Advance notice has suggested there's something luxurious about the build-out of the city's first Denny's, located a stone's throw from City Hall on the ground floor of a luxury condo. But it's a false lavishness. With the barroom squeezed right inside the front door, there's not nearly enough space to wait for your table, and the place feels cramped at the outset as employees — clad head-to-toe in East Village black — hurry in every direction.
But once deeper inside, you'll find there's plenty of room in the two brick-clad dining rooms. The only decoration to speak of is little groupings of small photos, some depicting New York, others not. An unacknowledged Berenice Abbott photo was spotted among them, but there's virtually no photo editing going on. Nearly all of the people depicted appear to be white.
Which brings us to the 600-pound ghost in the room. Twenty years ago, if you'd asked anyone what Denny's was famous for, "Racism" would have been the answer. Around that time, the company, a nationwide chain based in Spartanburg, South Carolina with over 1400 restaurants, was plagued with lawsuits charging discrimination against African-Americans.
According to a New York Times piece published in 1994, complaints in one lawsuit joined by as many as 100,000 black customers cited refusals on the part of the restaurant to seat them and demands that they pay more for their meals. In one much-publicized case, a group of white secret service agents attached to President Clinton were welcomed in an Annapolis Denny's, while six of their black colleagues were refused admittance. Is this all water under the nearby Brooklyn Bridge, so to speak, and should we forgive Denny's?
The chain takes pains to describe itself as a diner, but the menu will remind you more of an I-Hop. Trying to navigate the 14-page laminated color document will drive you nuts. Half the pages are devoted to breakfasts, many called "slams" or "skillets," heaped up with multiple dishes and running as high at 1470 calories out of a recommended 2000 per day. Each represents a collection that seems to be aimed at the indecisive, and the menu makes it difficult to assemble the kind of simple and cheap egg or pancake breakfasts that New York's real diners are famous for.
Seated near the rear of the upstairs room with a view of construction detritus in a north-facing window, a companion and I began with a breakfast appetizer: Strawberry Pancake Puppies ($2.99), six one-inch, deep-fried orbs of sweet dough, with bright red flecks in the interior. Alongside came a dipping sauce like canned icing. Not bad, but cloyingly sweet.
Though it's possible to put a normal diner breakfast together by ordering from the obscure "Sides" section (two eggs, bacon, hashbrowns, toast, and coffee would cost you $15.14), or by utilizing the "Build Your Own Slam" section (four dishes of your choice for $11.48, plus $2.49 for coffee), human nature draws you to the lavish color pictures of the combo breakfasts, which feature seemingly irrational dish combinations. Typical assortments include the Lumberjack Slam (pancakes, bacon, sausage, ham, eggs, hash browns, and toast) and the All American Slam (three eggs scrambled with cheddar, bacon, sausages, hash browns, and toast).
Some of the odder breakfasts sound literally inedible, such as the Peanut Butter Cup Pancake Breakfast ($9.99): "Chocolate chips and white chocolate chips inside two buttermilk pancakes, topped with hot fudge and drizzled with peanut butter sauce. Served with two eggs and hash browns, plus your choice of two strips of bacon or two sausage links." As it that weren't enough, it also comes with a side of warm syrup. You should save your stomach the trouble by putting the syrup in a syringe and injecting it directly into your arm.
I went for the Philly Cheesesteak Omelette ($12.49), described as "grilled prime rib, fire-roasted bell peppers and onions, sautéed mushrooms and melted Swiss cheese," served with hashbrowns and your choice of toast. The biggest fail was the prime rib. Most would expect Steak-umms, so the rib sounds like a value-added feature. But when a chunk falls out of your omelet, it turns out to be fibrous, rubbery, and nearly devoid of flavor. That prime rib appears over and over in Denny's dishes: despite its length, the menu proves highly redundant.
My fellow diner decided to try something healthy. She picked the "Fit Slam" ($8.99): "Egg whites scrambled together with fresh spinach and grape tomatoes, plus two turkey bacon strips, an English muffin and seasonal fruit," weighing in at 390 calories. The turkey bacon was salty as hell, the fruit serving small, and what a paltry picture the entrée made on the plate! Though she had to request butter for the muffin, she was relatively happy with it.
While we underwent a wait of 15 minutes for a table on Saturday at 11 a.m., when I returned with two other friends for a late lunch on Labor Day, the place was only two-thirds full and we were seated immediately. Concentrating on lunch and dinner fare, we decided on an appetizer called "Build Your Own Sampler," choosing jalapeno bottle caps, onion rings, and chili con queso from a roster of six.
The wait was long and tedious, and when our sampler arrived, so did our three entrees, which seems to defeat the purpose of appetizers. From that point on, every two or three minutes one of the floor managers, dish runners, or waitresses would swing by the table, lean over, and intone, "How are you liking that?" Actually, the queso and chips were good, the onion rings hard as nails, and the jalapeno bottle caps OK. We found everything was better dipped in queso.
The Bourbon Bacon Burger ($10.79) came with cheddar cheese on a cheddar bun that looked diseased. So lengthy was the list of ingredients, the thing proved impossible to eat without a knife and fork. But it was mainly defeated by the sweetness of the bourbon sauce, which seemed inspired by a recent Jack Daniels promotion at a competing chain.
The most successful entrée was the Country Fried Steak ($12.95). The breaded contraption came with two sides, smothered in the kind of pasty white gravy you expect. The steak might have shone, but there was a phantom taste like artificial butter on movie popcorn. The Italian Meatball Lasagna ($11.99) — one of three baked dinner dishes said to be unique to New York City — was dense beyond belief, a thick slurry of meat balls, tomato sauce, sausage, and cheese in which the noodles were nearly lost. Bring your own pasta and you'll have a fine dish for three.
Taken together, the two meals I had at Denny's were not as bad as I'd feared, given the warning from Interstate-traveling friends who'd reported that the chain had declined over the last few years. In fact, the first Manhattan branch seems a bold, publicity-driven attempt to rehabilitate the chain's reputation. Still, given a choice between one of the city's native Greek diners (where, I admit, the food is often mediocre) and a Denny's, I'm more likely to pick the diner.
A side note: the cocktails were pretty good, and, given their size and cost ($10), a relative bargain. The bloody mary went out of its way to be spicy, while the dark and stormy sported planks of candied ginger. Well done, Denny's! Maybe you should just be a bar.
· All posts by Robert Sietsema [~ENY~]