In Northeastern America there is a little slice of heaven that I shall sorely miss once we are living in Australia, and that is the diner. Diners came into prominence in the early 20th Century, but really took off after the Second World War. Cheap, wholesome food available at a locally owned business close to your home or work was just what the doctor ordered for a booming America. Although some decline has occurred with the growth of fast food chains, the diner has in general remained an American institution. The first diners were often prefabricated affairs clad in stainless steel. Many of these still exist in the Northeast and are open 24 hours a day for lonely insomniacs looking for a good dose of strong coffee in a heavy bone mug, bless them! In addition to unusual but certainly distinctive architecture, a real diner must have specific things to make it genuine, the most important of which is a religious adherence to not altering anything. Countertops, stools, booths, menu, staff uniforms, fake plants, plates, cup, utensils and everything else are usually identical to when the establishment first opened. Oh, they may have been replaced from time to time but the exact model is always maintained.
The Blairstown diner serves breakfast to hungry working men. I know this because my neighbor Tom has been attending these weekday rituals for as long as I can remember, and considering his present age perhaps much longer that he can remember also. In fact, I would wager that Tom would feel that something essential was missing if he didn’t drive downtown every morning, drink some coffee and stand around with the other leathery-wrinkled crowd and harrumph about the weather. It is just part of his day, like putting on your pants before going outside. I love to see this manly version of the sewing circle take place. In the 1980’s and 90’s, another non-local felt similarly. Lou Reed, the heroin- loving lead singer of the Velvet Underground called Blairstown his home for over a decade before drifting back to New York City. He was known for riding his Harley down to the diner and hanging out with the locals. Rumor has it that this period of Lou’s life helped him recover from self destruction and write his 1984 album ”New Sensations.” No more Lou in Blairstown these days, it was back to NYC and drugs in the mid 90’s, but I hear he’s doing well now though.
Blairstown’s other diner breaks many of the conventions previously outlined above. It is not a pre-fabricated building nor is it covered in stainless steel. It is not located on Main Street and is not open 24 hours a day. It does however have incredibly cheap food, long serving staff and décor that has not been altered since Kennedy was President. The Runway Cafe is located at our local airfield and, in addition to serving a small but dedicated band of locals, hosts numerous pilots who fly into Blairstown for breakfast on the weekends. This truly must be the world most expensive bacon and egg sandwich! Like the Blairstown diner, the Runway Cafe also has a patron of some note (we attract the nation’s finest entertainers here in ol’ Blairstown). Apparently Harrison Ford (an enthusiastic pilot) visited regularly until he acquired Calista Flockhart. It seems that Mrs. Ford didn’t like the homey atmosphere and directed her man to fly North-East to the Hamptons for their eggs bennie… (actually that’s a little unfair, I don’t really know that.)
In addition to the great diners of New Jersey, anyone who spends any time in New England is bound to discover their own favorite“grease trap in the rough,” so to speak. One in particular can be found close to the Canadian border in New York State. “Leonard’s Cherry Knoll” sits beside a county road in a backwater town. It is the type of place where farmers drive their tractors straight from the field for their coffee, chat about the cost of corm seed, pinch the waitress’s ass, and generally yuck it up and shoot the shit. John Deere caps and flannel abound, and they serve blueberry pancakes the size of a frisbee. Another diner that should be a stop on anyone’s pilgrimage is Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro, Maine. At Moody’s their specialty is pie, and the recipes descend from Bertha Moody’s originals in the 1930’s. I have never eaten anything else there but pie. Their four berry version with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream is worth selling your new born baby into slavery for.
So why are diners important? They are important because they represent an image of America that is not pre-packaged, pre-produced and the same the whole country over. They are often locally run and reflect the interests and passions of their owners. They cater to locals on an everyday basis, and in doing so have a homey,welcoming quality that makes you feel like you are in your grandmother’s kitchen. They often support local sports teams and after school programs like little league. They are one of the few places where you can still get a homemade, from-scratch (though sometimes a little lard is sautéed with that love) cooked breakfast for less than six dollars. But above all, they are a place that affords the foreigner an opportunity to see a guy pull out his false teeth out before gumming into a plate of bacon and eggs.