May 6, 2024

By Arthur H. Gunther III

     A few decades back, small diners in my part of the world in lower New York State  were known for affordable, tasty, homemade food served by owners and their staff who were family, especially for the regular customers. The diners were homes away from home. And they were small theater for the characters within.

     We have larger diners today, more like restaurants. Some do have a family atmosphere, but it is difficult to beat the small, “regular-guy” diners of old.

      Each diner — Hogan’s, Tiny’s, Sparky’s, etc., often several in every village and town — was small enough — like an old railway dining car — that you were cozy with other patrons but also, if you buried yourself in your newspaper, you could be by yourself. Not unlike the table at home where your siblings might be jabbering away, but you wanted to be lost in your thoughts.

     Our diners, like small-town eateries anywhere and even the intimate ones in cities back when the eateries were just that – simple and inexpensive — knew their customers. Those regulars would be greeted accordingly, usually with voices loud enough so that the rest of us took notice and either said hello or mentally checked off our list that another member of the “family” was in the “house.” Reassurance, again.

     Diners offered further closeness with staff, including the waitress who knew all about you, who had your order placed even before you sat down, who kept a pencil in her hair and a check pad in her apron pocket.

     And there was the grill cook, the fellow at the “flat top,” who had home fries simmering on low heat and who used the full surface to griddle pancakes, eggs over easy, burgers, onions, without burning anything, his hands quick to open up the left-side refrigerator where he took out American cheese or reached overhead to pull bread from the Pullman loaves left by the local commercial bakery, Ramapo or Widman’s. The cook was tight with the customers, some of whom would purposely sit in front of him to watch the man work. One advantage of doing so was that you could fine-tune the time on your eggs. 

     Some of these grill cooks, like others in the old diner industry, were itinerant, and they came for a few months in summer and went south in the winter. But they were as regular as a clock in showing up at the right time.

    The customers were regular, too, in their often quirky ways, as in any family. One fellow I recall stirred his coffee about 15 times after loading it up with five spoons of sugar. Then he banged the spoon on the rim of the green java cup as if to wring out the last drop. Finally, with an “ah,” he began to literally slurp the coffee. Did this each and every time. Did that routine for years. And, funny as it was, it was reassuring to the other regulars in the old diner. Reassuring to him, too.

     In those days, the police chief came in, the mayor, the auto mechanic, the principal. Everyone knew each other or of one another, often going back generations. So there would be nods and small questions, like “How’s the vegetable patch this year, chief?” Overall, it made for trust, especially with the police. They were your neighbors.

     Maybe the world, at least parts of the American world, especially our cities and anonymous suburbs, could use a few of the old diners, their staff, their food, their patrons. They could use reassurance from “family.” 

     The writer is a retired newspaperman. This essay is adapted from an earlier one.