Cafe Society

Nothing Could Be Finer

Page 3 of 4

Still, because I am grumpy, because I am a purist, because I hate fakery and facade and reproduction anything and loathe the co-opting and recycling of history to make a buck, I feel a little dirty each time I sit down here, either at the long counter or in a booth beneath the framed still of James Cagney with his wild hair and pistols in his hands. I want to hate Rosie's for its gleaming chrome and smooth tabletops, for its polished floors and put-on airs -- the same way I will instinctively distrust a person whose house is too clean or whose suit cost more than my car. At Rosie's, the two stools at the far end of the counter -- useless because they're set in front of a service station -- are labeled as "Reserved" for Elvis and Marilyn, which I find unconscionably cheesy. At Davies, there have been times when I wouldn't have been surprised to see the real Elvis or Marilyn wander in -- or at least some sad, doe-eyed modern version in blue suede shoes or brushed angora, paying for coffee and toast with Indian-head nickels and crumpled dollar bills.

When I stop by Rosie's for a breakfast of chicken-fried steak, gravy, French toast and coffee with Laura, I am sullen and unpleasant, ticking off in my head all the things I dislike (the lithographed Hollywood posters, the mounted Elvis singles on the walls, the non-smoking signs displayed so naggingly on the door, walls and counter, and the reproduction tabletop mini-jukes that actually work, as opposed to the authentic Seeburg Wall-o-Matics at Davies, which do not) while stealing bites of Laura's perfectly cooked ham steak and pancakes with warmed syrup. She tells me my reasons for hating Rosie's are stupid and childish. Worse, they're hypocritical, because I love (for example) American cafes that go out of their way to model themselves after the French originals. The only difference, she points out, is that I've never been to Paris, whereas I have obviously spent far too much of my life already haunting the booths of joints like Davies.

I go back for dinner (chicken-fried steak again) and really look at Rosie's to see if Laura is right. I mean, what's not to love? It's clean and well-lit, independently owned and successful. The staff is friendly, the shakes and malts and meatloaf are great, the kitchen's pot roast tastes better than my mom's pot roast ever did, and the cooks are giving the cuisine they've chosen its due: making their own gravy and mashed potatoes the old-fashioned way, not cheating and using potatoes from a box. Three people can eat breakfast here for under twenty bucks (pre-tip) and have leftovers to take home. And over the course of three meals, I've seen the waitresses hug no fewer than five customers (none of them me), which means that Rosie's must have regulars comfortable enough with the help to be hugged by them.

But Rosie's is and always will be a fake, a mockup based on a model no longer in production. It's a good fake and artfully done, but it still bothers me that places like Rosie's are changing the history that places like Davies created. A real diner is not clean or convenient. It's not bright or well-designed or campy. Real diners are small, cramped, smoky, loud and alive in a way that no sterile revisionism can ever truly capture. Looking at Rosie's is like an exercise in cultural steganography -- trying to find some picture of true Americana hidden in the backscatter radiation of pop art and recycled fads, Hollywood stills, Elvis on the radio and muscle cars in the lot. Rosie's has charm like an unlined face, like a kid with a bootblack mustache trying to fit into his dad's shoes. But Davies has the history -- the one thing the pretenders can't buy, can't build and can't ever fake.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan