From what I saw on our recent back-roads trip across the country, the United States has not become one homogenized culture from East to West – it only looks that way from the interstates. And though California has harvested much of the best of the East in creating a mix of cuisines, traditions and cultures we call Californian, we did leave a few good things out. One of the missing pieces: the diner.
The classic diner was a castoff railroad diner car, clad in aluminum outside and featuring big windows so that you could monitor passersby, a tiny kitchen, red-vinyl upholstered booths and a red Formica counter trimmed in aluminum, with red-vinyl upholstered stools along the counter. To the joy of children everywhere, the stools could spin. Fortunately, the diner also had waitresses of a certain age, who might be named Edna or Mildred or Gertie, but who could be counted on to tell children (and their parents, too) to stop fooling around and eat their vegetables.
We had breakfast on the day of our East Coast departure at the circa-1950s Avenue Diner. We faced platefuls of eggs, potatoes and bacon that would have daunted a lumberjack. As we leaned back midway, we noticed a buff gray-haired guy in a Marine Corps muscle shirt and steel-studded belt paying for his takeout coffee just over the partition. It was Stephen Lang, the actor who played the villainous Marine colonel in “Avatar,” in town to perform a one-man dramatic show at the local Art Fest. We were starstruck, but the waitresses at the Avenue Diner didn’t miss a beat at having a celebrity stroll in for coffee.
As cast-off railway dining cars became scarce, the diner evolved. It moved in next to the hotel downtown as an inexpensive alternative to the hotel restaurant. It called itself a coffee shop, or even a cafe. On the second day of our trip, we passed up the swank, historically preserved Blennerhassett Hotel dining room and opted for the Crystal Cafe just across the street.
At the Crystal Cafe, breakfast for two came to $13 including tip. The cafe was cheerful and clean, with lots of coffee mugs with regular patrons’ names on them hanging on hooks behind the counter.
In Colorado Springs, we wanted an early start, so we stopped downtown at King’s Chef Diner, touted locally as offering “the best breakfast in the state of Colorado.” I ordered the featured breakfast burrito. “Are you sure you want the sauce?” the waitress asked me anxiously. “It’s pretty spicy.” For a brief second, I thought she was going to overrule me in true diner fashion, but she must have been only a trainee.
By the time the diner reached California, it had mutated, adding sheltered parking, a drive-thru window and even putting the waitresses on roller skates. The drive-ins did well for a while until the national chains muscled in. One by one they have disappeared, to my regret.
Don’t get me wrong. You’ll see me enjoying patio seating at The Village Pantry and Rick’s Cafe and Peet’s and Le Boulanger. But I miss the old Los Altos Coffee Shop with its large windows opening onto the downtown street, even though we often visit its new incarnation at Rancho, which still offers a counter and vinyl-covered booths. It’s been a while since a take-charge waitress reminded me to eat my vegetables.