Growing up in New Orleans, I have a serious love affair with diners. I won’t even begin with why I love the comfort food delivered from “Diner Heaven.” First, let’s explore the visual of these nostalgic vessels. Sad to say, these 1950’s eateries will soon be extinct so try your best to make a memory at a diner. I personally enjoy the diners located in shady parts of town, the creature features are a dining visual at its best. Diners are a place having a soft glow from neon lights or hanging all year Christmas lights (FYI…dim lights do make you prettier, ya know), signs on the wall of old nude calendar girls modeling vintage cars, tattered bar stools, and a fabulous greasy spoon for people of all ages.
Diners all arrive with their own personalities but each one has a waitstaff (the nicest people will wait on you) who moves graciously behind the counters like Cirque du Soleil. The movements are magical. No one ever bumps into each other, waiters take orders, and most never need a pencil…it is also a dance on a writing pad with hieroglyphics. The cooking station is so incredibly magical, your eyes don’t leave this web of preparation. Unheard of brick-sized, fluffy omelets stuffed with cheese are tossed into the air, do a somersault in the air and tumble smoothly on the flat top to be decorated with crispness. Let’s not forget those burgers, not large but packed with just salt and pepper and a crispness that conceals every drop of juice. They also conduct that nosedive from spatula to griddle swimming into hot, delicious grease.
Expect a while to be seated, always a line and a minimum of 15 people standing in front of you. Be patient. You sit on a barstool and are totally taken care of like a baby in swaddling. You can always ask for a table and I guarantee some spinal issues due to the cement hard seats but you will miss the “Cooking Dance” and the people watching. Order coffee? It’s there on the spot once you halfway finish your first cup. More water? On spot as well. You will always be asked if you need more added to your soon-to-arrive gargantuan portion. If you are a regular at a certain diner, you’ll be treated like the 91st customer.
Here is good news for some. People won’t be looking at their phones. There is actually conversation, great stories, fun talks and at times, a powerhouse of debates. That humanistic touch is back. Plumbers sit next to lawyers, a few homeless sit next to uptown ladies, college students leftover from a party and starving will be animated and impressing their lady of the evening. It’s a performance, why would you pull out your phone! Don’t forget your relationship with the waitstaff…it is all there for you to dive into. Mingle, take in the food with your eyes and wallow in the quantity of food and fair prices.
As a native New Orleanian, I must tell the experience of NOLA diners. The city is already a food mecca so you can imagine the diner scene. The diners are all retro and you will sink your teeth into fresh food straight from your mama’s kitchen. Chicory coffee will be strong and rich for the hangover patrons, Zydeco music will likely play in the background or maybe even Louie Prima. When you eat chicken and biscuits made from the Gods your worries will melt away. Order an omelet with chili on top that covers the entire plate and a chocolate freeze at Camillia Grill, a diner I visited my whole life. Waitstaff have all worked there until they retire. Go to a diner anywhere and think outside the box. Calories? Forget it, we are talking memories here. Have that plate of hash browns covered in shredded cheese alongside the best eggs you ever had.
Every diner has a wisecracking counterman, so take it in, it is all in the spirit of fun. You will experience assorted prize-winning tattoos. Especially in NOLA, you can always sit next to a drag queen in full regalia and tiara who owns major attitude and next to her, a businessman with a Brooks Brothers suit. This is what the world needs now. Diversity, friendship, color-blindness, kindness and food that makes your stomach thank you with such gusto. Diners are signs of life that will soon leave us. Soak in the nostalgia, bask in that dance of pots and pans swirling in the kitchen and have fun on those red bar stools. When you order 2 eggs, grits, hash browns, toast and rich coffee with endless refills and the bill is less than $10.00, please leave a smashing tip. I promise we will miss diners as they become a thing of the past.