Nothing finer than a diner
By Suetta K. Tingler
There‚Äôs nothing finer than a diner, especially the ones with shiny, streamlined stainless steel exteriors. Choose a seat on a stool at a counter and prop up your feet on the pipe rail or sit in a booth. These greasy spoons whose popularity reigned for decades can be hard to find but well worth the hunt if your mission is to find a friendly, whimsical place oozing with character in which to eat.
Many such places have remained true to their unique architecture of the 1950s, still sporting the familiar black-and-white checkered floors, pastel blue walls, red-and-gray interiors and flashing neon lights showcasing names like Momma‚Äôs, The Golden Biscuit or Jack Rabbit Slim‚Äôs. A decorative touch of ArtDeco, Formica surfaces and block glass effects completes the look of the American diner.
Maybe it was the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown that has inspired a change in food attitudes. Trending now is to look beyond dairy-free, low carb, sugar-free, Keto and gourmet meals in favor of comfort foods that have come to remind us of our childhoods and Sunday family dinners. Diners have long held the reputation of cooking to please the palate and comfort the soul. Menu samplings often include favorites like chicken fried steak, biscuits and gravy, meatloaf, burgers, pot pies, liver with onions, beef Manhattans, omelets, French toast, pancakes, milkshakes and coffee and homemade pies, some with mile-high meringue. One never knows if behind the griddle there‚Äôs a cook named Mel and, with luck, a waitress called Alice.
All diners are restaurants but not all restaurants are diners. Today, New Jersey has bragging rights to about 600 diners in operation, the most of any state. I have no count for Indiana but have been told there‚Äôs an oldie still in service since the 1940‚Äôs in the Goshen area.
The word restaurant is an umbrella term for a mix of places to eat that offer a variety of services, themes and menu options. Here‚Äôs the ‚Äúskinny‚ÄĚ on what to expect when choosing a place to eat when away from your usual local haunts.
‚ÄĘDiner ‚ÄĒ a small restaurant often retro-modeled after a railroad dining car; friendly place to eat, chat and think. They are known to serve American comfort food classics often 24/7 with a wait staff. They became part of the landscape in the Midwest during the early 1900s.
‚ÄĘCaf√© ‚ÄĒ a small establishment typically opened for breakfast and lunch only; often with seasonal outdoor seating. Depending on location, caf√©s may have a European touch in atmosphere and menu. Known as a place where coffee is always served as well as variety of pastries and sweet treats.
‚ÄĘBistro ‚ÄĒ a small casual restaurant whose original concept came from the boarding house basements of Paris. Early offerings were often hearty slow-cooked stews and soups. Today‚Äôs bistros tend to offer simplified menus and are not tied to any specific cultural cuisine. They are likely to serve alcohol.
‚ÄĘTrattoria ‚ÄĒ a small, informal Italian-style eatery. The menu offers the best of local favorites often with an ever-changing seasonal menu. Service is casual, and wine is most often available by the decanter.
Food service terms to know:
‚ÄĘFast food ‚ÄĒ The attraction of these venues is mostly due to price and convenience. Counter service is prompt with inside seating and some outdoor seating may be available; no wait staff and a limited menu.
‚ÄĘFood truck ‚ÄĒ a ‚Äúrestaurant on wheels‚ÄĚ that tends to specialize in a single type of food; serves a limited menu. Seating options limited or non-existent.
‚ÄĘGhost restaurant ‚ÄĒ virtual restaurant with delivery only. They have no traditional store front and orders are placed over the phone or online.
‚ÄĘBlue Plate Special ‚ÄĒ this specially prepared meal of comfort food debuted during the 1920s to 1950s and was served on blue-patterned china in a diner setting. For whatever reason, the china of the times was available only in the color blue; therefore, the name.
‚ÄĘEarly bird special ‚ÄĒ a dinner served earlier than traditional hours at a reduced menu price. These meals are focused on retired people and young families. The term was first used in the restaurant business during the 1920s.
‚ÄĘGo Dutch ‚ÄĒ phrase to indicate that each individual covers his/her own expenses.
‚ÄĘHappy Hour‚ÄĒ- marketing term for a set time when a venue offers discounts on alcoholic drinks.
Forget the restaurant urge with recipes as delicious and easy to fix as the following.
(‚ÄúThe Cotton Country Collection,‚ÄĚ Monroe, LA Junior League)
1 stick butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 rounded tablespoons flour
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Unbaked 9-inch pie shell
Cream butter with the sugar. Add the eggs and flour, mixing well. Stir in buttermilk, nutmeg and vanilla. Pour into pie shell and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.
CHICKEN POT PIE WITH BISCUIT CRUST
1/4 cup butter
1 small onion, chopped
3 celery ribs, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
2/3 cup frozen peas
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 cup flour
2 cups chicken broth
2/3 cup half-and-half cream
Salt and pepper to taste
3 cups cooked chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
1 (16-ounce) can refrigerated flaky-style biscuits
1 egg yolk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in a skillet and cook onion, celery and carrots until celery and carrots are tender, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in peas, parsley, thyme and flour; cook, stirring constantly until flour coats the vegetables and begins to fry, about 5 minutes. Whisk in chicken broth and cream; cook until sauce is thick and bubbling. Season to taste with salt and pepper; mix in the chicken meat. Transfer meat mixture into a 2-quart baking dish. Arrange biscuits on top of the filling. In small bowl, beat egg yolk with water; brush on biscuits. Bake until biscuits are golden brown and pie filling is bubbling, 20 to 25 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.
(‚ÄúBach‚Äôs Lunch: Cleveland Orchestra Cookbook‚ÄĚ)
Tuna fish salad, for 4
1 cup Swiss cheese, cubed
4 toasted sandwich buns
Add Swiss cheese to the tuna salad. Fill buns. Place bun on a square of heavy-duty aluminum foil and wrap securely. Heat in the oven at 325 degrees for about 30 minutes until cheese melts. Serve with pickles and chips
BROWN COW FLOAT
2 tablespoons chocolate syrup
2 scoops vanilla ice cream
Chocolate sprinkles, optional
Place chocolate syrup and ice cream in a tall glass. Fill with root beer. Top with whipped cream and sprinkles. Serve immediately with a straw and long spoon.
BLUE PLATE SPECIAL
1 (7 ounce) package macaroni and cheese plus ingredients
1 pound ground beef
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 (10-ounce) can onion soup
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare the macaroni and cheese according to package directions. Brown the ground beef with the garlic in a skillet over medium heat, stirring until beef is crumbly; drain. Add the soup and prepared macaroni and cheese; mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon mixture into a 1-quart casserole. Bake for 30 minutes. Makes 4 servings.