Okay, diners aren’t unique to the Midwest and Plains. Indeed, diners were a staple eating destination when I lived on the East Coast. Additionally, some famous diners can be found on the West Coast (e.g. Rae’s Restaurant). So it appears that The Diner is an integral part of American culinary culture.
What Is It About Diners Anyway?
Simply stated, it’s the food. Honest, unpretentious, leveling-of-the-playing-field food. Eggs, bacon, biscuits, sausage, pancakes, coffee—the great equalizers. There isn’t any need to impress or up the ante with fermented artichoke reductions or hand-crafted miniature watercress-and-olive latkes, to say nothing of the odd foams found on the menus of molecular gastronomy eateries. No, the diner—which clearly has a solid foothold in the hearts of Americans—may well be one of the most endearing (and enduring) landmarks on the American gastronomic landscape. People from all walks of life can find themselves seated in the booths or counter stools at a beloved local diner.
Maybe the “Local” is the Key?
To me (and I’m the arbiter of Midwestern culinary geography on this blog!), a good diner needs to be part of a local community. And to me (again!) it needs to be independent. Yes, IHOP has its place—I eat their Harvest Grain and Nut pancakes, loaded with syrup but no butter, the night before running a half-marathon almost as a religious rite, a conjuring of the gods so that I can finish the race. But IHOP still has the chain restaurant feel. It may be IN a community, but it is not OF the community. The profits go to wherever IHOP (or Denny’s or Waffle House) is headquartered. But the money generated by a beloved local place? Well, that STAYS local!
Main Street Diner in Richmond Indiana
I recently had a late breakfast at the Main Street Diner in Richmond, Indiana, the county seat of Wayne County. This charming restaurant is small in size and big in delight. There’s a definite retro vibe, with old-fashioned counter stools and comfortable booths. Exposed brick walls and a fifties-look clock (Coffee!) add to the nostalgic feel. In short, I had landed in True Dinerland. I felt welcome in this independent eatery from the time I stepped inside.
Well, the service was friendly. Our waiter took our drink orders and gave us time and space to peruse the menu which, while not extensive, covers all the basics one knows and loves about breakfast; they serve lunch as well (the place is open from 7:00 AM to 2:00 PM), but since my dining companion and I were there at 10:00, it was breakfast food for us. The service was pleasant and attentive, without being overly solicitous or hovering. We placed our orders and waited for it to be prepared (and yes, you might wait a little because this is fresh, not from some SYSCO cartons in a freezer).
I’d read some reviews online and, being a pancakes person, ordered the sweet potato pancakes with a side order of bacon (crispy!) My dining companion ordered the special—eggs, hash browns, biscuit and gravy, and bacon. When the food arrived, I was first surprised by how substantial the portions were! The bacon arrived crispy, just as I’d requested. The sweet potato pancakes—a stack of three—were flecked with actual, identifiable bits of sweet potatoes. The pancakes were also quite thick, almost double the thickness of the ones I’d get at IHOP. Because pancakes need syrup (and I sometimes refer to them as syrup reservoirs) , the Main Street Diner supplied the syrup in a small ceramic pitcher set alongside the plate with the pancakes and bacon. I found it to be a really nice touch. The pancakes were subtly spiced, which complemented the sweet potato while not masking its flavor. The bacon was a deliciously salty, fatty counterpart to the carbohydrate-rich hotcakes. I was certainly satisfied with my meal and I will definitely be making a return trip (btw, Muncie, where I live, is about an hour’s drive north of Richmond).
Coming Full Circle
I do love diners (and one of these days I’ll write a blog post about the Bluebird Diner in Iowa City, a place where I’ve enjoyed eating breakfast as well.) Truly independent, locally owned and operated places have a special place in my heart. They add to the fabric of a community in a way that your IHOPs and Cracker Barrels and Denny’s(s) don’t (and because of the corporate structure, CAN’T). I’ll end this blog post with a plea: If you find a local place that you love (and yeah, it can be a type of restaurant other than a diner), please support it. These eateries can’t compete with the economies of scale that the corporate giants do, but they take pride in what they make and serve, with the end result being markedly better tasting and fresher food than the industrial behemoths. So yes, Support Your Local Diner!