat the value of a diner meal. “If you measure the cost of serving home-cooked meals to a diner’s, you’re going to find they’re very similar,” he says.
No, Gildenhorn, Akaras, and Cholakis don’t worry so much about the future of their diners. They worry more about restaurants higher up the food chain. “If you’re the owner of a restaurant in a recession,” says Gildenhorn, “you want to own a diner.”
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