Diners have been shape-shifting lately, as they strive to survive by moving upscale and offering menus more ambitious and expensive than their predecessors. Thus Thai Diner remains spiritually a diner though it offers Thai food; while Soho Diner explores regional American fare, and Golden Diner presents a classic diner menu with Korean, Japanese, and Jewish American flourishes appropriate to its Lower East Side location. Meanwhile, older diners revamp their menus with Mexican and Italian food, while adding various forms of alcohol to their beverage programs. Can you have a cocktail meet-up at a diner these days? Yes, you can!
But behind all these lurks the old diner menus that were developed in the middle of the last century. And you know what? These dishes are every bit as good and soul-satisfying as they ever were.
The classic diner breakfast is two eggs, buttered toast, fried potatoes, and a choice of meats with a bottomless cup of coffee. And no platter is a better test of a diner’s prowess in preparing food. Take the fried eggs — Order them over easy as a test of the fry cook and the white part of the egg must be firm and even crisp around the edges; the yellow must be fluid, so it functions as gravy for the mopping toasts. And if the potatoes are real hash browns made with shredded potatoes — rare these days — all the better.
The classic club sandwich is a joy to behold: three superimposed slices of toast with two fillings, cut into triangular quarters turned upward so they point to heaven. Fresh turkey breast and bacon are the defaults, but some diners (Greenpoint’s Three Decker Diner, for example) have come to specialize in clubs and their variations. The sandwich is especially popular in our area because it was invented in Saratoga Springs, New York, at the racetrack clubhouse in 1894, hence the name.
Diners inevitably add flourishes to what sounds like a simple plate of food focused on a hamburger patty and squishy bun. Usually, in New York City at least, the burger is seared on a flat top or charred on a flame grill. Slices of American cheese get annealed to the bun top and bottom, and the thing is presented in deconstructed form with sliced tomatoes, lettuce, and a pickle poised beside the patty waiting to be assembled. Fries and a small cup of slaw are part of the package.
The tuna melt was by legend invented when a lunch counter cook accidentally tipped a bowl of tuna salad onto a toasted cheese already frying on the flat top. This sounds like bunk to me, since it’s pretty obvious that the tuna melt may have been created as a variation on the patty melt, which was basically how a burger was served at Louis’ Lunch in New Haven before the hamburger bun was invented. Either way, the tuna melt is a deliciously paradoxical combo of hot bread and cheese and cool tuna salad.
Matzo ball soup
It was inevitable that soups would be a distinguishing feature of NYC diners due to the melting pot nature of our cuisine. Thus Manhattan clam chowder and minestrone are common choices, but perhaps the most distinctive is matzo ball soup, a refreshingly simple potage of rich chicken broth with spherical dumplings made from fragmented passover crackers. It’s light enough that you can eat it as a prelude to a gigantic diner entree.
Like the classic diner hamburger, meatloaf derives from German sources, but was more likely to be made with pork and veal back in its European homeland. Here, it’s ground beef all the way, and the distinctive flavor comes from masses of onions that meld with the tallow (beef fat) of cheap ground beef, and the flavor mellows as the meatloaf bakes. Smothered in gravy, and presented with lots of mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables, and extra gravy on the side, the flavor is sublime.
While Greek-owned diners became popular in the 1940s, it wasn’t until decades later that they began incorporating dishes from their homeland, and now things like pork kebabs, moussaka, and especially spanakopita have become standard diner fare. While the spinach is sometimes frozen or canned, both are every bit as good as fresh spinach in their own way, and the feta used in these recipes is unfailingly sharp and salty.
Let’s face it, nothing quite compares with diner pancakes. Whether made from scratch or from a mix, with buttermilk or without, there’s something about the smell of diner coffee in your nostrils, the gleam of formica, the twirl of counter stools, and the morning sunlight streaming in the widows with the view of a busy street, that makes eating pancakes at any time of the day a pleasure.
The proximity of the City of Brotherly Love to New York, and the magnetic attraction of its signature sandwich, has guaranteed they it nearly always appears on diner menus here. And New York cooks feel free to embroider on the formula, sometimes substituting jalapenos for bell peppers, and the result is often twice as delicious.
Apple pie a la mode
Most diners make a big deal of desserts — they realized it was an important profit center long ago, and just count up all the old movies you’ve seen where the characters sit down for just a piece of pie and coffee. In fact, most diners still have refrigerated glass display cases where pies and cakes reside in full view of the patrons, while other types of food are hidden away in kitchens. And now it’s time to make your choice: an icebox pie like coconut or banana cream, or a fruit pie with ice cream?