Pacifico Reflections - Stainless Steel Equalizer
By Mike McGough
For too many folks, much of what they appreciate about others and themselves is measured by status. Status, whether social, personal, or financial, is difficult to define. Status symbols, things often associated with one's status, are far easier to identify. The clothes we wear and the stores we buy them in, our cars, our houses and the neighborhoods they sit in, vacation sites, and the restaurants we patronize are seen by many as indicators of one's social and financial status. There are any number of businesses ready, willing, and able to provide these status symbols.
There is, however, one business that never has and hopefully never will offer status as part of its stock in trade. The classic American diner, and fortunately there are still plenty of them dotting the American landscape, is a shining reminder that status is indeed vague and often has little to do with true quality. These wonderful stainless steel eateries may be among the last great equalizers we have.
The atmosphere of the typical diner bespeaks the equality with which they address their patrons, as well as their hectic routine. Many of the ornamental trappings associated with other eating establishments are seldom found in diners. A diner is simply a diner, no more or no less.
The design of the typical diner is rather simple. It probably started as a rather small rectangular shell of stainless steel. If the diner did well over the years, one or more additions have more than likely been added. The additions, although usually not of stainless steel, are placed so as to respect and maintain the original diner look. Diners are generally named for the owner, some local landmark, a famous person, or the road they sit along.
The furnishings are functional, durable, and simple. Chrome, vinyl, and Formica dominate. There is typically not a single crystal chandelier in the place, and the only time there are candles on the tables is when the power goes out. No two diner menus are alike. They are instead collections of local specialties that cater to the unique tastes of the hometown crowd, combined with standard diner fare like burgers, fries, chili, and pie.
At many diners it's easy to tell when the owner or the cook has had a new addition to the family. At least for a time the deluxe burger is renamed the "Billyburger," or Thursday's chicken potpie becomes "Sarah's Surprise." The folks who cook at most diners are just that--cooks. They don't call themselves chefs, and they have no time for tall white hats. Instead, you will most often see them wearing a T-shirt and keeping their hair out of the way with a ball cap.
At a typical diner you seat yourself, so there is no one to tip for a better seat. On the other hand, if you frequent a particular diner long enough, you may well end up with your own seat. Parking is usually handled the same way. There are no reserved spaces other than for those with a special need. And it's not unusual to see a brand new Jaguar sitting next to a pickup that has been rusting away since the Nixon years.
Diner food always comes in generous quantities, is never served on Styrofoam, and the only trappings that are plastic are the flowers in the small white vases on the tables. Diner cooks tend to focus on taste not looks. One cook said it best when he said, "If you want to look at something pretty, go over to the park and look at the flowers. If you want something good to eat, sit down and give us your order."
Most diners have a Grandma So-And-So or an Aunt What's-Her-Name who makes nothing but pies. You know the pies, they're so thick you need a yardstick to measure them, and they're so rich you gain two pounds just watching someone else eat a piece.
If you haven't been to a diner in a while, treat yourself and get to one soon. Don't worry too much about how you're dressed, what neighborhood you're coming from, what car or truck you arrive in, or where you vacationed last summer, because it just doesn't matter. And don't go expecting special treatment. You're bound to be disappointed, because you're going to be treated just like everyone else in the place.
Even though status is an important commodity to many, the American diner stands as a shining and successful example of the virtue to be found in the practice of providing equal and unpretentious service to all. If you have never eaten in a diner, or if it has been some time since you have, you are missing a truly unique and pleasant experience.