Monday, August 1, 2011
An Ode to the "Greasy Spoon" Diner
This Fourth of July I was made aware of a great need for these restaurants to be open on holidays and decided to put fingers to keyboard to record my love of diner food by telling you how much I hate the International House of Pancakes.
My Fourth of July began simply: I got off work at 3:30am that morning, went home and made my first large mistake of many, eating half a bowl of left over Pan-burger Partner. You may be thinking something like, "Pan-Burger Partner... what the fuck is that?" and you would be well within your rights. A long time ago, maybe a year or two, I was shopping and stumbled across this interestingly named box of off brand Hamburger Helper. Now, hamburger helper is already a culinary and digestive nightmare... or so I thought. In anticipation of moving to Chicago I was actively trying to empty out every last thing in my pantry which meant the Pan-Burger Partner had to get made. I browned the hamburger, followed the directions, and once it was done cooking allowed for the 8-10 hours of cooling time required before I could eat it. It looked like brown slop. This I was expecting. It tasted like grey and brown slop. Unfortunately it also had a pound of meat in it and my bachelor survival instinct kicked in and I powered through it.
So as I tried to fall asleep in the wee small hours of July 4th my stomach was growing increasingly confused. It didn't recognize exactly what I had given it and I believe it had decided that it would ignore it and hope that whatever it was would go away on its own. This mass of Pan-Burger Partner sat in my stomach like a lump of concrete until six am, where it spent an hour trying to escape by any means necessary. Dehydrated, exhausted, and fully awake having had a very close call with death; choking on my own vomit in my bathroom, I groggily resolved to seek out coffee and a full, hearty, breakfast at a greasy spoon diner. This was my second mistake.
As it was the 4th of July and the same "mom & pop" type people who run really excellent greasy spoon diners are also the exact same demographic who really get excited about blowing up things for America, nothing was open. All of my nearby "go-to" places were closed.
After a lengthy search, I regrettably ended up at IHOP, determined that breakfast would be had. The International House of Pancakes was a chaotic amalgamation of crying children and star-spangled attire. Imagine if everyone at a tea party rally had suddenly gotten food poisoning and were all waiting in a doctor's office, where they happened to serve breakfast. That is what it looked like.
As I was seated my attention was drawn to IHOP's first glaring flaw, their lack of a counter. At good diners there is a counter where one person can sit and eat without feeling awkward about being there alone. On the counter is usually everything one might need, butter, creamer, sugar, coffee stirrers, ketchup, menus, napkins, salt & pepper, etc. My table had none of these things. In fact, were I was seated wasn't so much a table as it was a table/booth hybrid where one side was part of a cushy booth seat that ran along the whole wall, and the other side was a small table with one chair. My options were either take the chair, isolate myself from the rest of the diners, and stare directly out the window, being careful not to make eye contact with the other tables; or to sit in the booth side, effectively placing me within elbow bumping room of the two groups on either side of my lonely island. I chose the chair and perused the menu taking into account my restaurant patron etiquette.
I looked at the menu, decided exactly what I wanted, and folded it neatly on the table and didn't touch it. This is the international symbol for "I want food and I know what I want." Apparently in the International house of Pancakes they do not adhere to my simple international symbol system because I was left to just sit and stare awkwardly out the window for sometime.
After an eternity. Or ten minutes. My waitress bounced over and perkily introduced herself. I felt like death, and naturally conveyed that through my crude body language and dark circles under my eyes. "Can I start you off with something to drink, we have orange juice, milk, tea, soda, lemonade..." she began as if reading from a script. There are very few things that annoy me more than an over peppy waitress. You may say, "Grant, you can't complain that the waitress is TOO nice, what are you, some sort of food Grinch." No, I can complain, because there is definitely a difference between being nice and courteous and being patronizing. Anyways, I cut her off mid speech with, "coffee", and she disappeared before I could mention that I did indeed know what I wanted already.
A good diner never has a peppy, to the point of patronizing, waitress who recites things from memory. The best diner waitress is an older, gristled woman with graying hair and probably a couple of tattoos. She doesn't go out of her way to smile or be overly pleasant, but as soon as she sees your menus are down she promptly asks , "What'll ya have?". From her years of experience she can spot a hungover patron a mile away and immediately keeps things monotone, concise, and to the point. I've been in diners where I merely have to grunt and nod and coffee appears. Another quality of a top of the line diner waitress is her ability to refresh your coffee like a ninja. She doesn't ask you if you need more coffee, she just fills it, sometimes its so quick that you don't even notice until you look down and there is more coffee. It's magical. Never-mind that though, lets get back to hell on earth, the Global Pancake Hovel.
Meanwhile at the Pandemic House of National Cakes I had finally received my coffee. They like to leave a full carafe of coffee on your table to allow you the fun of refilling it yourself. She had delivered it and again disappeared. I poured myself a cup and added my customary two creams and four sugars, and realized I had nothing to stir it with. Normally this is a mild offense, but when you are like me, and you will put as much sugar as you want in your cup until the day diabetes comes to get your leg, then not having something to stir with is agony. The sugar sank to the bottom of my cup and refused to make an appearance, despite my attempts to swirl it vigorously.
I was now a half hour into my visit to the Intolerable House of Ragecakes and had yet to order. Maybe if I broke my cardinal rule and picked the menu back up... sure enough over she walked. "Have you figured out what you want." I resisted the urge to say. "I figured it out half an hour ago when I sat down!" but I instead placed my order. I had carefully selected items that could be made quickly and I never ever order off menu in situations like this. I chose a ham and cheese omelet with a side of biscuits and gravy, figuring that would do the job. She said, "I'll have that right out for you". (a phrase that turned out to be viscous, viscous lies) and had disappeared again before I could mention I had no silverware with which to stir my coffee.
My MacGyver sense kicked in as I finished the first bitter cup. I noticed the thick layer of sugar stuck to the bottom and decided that the best thing to do was to add in more cream and sugar and try to pour the coffee from a great height as to encourage stirring on impact. As you can imagine that ended badly. I managed to flag down a different waitress to ask her for something to stir my coffee with and she informed me that my little booth/table hybrid was not in her jurisdiction. I grabbed a pen out of her apron when she wasn't looking, stirred my coffee and put it back. At long last, I flagged down my own waitress and was granted my very own set of silverware (which I took home with me later as a consolation prize)!
It was now an hour into my grueling excursion at the Universal Flapjack Box (thesauruses are fun!) and up to this point I had been doing my best to ignore the countless people around me who were jabbering on about nothing I cared about. There were kids arguing about who got to eat the last piece of bacon, there were families reminiscing about injuries they'd sustained on previous fourths of July, but the one thing that stood out so vivdly in my mind was one gentlement recounting how "Great Grandpa" couldn't hear so good anymore and responded to everything with a strained "Wha?". Apparently he performed the impersonation of great grandpa rather well, because the other people at his table giggled a little. This was all the encouragement he needed to pepper that into the conversation. Soon nearly everything said at their table was punctuated with a loud "Wha?". Now don't get me wrong, I love making fun of how the elderly can't hear so good. Its damn near my favorite activity after diarrhea and throwing kittens against walls, but this was getting to be too much. With every new "Wha?" I was convinced I was waiting in my own personal hell. And where was my food?
I was now an hour and a half into my stay at the Inter-Continental Kennel of Pan-Fritters and had run out of coffee. 'That's it" I thought to myself, "I'm going to die of hunger here alone in a bad restaurant. I'll never get more coffee. Why didn't I ration it more?" It was about the time when I'd resorted to making a little tower out of the creamer packets when my food suddenly arrived. She dropped the plates off, wished me a "Enjoy your meal sir." and was gone before I could even ask for the check in anticipation of having to wait forever. So I ate. My omelet was cold and unimpressive, the biscuits were good, but the gravy was a bit watery. This meal ended up costing me 18 dollars. Unacceptable.
Let me put that in perspective. I had a marvelous ham and cheese omelet (cooked to order on a buttered skillet) with toast and perfectly cooked hash-browns at Virginia's Roadside Cafe for under six bucks. If they have the nerve to charge ten dollars a plate for breakfast, four dollars for a side, and a dollar for a cup of coffee, then it should be the best GOD DAMN BREAKFAST I HAVE EVER FUCKING EATEN!!
Un-enthused, jittery, and still kind of queasy, I finished my meal and waited for the waitress to come out of hiding so I could ambush her and demand the check. She brought it back and said, "I'll be your cashier whenever you're ready" in that same bright peppy attitude as she turned on her heels, ready to vanish out of sight again. At this point I was rather forceful. "I believe I'm ready now." I said in a tone that would have put Charles Manson on edge. She acted like this was a great imposition, took my credit card, and returned with it a good ten minutes later. Finally, I was on the home stretch. I tipped her three dollars on a 15 dollar ticket but I had some caveats. I made a little arrow indicating that she should turn the slip over and on the back this is what I wrote:
"I want to be perfectly clear, you are one of the worst waitresses I have ever had, this tip is not because you were in any way competent at your job, but because you had to work on the Fourth of July. Please, don't take it as any sort of encouragement to continue your lackluster service."
Finally liberated from my pancake prison, I bolted for the door, silverware jangling in my pocket.