Back in the day — and I'm talking way back in the day — there was only one word to describe a place where a stranger could stop, sit down and, for two bits or so, get something to eat. That word was "restaurant" — based on the word restaurer and taken, like everything else would be forever after, from the French. In fact, a smart fellow named Boulanger opened the forerunner of the modern restaurant, a soup spot in Paris, in 1765, and many other smart fellows followed in his footsteps, offering hearty and fortifying soups to the masses — sometimes from carts on the street, sometimes from storefronts along Paris's less savory rues. Then in 1782, the Grande Taverne de Londres opened — in Paris, again — and was perhaps the first restaurant to offer such niceties as tables, chairs, menus and fixed operating hours. It was opened and operated by Antoine Beauvilliers, who was (surprise, surprise) a food writer of some renown. Yeah, that's right: Only a decade or so after the first restaurants appeared, some smart boy realized he could make a buck writing about them. Beauvilliers would later go on to cut the path that nearly every food writer who came after him has walked, with a book about proper conduct in the kitchen and the formalized rules of cookery called L'Art du Cuisinier. In it, he viciously took apart Marie-Antoine Carême — the world's first celebrity chef, more or less — by insulting the massive pièces montées for which Carême had become famous. A nice little slap-fight followed, with Carême claiming that his culinary art provided "food for mind and heart," and Beauvilliers shooting back that "the cook's job was not to please the eye but the palate; not to fill one's leisure but one's belly pleasurably," at least according to Stephen Mennell's All Manners of Food. Basically, Beauvilliers called Carême a dandy and a ponce, thereby also becoming the world's first restaurant critic. Carême retaliated by becoming fantastically rich and famous and then dying young — a classic tactic of the French.
The Grande Taverne de Londres was lauded by none other than Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who called it "the first to combine the four essentials of an elegant room, smart waiters, a choice cellar, and superior cooking." That essentially codified what a restaurant was going to be for the rest of history. Adjectives aside, it has to be a room where food and booze are available, brought to you by someone other than your mother. And for a very long time, "restaurant" was the only word that described every possible permutation of those four essentials. "Bar" (or "pub") covered everything else — anywhere there was booze, a roof and service, but no food to speak of beyond a pickled egg.
Everything was so much simpler then.
Silver Creek Diner
7824 Park Meadows Drive
Hours: Daily, breakfast, lunch and dinner
Silver Creek Diner
Chicken pomegranate $10.95
Chicken parm $10.95
Chile cheese fries $7.50
Pancakes and eggs $6.50
Today, a plethora of eating options present themselves. Restaurants have become subsumed by a flood of bistros and boîtes and cafes and osterias. There are salumerias and delis, chop houses and taverns, trattorias, eateries, gastropubs and brasseries. And while, yes, many of these words have their own particular definitions (a "bistro" is a small, informal room where simple cuisine can be had alongside selections of vin ordinaire; a "brasserie" is a somewhat finer, more formal establishment differentiated from a bistro primarily by the beer taps behind the bar and a regular menu handed out by servers who know to take their fingers out of their noses before stepping onto the floor), restaurateurs often ignore them when labeling their places. Particularly when the places they're labeling reflect the unique cultural variation on Beauvilliers's original restaurant that is the American diner.
What makes a diner distinctive? What separates it from the bistro or the tavern or the rathskeller? And what qualities, precisely, must a place have in order to legitimately call itself a diner? Seeing as I have spent more time in diners than anywhere else, this is a topic on which I consider myself something of an expert. I know from diners. They are my natural habitat.
The same goes for Paul Yi, a member of a Korean restaurant family and a man with a deep understanding of American cuisine. Last year he opened Silver Creek Diner with his wife, Diana, in the corner slot of an otherwise unremarkable strip mall hidden amid the twists and turns of the business parks and parking lots near Park Meadows. It's a location that's swallowed at least two restaurants in my memory — the Dragonfly Cafe and Cheesy Jane's — but that did not deter this couple from opening their own place there.
"Since I was little, I worked in American restaurants," Paul Yi told me. He's been in the States now for almost forty years, having done time in Washington, D.C., before coming to Denver, running several restaurants in both places — family joints, mostly, other diners, a deli in the DTC. All of them have served "American food," because American food is what Paul knows best. It's what he loves. "I'm not trying to do haute cuisine," he said, then laughed.
The location didn't worry them, and neither did the fact that they'd chosen to open the most American of restaurants there. "I didn't want to call it a grill," Paul continued, "or a bistro. It's not that. A diner to me is a family place. A friendly kind of place."
And being a friendly kind of place is key to qualifying as a diner. Not all diners were manufactured in the ancient diner forges of New Jersey (even though it's very cool when they have been), feature some faux-'50s muscle car/Elvis/Marilyn Monroe theme, or are draped in neon and polished chrome (Silver Creek gets by with just the diner-requisite polished, quilted aluminum backsplash in the kitchen). Those are just decorating details and, as often as not, serve only to distract attention from the terrible things being done to the food in the back.
There's latitude with the menu, too. I've worked in diners run by Greeks that served more souvlaki than cheeseburgers and went through tzatziki by the bucket and ketchup only by the bottle. I've worked in one diner run by absentee white guys that featured enchiladas and egg rolls and plates of li'l smokies on the menu, another run by an angry Puerto Rican woman who did the best straight Catholic fish fry ever.
Paul Yi is less flexible. To him, a diner ought to have hamburgers and milkshakes, and so Silver Creek offers both. There's a fine spread of burgers on his simple, laminated menu, all made from hand-ground beef and assembled with surprising care, as well as milkshakes that are churned up in the gleaming mixers set up just behind the pass in the kitchen. And even though his board takes some odd and international departures from there, "it is all American," he told me. "Everyone knows what burritos are, what pasta is. I don't pretend to make authentic Italian or whatever. Anyone can recognize what it is."
And he's right. Sitting in Silver Creek's sherbet-colored dining room late on a Monday evening, with the mural of mountains and streams on the back wall and football on TV, I looked over the single-fold menu and saw that it contained nothing that would confuse anyone, anywhere in America. Burritos and enchiladas, country-fried steak, Italian meatballs over fettuccine in scratch-made red sauce and a good (if very no-frills) chicken parmesan served the same way; nachos grande and bruschetta — this wasn't just an American menu, but an all-American one, encompassing Italian-American and Mexican-American, Southern, Midwestern and East Coast-American, all served out of a kitchen run by Korean-Americans who even offer some Polynesian-American cuisine with the SPAM and jalapeño omelet called the Hawaiian Sunrise, and freaky, Nouvelle-Foodie-American with a plate called Chicken Pomegranate, and offering pomegranate-and-chile-marinated chicken breast topped with mango salsa.
Me? I went for a cheeseburger — bacon and Monterey Jack, cooked medium rare — and an order of green-chile cheese fries with sliced jalapeño, because I am a simpleton and because pomegranate and mango salsa really have no place in my personal diner cosmology.
The kitchen was out of Monterey Jack, so I had to be talked down to standard American cheese, and the cook then forgot to add the bacon I'd asked for. Each minor goof came with a heartfelt apology from a server who looked like he took every mistake like a body blow and kept adjusting my final bill downward until his tip was almost more than the total for a cheeseburger, fries and a single beer. But he had nothing to apologize for: It was a very fine burger, thick and cooked a perfect, bloody mid-rare, stacked tall on a toasted bun, with a bed of sautéed onion, fresh tomatoes, pickles and lettuce. And the fries were hand-cut and portioned generously, swamped with a pork-shot verde more savory than just plain hot.
I returned for dinner the next night, for a second round of chile cheese fries (I'd dreamt about them the night before, which is not a comfortable thing for me to admit), and for meatballs (handmade, and a little heavy on the onions), and for chicken parmesan (staple of a certain breed of East Coast diner, like those around Philadelphia and Camden) that stood up not because it was the best chicken parm I'd ever had, but simply because it was better than I expected it to be. The chicken breast was big, thick and well prepared — neither par-cooked and then held in a hot table until dry as chicken jerky nor left to sit for hours in poaching liquid until called for by some unsuspecting rube in the dining room. It was topped with a scratch-made sauce that was sweet with fresh tomato flesh and presented on a bed of pasta that was...well, about as good as you'd expect when ordering pasta from a diner. No better or worse than merely edible.
And then I went back the next morning for breakfast, the meal where a true diner should shine. Where it separates itself from the hundred other varieties of "restaurant" that have sprung up since Savarin bestowed upon the Grande Taverne its mantle of primacy. Doesn't serve breakfast? Then it's not a diner. That's the one hard-and-fast rule. And if it serves a bad breakfast, odds are good it won't be around long enough for anyone to bother debating whether it was a diner or something else entirely.
Eggs served over easy, hash browns off the grill, a short stack of excellent pancakes made from a sweet buttermilk batter and puffed up like pillows, crisped and lacy around the edges, and a cup of hot tea. Everything was excellent except for the bacon. This time I got it, but it was overcooked to the point of being burnt.
As I ate, Diana Yi was making the rounds of the dining room, checking on all her guests. I didn't have the heart to say anything bad about the bacon, so when she asked how everything was, I just smiled and said it was all wonderful as could be.
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And really, it was. Like art and pornography, a diner is a diner mostly in the eye of the beholder, defined not by cuisine or nationality or any list of thou-shalt-nots, but by a feel. Diners are comfortable places, where authenticity, skilled service and precision are sometimes thrown over in favor of speed, simplicity and an almost fanatical architectural worship of formica, vinyl and chrome. I will forgive things in a diner that I won't anywhere else. My bar is lowered every time a waitress calls me "honey," or I hear the cooks in the kitchen complaining over having to heat up the irons to make waffles for some knucklehead at seven o'clock at night.
And when my expectations are exceeded, as they were at Silver Creek, I'm happy just to settle into a booth and watch the world go by.
To see more of Silver Creek Diner, go to westword.com/slideshow.