When you come from New Jersey, you know exactly what it means to go to diner. Not just the food or the atmosphere to expect, but what it means– especially a 24-Hour Diner.
This morning, I was walking around Southeast Portland and found myself craving diner food. More than that, I was craving the diner vibe that I thought I’d left behind on the East Coast. Food doesn’t have to be the best or fanciest or prettiest plate in existence for it to be the best food for that moment.
Diners, especially 24-hour diners and especially those in New Jersey, are some of my favorite liminal spaces. Those are places of movement and transition- the places between other places. You can think of train stations, bus stops, airports, and hallways the same way. Time feels like it moves differently in them, and they feel positively creepy if they are empty or deserted. Those places are meant to be humming with activity and packed with people going through them. It feels… wrong for them to be empty or quiet.
Restaurants may or may not fall into the same category. An empty restaurant feels like it’s holding its breath, waiting for guests to arrive and give the tables, the kitchen, the tools, all of it purpose. An empty restaurant is held in stasis, waiting patiently to live again.
Diners just feel like they have different rules. Busy feels right. Quiet feels right. Busy everywhere but quiet at your table feels right. The food always feels the same. The menu always feels the same. It sounds and smells the same. The stasis IS living for good diners, and it wraps around the hungry, tired soul like a weighted blanket. The averageness and mediocrity is soothing here- giving you food and a place to breathe and sit while you decide what to do next.
You might have finished a late shift, been crawling home from a closing bar and needed to sober up, or just had a fight with your partner and can’t bear to go home just yet. You need to pause and decide what to do next. You need a place where time stops.
I wasn’t in quite such dire straits this morning. No hangover, a windy but sunny day. I’d woken up early, exercised, and walked the 40 minutes to an appointment. I’d been discussing my own flavor of “creature comforts” earlier- the simple, Hobbity kind I indulge in, and the feeling I get from sitting in my rocking chair with jazz playing, books in easy reach, and a decanter of whiskey and a small glass on hand.
“This is living. This is being. All is well. For now, the world is right.”
What I was was curious. I’d walked past Tom’s Restaurant on Division countless times and, from the breakfast special advertised in the window, I gathered it was very much like the diners I knew back home. I was never hungry enough, or curious enough, to stop in though. I’d regarded it as landmark and landscape. “There’s the diner.” There were almost always people at the tables outside the bar it ran next door, too. “Tom’s Bar” was somewhere between the “dive” and “watering hole” genres of bar I constructed in my head. Locals went there- there were big screens for sports I didn’t watch, pool tables, pinball machines, and- per their window sign- “nice-ass carpet.”
I was not feeling beer and pool though. I wasn’t even especially hungry yet- but what I was feeling was the gastronomic equivalent of a rocking chair. It had been a good morning after a busy week, and what I wanted most was “just a bite” and a place to maybe read a book for a while.
I sat myself, and the waitresses took their time noticing and getting around to bringing me a menu. I didn’t mind- I was soaking up the booths. The old signs and light fixtures. The veneered tabletops, local artwork, and mural of one of Portlands many bridges.
The menu was everything I remembered and wanted- Americana diner staples, steaks, meatloaf, various plates by number, omelettes with quirky names, and a hefty splash of Greek cuisine. That was especially pleasing- the majority of Jersey diners are Greek-owned, and you’re as likely to find gyro, spanakopita, and souvlaki as cheeseburgers and chicken-fried steaks.
I plumped for the ”Tomlette”- a three-egg omelette packed with onions, tomatoes, and gyro meat (to which the waitress thoughtfully added feta cheese. “It’s so good with feta, I don’t know why they don’t just put it on! Every other Greek dish has it.”) Accompanying this was two 6-inch buttermilk pancakes with soft, whipped butter and “pancake syrup”- a substance that is to maple syrup what fruit cocktail is to produce from a farmers market. Almost. Washing it all down was black tea- delivered as one bag of Lipton in a 3-cup pot.
It was all perfect. I opened a book and read in blissful silence as the I disassembled the pancake stack and put butter between the pancakes (but going easy on the syrup.) The omelette fluffed and fell apart under the edge of my fork as I made my way through both it and M.F.K. Fishers favorite memories of eating snails in Dijon, France. Chunks of tomato fell out, and I speared them with bits of gyro meat as Fisher discussed the decadence of Roman feasts that would make you and I queasy.
Time was still. I was there with my food and book in the springtime sun, the memories and mediocrity wrapping around me like the arms of an old friend.
I paid by bill and tipped well. As soon as I stepped out on to the sidewalk, I could feel time start up again. People chattered. Cars and busses zoomed past. I realized I wanted to keep walking and find somewhere to write- a cafe or bar or something.I
I could have done that over brunch, of course… but diners aren’t for working for me. They are for stasis. For pausing, and waiting in comfort to decide “where to from here?”
The food was okay, and okay was exactly what I wanted.