Breakfast at a different diner

A few people have asked when if ever I’ll return to 'Breakfast at the Diner'. Haven’t written about any breakfasts in months, because I’m lazy and disorganized and all my 'diner notes' are in the margins of twenty different old issues of The New Yorker. I still eat at Bob’s Diner, though, once weekly. Or twice in a week, if I’ve been a good kid. There will be more diner stories, I promise.

Meanwhile, here’s my dilemma this weekend: Bob’s was closed for Christmas, and I knew that was coming, but they’re also closed today — the day after Christmas. They’ve never done that to me before. 

I'm hungry and stubborn, and want a greasy, bad-for-me breakfast. There’s another diner I’ve driven past many times on my way to Bob's, and its website says it's open. The name of the place is unpronounceable to me, which is the third reason I’ve never eaten there. Second reason? It’s in a 'trendy' neighborhood, with expensive houses and required nose piercings and all. First reason? Why the hell would I eat anyplace else, instead of Bob’s Diner?

Because Bob’s is closed, I sigh and lower my expectations. The Unpronounceable Café is less than a mile from home, and I could walk there if I wasn’t a lazy fat fart, but I'm driving.

They open at 7:00, and I arrive a few minutes after. The place is dark, though, and nobody’s inside. Maybe they've changed their minds and they're not open today? Still stubborn and hungry, I park and wait and watch. After a few minutes someone walks toward the door, turns a key and steps inside. It's 7:11. Soon, someone else walks in. At 7:19 the neon 'open' sign flickers on, and I walk toward the door.

It’s been maybe two years since I’ve eaten at any diner but Bob’s, and I’m borderline nervous as I walk toward the door of this place. It feels like a first date — how crazy is that? I won’t know the protocol and nomenclature, won’t know what’s good on the menu and what sucks, and I might sit in a seat 'owned' by one of the regulars.

For as long as I’ve been alive, there’s been a voice in my head criticizing and second-guessing most everything I do, but I tell my head to shut the hell up, and open the door.

It’s just a diner, of course, and doesn't look much different than Bob’s. It’s old, but recently remodeled, I suspect. There’s a long counter like I like, stretching all the way to the back, and nobody's there so I beeline to the end of the counter, my preferred seat at Bob’s or any diner. Out of habit as I’m walking past I say “Good morning” to a guy filling sugar shakers behind the counter. He’s young-looking, eyebrow- and ear-pierced, and he looks at me but doesn’t reply.

The last few seats at the counter are already taken, sort of — not by customers but by somebody's jacket on a stool, and an open can of Coke on the counter. I therefore take the third from the last seat, glance at a menu and quickly decide what I want. The menu goes down flat on the counter, which should signal that I’m ready to order. Some coffee would be nice, too, but nobody's offered.

I look around, and other than being ignored, it seems like a nice place. There's a warm vibe. Lots of dark wood, and it’s real, not fake paneling. Several booths are behind me, with high wooden walls separating them. Toward the front windows, there’s a section dedicated to unicorn art, which seems an odd design choice. Gay regulars, I decide. Or tween girls.

And there’s music, almost but not quite too loud. It’s a boy-band of exactly the sort I can’t stand, where the singer’s voice keeps cracking so he sounds like he’s 13 and about to burst into tears. I grimace, wait, and read my magazine.

I'm the only customer. There are three employees, maybe four, all working at doing whatever, and they seem to be the same person — white, 20-something, black shirts under red aprons, short hair, pierced brows and ears. They’re too busy to notice me, but after a minute or so one of them stops and asks if I want coffee.

“Yes,” I say, “with cream, please.”

He pours the coffee without further dialogue, and I pour the cream. I’m not a connoisseur but the coffee is a bit too bitter. There's heavy worker traffic on the other side of the counter, and I’m impressed that all these identical guys never collide or stumble as they pirouette around each other. Eventually, a few more customers come in.

“Are you ready for a morning dose of deliciousness?” says a voice on the other side of the counter. Are you talkin’ to me, I think, with that ridiculous line? The guy seems to be smiling under his mask, so I smile under mine. I order one of their skillets, which promises to be a concoction of hash browns and ham and onions and peppers, topped with a couple of eggs. The waiter takes notes and takes off.

The crybaby music fades and Pink Floyd comes on, a major improvement. I take another look around the place, and notice a blackboard full of amusing doodles, and several empty plates somehow stuck to the wall as if they’re art. They are art, I decide, but I haven't decided whether it's art I like. I'll decide after the deliciousness.

One of the workers comes out of the kitchen, just for long enough to glance at the old-style sound system and touch a button. Dark Side of the Moon is abruptly amputated. Man, I love that album, but instead we get rap.

A family comes in, 30-something white dad and black mom with two brown kids, and they settle into a booth behind me. United Colors of Benetton, I think to myself, and then chide myself for thinking it. A couple of young, handsome studs step inside, and seat themselves near the unicorns. A young white man, alone, takes a booth, and I guess nobody but me wants to sit at the counter. And nobody but me has even a hint of gray hair. They're all under 30, and Logan's Run reruns across my mind.

With the employees crisscrossing behind the counter in front of me, I’m more vigilant than usual about my mask, pulling it down to my chin for every sip of coffee, then sliding it back over my face.

The rap ends, and something vaguely country starts. The restaurant has its own mix tape, apparently, and so far it’s a good mix.

I read my magazine and take 'diner notes' like I always do, but only about the waiters and the walls and the music, which drowns out anything from the booths. That's why there’s no conversation to overhear and stenograph. Instead of eavesdropping I look around the place again. Nothing’s changed since the last time I looked around.

The menu says it's a bottomless cup of coffee, but there seem to be no refills unless you ask. I ask, and one of the masked flying workers pauses, sighs loudly, and pours, then rejoins the hubbub behind the counter. It's unclear what they're doing, but they're doing lots of it. The second cup is as unpleasant as the first, but it’s coffee.

Breakfast comes, and it is ugly. The eggs on top look indifferent somehow, and the hash browns and meat and veggies mixed and fried underneath are mushy and gray. The eggs taste good, but most of breakfast will be what's underneath, which is moist and bland and maybe undercooked. By pouring on pepper and more salt than my doc wants me to have, it becomes palatable, though.

The toast is fine, and made with thicker, better bread than Bob’s uses. The silverware is heavier, and so is the plate. When the potatoes I’ve over-peppered make my nose drip, I pull a paper napkin from the dispenser, and it’s three times the thickness of the napkins at Bob’s. The prices are a few bucks higher, but not alarming. Ain’t heard the wait staff call anyone 'honey', though. And I'd like more coffee.

While I’m eating and up-and-down-masking, the music continues. Thin Lizzy, Metallica, Arctic Monkeys, Green Day, Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Willie Nelson, and another rap song, this one explicit, with fucks and shits and n-words.

A few minutes later, during a song by Phoebe Snow, a guy in one of the booths behind me is on the phone, talking too loud and using similarly offensive-to-Tipper-Gore phraseology. One of the cloned workers taps his shoulder and whispers in his ear, presumably something like, 'Watch your language'. The customer says sorry, and says no more fucks or shits. Explicit language is only allowed on the sound system, not from the customers.

More people come in, and it's getting busy. Others finally sit at the counter. Everyone seems to be armed with smart phones, and several are talking on them. I'm the only person reading off paper. Other than me, the oldest-looking customer is half my age, and looks like a grad student from the University.

My coffee cup is empty, but “Excuse me” gets nothing, so I bang the mug on the counter, gently at first, then louder, in rhythm with Living Colour. More coffee appears, and the man pouring says, “Sorry," and "Is your breakfast OK, sir?” The last word is slightly dragged out, and the implication is 'grandpa' instead of 'sir'.

“Yes it is,” I answer honestly. Breakfast is OK, and only OK. The deliciousness never came, but the fried mishmosh of potatoes and other stuff was good, once seasoned. I ate all of it, and wish there was more. Overall, that’s what I’d say about the Unpronounceable, too — wish there was more. More of what, I'm not sure, but something's not there.

It’s never really about the breakfast, you know. There are countless places, even in a small city like Madison, where you can find a good breakfast, and even at Bob’s sometimes the food isn’t interstellar. It’s more about the intangibles, than what’s on the plate.

Maybe the Unpronounceable Café has the intangibles, same as Bob’s. It would take a dozen breakfasts to know, though, and there's no way I’m eating a dozen breakfasts at that place.

I'm a grumpy old man who lives alone and has few friends — basically a hermit. Once a week I have breakfast at my favorite diner. Most weeks it's my only in-person interaction with other humans, which is not my strong suit.

Yeah, I'm aware of the coronavirus, so I go to the diner at dawn, before it gets busy. I wash my hands before and after, cough into my elbow, spray Lysol on my food, pay at my plate, tell the waitress to keep the change, and hold my breath while leaving until I'm outside. It's a little more dangerous than staying at home, but life would suck without breakfast at the diner, so get off my lawn.

And remember, decent people leave a generous tip.

Breakfast at the Diner  

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  1. I have zero restaurants of any sort within about 12 minutes of where I live, by car. But within 15 minutes, I have three excellent true diners. A little longer will expand the list to about 10. When I was in Madison, we went to some non-Bob's diner. And yeah, that was... two winters ago? I think? Yeah, pre-covid.

    1. So you can't ever call out for Chinese delivered?

      Pretty sure that breakfast with you was my last non-Bob's, until today. Always liked the main waitress there, but the pancakes tasted weird more than once.

  2. No, not one thing delivers, not even Domino's. Considering the boom in Ubereats and Doordash, it's conceivable that it could happen nowadays, but I ain't paying that kinda money.

    1. Sounds sucky, dude. Want me to mail you an omelet next time I'm at the diner?

    2. I'd prefer eggs Benedict, thank you very much.


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