SALT LAKE CITY — I stopped for breakfast the other day at one of the chain restaurants that populate the freeway offramps in most cities. The décor was generically pleasant. The surroundings were clean and sanitary and the food was predictably adequate. The service was fast, efficient and the whole place felt somehow bland and soulless. I sat down isolated from my fellow diners, in the gleaming high-backed booth.
I couldn’t help but contemplate how very different the experience had been in the local diner in the small town where I grew up.
There was a time when nearly every neighborhood and small town had a local café. In many cases these establishments were family owned and operated by multiple generations. Equally, they were patronized by generations of the same local families.
With their history often going back three, four and sometimes five wars, the very furnishings witnessed over the years earnest debate on the great events of the day — the Lindberg kidnapping and the Hindenburg disaster, the Kennedy assassination and the Nixon resignation, Dec. 7 and 9/11.
But even more often the discussion centered on the innocent gossip of a community coupled with occasional passionate arguments on some of the most important of the eternal questions. The relative merits of Fords or Chevys and the wonders of baseball.
As you entered, a small bell affixed to the door would ring. The dining room was open and everyone could see and be seen. The booths were low backed, perfect for turning to talk to the table behind you. The preferred seating was often a stool at the counter.
You entered not just an eatery but more often the egalitarian heart of a neighborhood or small town.
You entered not just an eatery but more often the egalitarian heart of a neighborhood or small town. The waitress knew your name and often what you wanted to eat as well. Having a “usual” had deep and far- reaching social implications. It meant, at once, that you were known, accepted, appreciated, respected and a part of the community — one of us, not one of them.
The atmosphere was at once loud and boisterous and warm and inviting. The feel was more that of a large family meal than a restaurant. You could add to this the marvelous aroma; the very walls were imbued with a heavenly fragrance. It was composed equally of bacon on the grill, fresh brewing coffee and baking bread — a sensory trifecta of the world’s great odors. Only wood smoke was missing to complete the trip to olfactory Nirvana.
The food quality in these places almost invariably was outstanding and reminiscent of what the local moms would put on the table. The menu, diner fare, was simple and reflective of the ethnic background of the owners and the area — a low-cost gastronomic journey to any number of places in the world.
My fondness for these diners is colored by my childhood memories. Sadly, the one in my memory is gone. It was a victim, it would seem, of our need for bigger, brighter and more elaborate. However, these places still remain, if you are willing to look. Get away from the freeway offramp and ask the local folks where they eat; the results will amaze you.
Now I seek out local diners wherever I go, and when I find one of these gems, I stop and experience a meal. I find a corner booth and quietly watch the gentle rhythms of life and community play themselves out — and I smile … and remember.
Guy Bliesner is a longtime educator, having taught and coached tennis and swimming. He is school safety and security administrator for the Bonneville School District in Idaho Falls, Idaho.