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Bite Me

Make a List

When I get to thinking about diners, as I did in this week's review of Sam's #3, I start making lists. Best of this, greatest that -- it's my Nick Hornby High Fidelity obsession shining through. And while his scruffy obsessives did their thing mostly with records and songs (top five side ones, track ones) and pop culture (top five episodes of Cheers), there's only one area I know enough about for such a considered, canonical listing, and that's food. In particular, diners.

Could I name the five best French restaurants in Denver? Yes, except for the fact that I don't think we even have five French restaurants left in this city. Could I tell you my favorite restaurants? Sure. Favorite for a date: Penang, in Philadelphia's Chinatown. Favorite for when I'm eating alone: Tom's Diner, back in New York. Favorite for service that makes me feel a lot bigger and more important than I actually am: Frasca. Favorite for service that allows me to be just another shmoo out for dinner with the wife: Cafe Jordano.

Most of my food lists are confined to areas where I've actually lived, but diners are a whole different story. I've been traveling to and eating at diners for most of my adult life, and I'm willing to bet that I've hit, if not all the greats, then a bigger portion of them than anyone except maybe Jane and Michael Stern, who've written the Road Food column for Gourmet magazine for the last 200 years or so. And I return to many of these spots again and again, either in person or in my memories. So after Sam's #3 had me going all weepy because it reminded me of back home, I decided to make a list of those diners -- I'm calling it my "Nuclear Armageddon Top Five," in honor of Hornby's inimitable style -- where I wouldn't mind spending my final hours eating a chili dog, drinking a pot of coffee, and watching the world come to its final, crashing end.

1. The State Diner, Ithaca, New York. Absolutely the best ever. It's done in the train-car-style of most great diners, with fold-down jump-seat booths, cheap cheeseburgers, strong coffee, burnished chrome, the world's oldest orange-juice dispenser, and just enough dusty, ill-maintained neon to give it a sickly, creepy glow after dark. This place was more or less responsible for my 0.8 freshman GPA and my subsequent dropping out -- but Laura helped with that, too. I met her the same year I found the State, and my tactic for making her fall in love with me was to sleep with someone else, leave college, and not see her again for eight years. Sounds stupid, but it worked.

2. Panos, Buffalo, New York. The original Panos, not the bastardized new one next door that looks like a Greek Burger King. The original was a shotgun-shack 24-seater with six booths and a counter, all done in shades of grease. It was open all night, every night, with a $2.99 steak-and-eggs special and lines down the block. The souvlaki was the best I've ever had in my life, the crowds the worst I've ever experienced, and at the end of the night, the cigarette butts, toast crusts, dirty napkins and cold home fries would be piled ankle-deep on the floor. I once saw a waitress stab a drunk with a broken ketchup bottle for grabbing her ass. Many of the Big Brains from down the road at the college also hung out here after hours, and let me tell you, you ain't seen shit till you've seen some big, hairy Hells Angel sporting three college rings on his hand (Harvard, MIT and UB) and a "Daddy Never Loved Me" weeping-Jesus tattoo throw down with a tweedy English professor over which writer got more tail: Henry Miller (who got Anaïs Nin) or Arthur Miller (who got Marilyn Monroe). I actually worked short-order, graveyard shift at this Panos for a few months. To this day, it's the greatest job I've ever had.

3. Owl Bar and Cafe, San Antonio, New Mexico. Physically situated right on the edge of the White Sands Missile Test Range, the Owl is not so much a diner as a high-desert dive bar right out of the more twisted imaginings of David Lynch. Robert Oppenheimer and his boys from the Manhattan Project used to come here and get loaded on the weekends (when they weren't thinking up new and interesting ways to destroy the world), and there's a rumor that Einstein (yeah, that Einstein) once stopped in for a beer on his way to California. The wooden long bar was rescued from the A.H. Hilton Mercantile and Hotel in San Antonio after a fire destroyed the place in the 1940s -- also wiping out the first employment records of one Conrad Hilton, A.H.'s son. And while the Owl's big draws are these ties to freaky Americana, it also serves the greatest green-chile cheeseburger in the world. A sign attesting to this fact hangs in front, and it's correct. But the Owl didn't set out to serve great cheeseburgers. As I understand it, the bar started serving food only because so many of America's top nuclear scientists were coming here from the Trinity site, getting shnozzled, then tear-assing back to the compound along dark, desert roads in the middle of the night with nothing but a gallon of firewater sloshing around in their guts.

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