So many of the dreamy things attributed to childhood are a crock. The innocence, for instance, or "the carefree days of..." A popular parenting cliche is: "What are you complaining about? You'll never have it this good again." But all of this is just plain wrong. It's hard and weird to be a child. For one thing, much of childhood involves going to school. For another, there are chores. And children must survive social machinations more painful than the most strenuous job interview.
Personally, I am often grateful, upon waking, to notice that I am still an adult. Getting older every day, in fact. What a relief.
Therefore, I was blindsided by the rush of nostalgia for childhood that overcame me during my first five minutes at the Southside Cafe. A lot happens in five minutes at this South Broadway coffee shop. It opens at 5 a.m., so if you show up for breakfast three hours later, much has gone before you. The table you sit at has been wiped two or three dozen times and reset with packets of Mocha Mix and a leaning tower of jelly. The counter has gone through dozens of old men, all hello'd and goodbye'd by name--often with a mid-meal joke thrown in. The tables have emptied and refilled with neighborhood construction workers, appliance repairmen, corporate vice presidents and other, less pigeonholeable folk. Drag queens the morning after? Minimum-wage earners who know a good value when they eat one?
At Southside, a waitress takes your order and brings it out of the kitchen three minutes later. You dawdle over one extra cup of coffee, not two. Your bill is expeditiously processed and then you're out of there, wishing you could stay until lunch. Wishing, in my case, to prolong the atmosphere of halcyon days I hadn't wallowed in for thirty years--the days of the Diner.
In my youth, there was only one Diner. I never had any reason to know its official name. It had stainless-steel quilted walls, a gleaming pie cabinet, curvaceous waitresses in white uniforms that zipped, boxes of Rice Krispies stacked in pyramids, and orange juice that came in tiny glasses poured so full that only a tight meniscus kept them from spilling. As a function of our time-with-Dad custody arrangement, my sister and I went to the Diner for two breakfasts and one dinner each weekend. Sometimes we caught a glimpse of the short-order cook through a stainless-steel breakfront. He screamed a lot, had a wattled, red throat, and once pointed an enormous cleaver at my sister. We called him Bloody Oscar.
In the early Seventies the Diner underwent a typical Long Island transformation. It was bought out by a Greek family and redecorated in the classic funeral-home style, with fake flowers and plaster pillars. Bloody Oscar and the stainless steel disappeared. The waitresses developed acrylic nails. What they served, I don't know, for I had left home.
As a nomad in other parts of the country, I came to depend on places like Denny's and Village Inn for Breakfasts of the Road. Only then did I realize the treasure I had lost. Strange as it seemed, I discovered it was not only possible, but probable, to screw up Two Eggs Over Easy with Crisp Bacon. Omelets had become big, fluffy monstrosities filled with avocado and tofu. Pancakes were superseded by Belgian waffles the size of hubcaps that arrived drenched in fruit syrup and whipped cream like some kind of mutant sundaes. All this was okay, but it wasn't Diner. Ergo, it wasn't really breakfast.
And then, last week, seated at a Formica-topped table at the Southside Cafe, suddenly I was back at the Diner. I had two kids with me, both veterans of joint custody. The boy said, "Hey, look at this. The menu says 'Crisp cereal, one dollar.' Like they'd serve soggy cereal." I must have made the same observation fifty times as a kid while my dad said, tolerantly, "Yeah, yeah," and squinted at the smoke from his cigarette. (In this welcome respect, the Southside has modernized. There is no smoking--anywhere.) Looking up, my eyes met a stainless-steel milk dispenser emblazoned with the words "Enjoy ice cold Meadow Gold Milk--Every day!" Then I looked down at the menu as though it were a letter from an old friend. I wanted to spend time with it. The waitress smiled forgivingly. Around here, people eat and run all morning long. But if we wanted to dilly-dally, okay with her. She was the kind of waitress who would fill you with a gallon of weak Diner coffee if you let her.
Finally we placed our order. Before we had unfolded our napkins, the food arrived. It fell into two categories, as does everything I subsequently tried at the Southside: 1) Just what you would hope for from the Diner of your youth, and 2) Wow, this is genuinely delicious. For example, with my cheese omelet ($3.75), you could see that the eggs had been beaten on the griddle--the yolks and whites had not really joined--and the omelet was flat. In other words, it was exactly what I'd hoped for, as were the slices of greasy white toast. The hashbrowns that appeared alongside were even better than I could have wished: crunchy, seasoned, tender on the inside and served with the Southside's homemade hot sauce that's two or three cuts above Diner norm.
So were the pancakes, which come in a number of incarnations, including the time-honored short stack ($2.10). There was something almost ethereally light and buttery about these flapjacks. And they came with a miniature ice-cream scoop of butter--of course, of course. We also tried a sausage patty, some very crisp bacon, various permutations of fried and over-easy eggs, and more hashbrowns. I would have liked to eat my way to lunch--especially when I noted the two summer specials: one corndog in a basket and two corndogs in a basket. Alas, adult life intervened.
A few days later, though, I came back with my cranky father, who was under the impression I was taking him to some kind of "greasy spoon." It was great fun to watch him encounter the Ghost of Diner Past the second we walked in the door.
"Oh, now I see," he said, as we took the table I have come to think of as my regular. "I like this place."
More to the point, he already knew this place in another life. One look at the lunch menu was all it took. So many Diner standards: the chili size ($3.75 for chili on a burger bun), liver and onions ($4.25), patty melt ($3.75), chicken basket ($4.60). And does this take you back in time, or what--the Calorie Counter, 1/3 or 1/2 pound lean ground beef served with lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and cottage cheese ($3.25 or $4.10). Those were the days--when starch was bad and meat was good.
My dad, who is almost insanely particular about hot meat sandwiches, ordered the hot beef sandwich ($3.70). He claims that 90 percent of such sandwiches are made from some kind of ungodly meat-roll substance--and therefore are not carved off a bone; he also accuses almost all gravy of lumpiness, flavorlessness and mix-from-a-packageness. Leave it to the Southside to produce genuine brisket, cut by hand into slivery shreds and then gently deposited on Wonder Bread slices and covered with a layer of dark, robust homemade gravy.
"First-rate," Dad said, with his mouth full. "Top-notch."
I didn't notice if he touched his mashed potatoes (also served by ice-cream scoop, although a larger one); I was too busy eating. I'd started with the basic Diner salad--pale iceberg with a hint of carrot and cabbage, a wan tomato slice and uninspiring blue-cheese dressing. This is the sort of salad I would find disappointing anywhere except a Diner, where it is as appropriate as a corset under a prom dress, right down to the wood-grain plastic bowl in which it is served. The main event was chicken-fried steak ($4.50), which came drenched in that same wonderful gravy and accompanied by a scoop of potatoes so mashed they were more like a puree. The meat was flavorful and pounded very thin but had a few tough, gnarly bits. The breading, however, was absolutely inspired. You could have dipped a sneaker in it, fried it and served it to me, and I would have cleaned my plate.
Naturally, the Southside has a few pies to pick from, but we lacked the stamina. Instead, we elected to finish our meals with Cokes. And there, where you would think there was no room for variation, we got a pleasant yet eerie surprise.
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"You think?" I asked my dad after the first sip. For it seemed that this Coke was like a long-gone special blend they used to make for him at the Diner--with much less soda and a bit more syrup. It was about the sweetest thing on earth, but oddly refreshing.
He tried it. "You may be right. Do you suppose they have their own siphon?"
I looked around and saw something like that, but it could have had a keg of pre-mixed Coca-Cola hidden in its innards. I thought of asking the waitress. But then I thought again. I didn't want to know. Maybe it was just an overdose of nostalgia operating on my tastebuds, but if so--so what?
A girl can dream.
Southside Cafe, 560 South Broadway, 777-2391. Hours: Monday-Friday 5 a.m.-3 p.m.; Saturday 6 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m.- 1 p.m.