I don't want to go all maudlin here, but what the hell happened to diners? Maybe they do exist still, like endangered pachyderms retreating ever farther into inaccessible forest; you might catch a glimpse of some gleaming, bullet-shaped shadow on blue highways running through Church Hill or Greer's Ferry or Evening Shade. But we're a long way from Tarpley, Texas, now, notwithstanding any armchair chowing with the Food Network. I lift my nose every so often and inhale, catching nary a whiff of hot apple pie à la mode on our Floridian breezes. At the risk of sounding like something out of Prairie Home Companion — what happened to all the places where the coffee was strong, the layer cakes good-looking?
The question's rhetorical; we know what happened. Mom-and-pop diners, with their slim profit margins, couldn't compete with fast-food franchises. Some few have hung on in South Florida or been made over with superkitsch into nostalgia factories. The corporate world has certainly seen the value of the greasy-spoon "concept." But the only real diners thriving these days are in New Jersey. You gotta go visit your folks in Hackensack to get anything like a serious egg cream, much less homemade meatloaf with mashed potatoes and sautéed carrots.
I have our chatty, endearing local historian Clemmer Mayhew to thank for spinning me forcefully around and pointing me in the direction of City Diner, which set up shop — or should I say shoppe — in an old Pizza Hut building on West Palm's Dixie Highway last July. "Oh, it's fabulous," Mayhew said. "You remember Jo; she had a couple of restaurants in Palm Beach. And she has such a following; the whole Palm Beach crowd comes over the bridge to see her."
It's true: Ladies in hats were sliding out of Jaguars in that tatty parking lot the day I showed up for lunch, the same way they were when Jo's chic eatery was on Southern Boulevard or on South County Road. But so were construction workers jumping down from the cabs of gargantua-vehicles and hipsters hopping from Minis. Salesmen were parking their elbows on the countertop while waitresses mopped up crumbs around them, and guys from Jersey were dropping in for pie and coffee, the goods delivered with a flourish and an "Isn't that pretty?"
We thought we recognized all the waitresses, or maybe they just have the kinds of faces we wish we recognized. Not one of them is under 40, and they're as spry, good-humored, and efficient as you could ever hope for. There's also a lanky kid busing tables, a guy with an Eastern European accent mixing milk shakes, and Jo Larkie herself, the matter-of-fact matron with a heart made of penny candy strung together with hairnets and blue ribbons.
Not only has Jo, a spunky woman of meager height and indeterminate age, put together a menu of what's absolutely necessary, from hot fudge sundaes to country fried steak. She's also collected wall-to-wall memorabilia. Larkie's got so much stuff crammed onto shelves, pasted on the ceiling, and arrayed behind the counter that it takes half a dozen visits before you can get a handle on the toy cars and model airplanes, the Elvis photos, the signs for 5-cent orange sodas. One day, we sat under a poster advertising June as Dairy Month, depicting Granny, Ma, and Son beaming around a dinner plate that contained nothing but pats of butter, a wedge of cheese, and a scoop of ice cream — if only every month could be Dairy Month! You can almost hear them saying, Thank God National Cabbage Week is finally over.
Some of the memorabilia works, and some of it doesn't: The '50s TV is turned on, broadcasting a perfectly clear picture, but the big Wurlitzer jukebox at the door is just for show. So are the minijukes on the counter. The massive metal cash register, though, sounds its bell just as clearly as it ever has, popping its drawer out on cue; and the motor on the milk-shake mixer is still strong enough to whip your chocolate malt into a froth. I don't know if the whiskey still made of an oil can and copper tubes would ever turn out any decent hooch — but who needs moonshine when you've got root beer floats?
None of this would matter — not the comforting waitresses or the tall fluted soda glasses, not the spinning chrome counter stools or the black and white tile floors — if the food weren't good. And it isn't good. It's fantastic. My grilled Reuben sandwich ($8.50) had a pile of warm, glossy corned beef stashed along with sauerkraut, sweet Russian dressing, and melted Swiss in perfect proportions between two extra-thick pieces of rye-pumpernickel swirl toast, the toast saturated with buttery juices. That sandwich may be the single best thing I've ever put in my mouth, at least since I was forced to give up my thumb at the age of 8. It had a finish as lingering and pleasurable as expensive wine, and the minute I'd finished, I wished I could do it again.
My mom's grilled ham and cheese ($7.50) was almost its equal — what is it about hot meat and melted cheese on toast that's so damned wonderful? There's a California Reuben too, with turkey and cole slaw (and before scoffers write in to pontificate that turkey and cole slaw do not constitute a "Reuben," I direct you to Jim Rader's excellent etymological discussion at rowlandweb.com/reuben, where you can download an official Reuben Rating Form to critique this and any other Reuben sandwich you care to).
Grilled Philly cheese steaks are on the menu, along with blackened fish sandwiches, a kosher hot dog (with or without chili), a BLT and a PB&J, club sandwiches and roast beef, egg and tuna salad, fish and chips, fried shrimp baskets, and a build-a-burger, where you're invited to doctor your Black Angus beef patty ($7.50) with 50-cent additions. Blue cheese, sautéed peppers, caramelized onion, bacon, whatever. I like the idea of asking for a burger all the way (with all 13 extras — maybe hold the avocado?) just to see what would happen. The cheeseburger I ate for lunch one Sunday when I was nursing a wicked hangover was good but not great, the meat juicy and the bun agreeably soft, although it lacked a certain density of texture. The burger was mushy rather than al dente and a bit underseasoned.
A few other customers that morning seemed to have caught their own version of the Irish flu; they were tucking into serious cures: country fried steak with homemade pepper gravy, meatloaf, steaming bowls of cauliflower apple soup or tomato bisque with "a touch of sherry" (hair of the dog, ya know?). The rest of my party opted for a hot roast turkey open face ($10.95) composed of slices of fowl layered on bread, ladled with gravy, and sided with a pillow of mashed taters; crisp, buttery sautéed carrots; and a dish of cranberry sauce straight from the can. We finished ourselves off with hot apple pie, à la mode, of course. I could quibble with the cardboardy texture of this crust, but the spiced, thin-sliced hot apples inside, scooped up with a dab of cold vanilla ice cream, couldn't be improved. Cakes displayed on glass cake stands — chocolate, lemon, and coconut cream — looked as if they'd been made with real hands, just imperfect enough to be deeply appealing. They tell me the bread pudding is famous.
Things at City Diner were going so well that I was terrified to try the breakfast menu. What if they flubbed the flapjacks? But our French toast, four slabs of thick homemade grilled bread ($7.25), came with honest-to-God real blueberries warmed in their own syrup and sprinkled with powdered sugar. A veggie omelet ($8.50) stuffed with cheddar cheese, broccoli, and spinach had fluffy texture and clear flavors. I had to doctor my grits considerably with butter from a plastic packet, salt, and pepper to get them to taste like they ought to — given a choice, I'll opt for the home fries next time. Let it be said: I'm not one to complain over a dish of grits when my chocolate malt ($4.95) is made from scratch and poured into a tall sundae glass right there at the counter, the metal cup set down alongside so I can provide my own refills. I'm not one to quibble when good Colombian coffee is served hot with plenty of little half-and-half packets and lots of timely refills. Let it be said: A diner with a "famous chicken pot pie" and "my mama's homemade chicken soup" on the menu can be forgiven almost anything, certainly anything so inconsequential as an occasional tough pie crust.