By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published in 1994 Gourmet Magazine
Clad in shining steel and accoutered in neon and Naugahyde, diners are cheap thrills, American style. Although most are in the urban east, where the handsomest among them were manufactured in the thirties, forties, and fifties, they fit in anywhere you find them, on a crowded street in Queens or along old Route 66 in Winslow, Arizona. Originally designed to be virtually indestructible, as well as movable, they almost never die. Some get resurfaced, are covered by clapboard or shingles and capped with mansard roofs, and masquerade as ordinary restaurants in an apparent effort to disguise the ignominy of their hash-house past.
A few diners simply get picked up and trucked to somewhere else: Such was the fate of America’s best-known diner, Rosie’s, where Nancy Walker starred in dozens of television commercials as a waitress especially adept at soaking up spills with her thirsty paper towels. Rosie’s Farmland Diner started life on the Route 46 traffic circle in Little Ferry, New Jersey, but if you want to enjoy “cackles on a whiskey raft” (eggs on rye toast) or “cat’s eye pudding” (tapioca) at Rosie’s today, you’ll have to go to Rockford, Michigan, where the entire double-width diner, including its indoor colonnade, was moves and restored to gleaming grandeur by sculptor-entrepreneur-restauranteur Jerry Berta in 1990.
Diners are relics. They evoke images of mid-century America, of noisy factory neighborhoods where lunch whistles once blew at noon, of busting warehouse districts thronged with idling long-haul trucks, or turnpikes through no-man’s lands where night owls came to sip mugs of strong coffee and eat wedges of pie as the jukebox plated sad songs and the traffic hummed past outside> Roadside archaeologists treasure pristine diners for their Deco beauty as much as for their romantic connotations of pre-franchise counter culture; and in the last twenty years the diner has been elevated to a national institution. For those of us who enjoyed adventurous eating on the road, however, the question is: Who wants to eat in an institution?
The truth is that most diner chow is bad, and- until the fairly recent revival of interest in humble comfort food cast a sweet, nostalgic light on such fare as meat loaf, pot roast, and hash- diner languished for many years with a reputation as odious greasy spoons frequently by those with cast-iron stomachs. From the first horse-drawn sandwich wagon, operated by one Walter Scott outside the offices of the Providence Journal starting in 1872, the goals of lunch-counter cookery have always been speed and convenience, often at the taste-buds’ expense. The food served by Scott, whom hash-house historians consider to be the Zeus of diners, consisted of sliced rooster sandwiches, ham sandwiches, boiled eggs, and pie, as well as a novelty made of cutting-board scraps that Scott christened the “chewed sandwich.”
There is no sure way of knowing, but Scott’s food, if crude, may not have been all that bad. He baked his own bread and pies and once boasted that no one ever complained about his fowl sandwiches.
As for ambiance, however, diners have always been a walk on the wild side. Most early ones were made from abandoned trolley cars and were known for the shady clientele they attracted. They were actually banned in Buffalo and Atlantic city around the turn of the century because of the disreputable characters they supposedly attracted (probably because of their late-night hours); but around 1915 a manufacturer named Patrick J. “Pop” Tierney went a long way to improving their social standing by adding booths and indoor bathrooms, thus making them fit for ladies as well as gentlemen.
Nevertheless, through the Great Depression and into the 1940s, the diner’s reputation was a citadel of cheap eats and bad manners: The gangster movie Little Caesar (1930) showed Edward G. Robinson plotting his rise to underworld domination while on a diner stool eating a ham sandwich; in Fallen Angel (1945), Linda Darnell, playing a waitress, perfected the arts of snapping gum and sassing customers.
There was always a whiff of after-hours adventure hanging in diners’ Frialator-scented air, which is why Howard Johnson’s was so successful along Eastern highways after World War II: HaJo’s boasted of its strict code of cleanliness, family values, and predictability-qualities lacking in many diners. The status of diners was diminished further as the franchised-fast-food boom that started in the 1950s made them appear old-fashioned: In that progress-worshipped era, anything old-fashioned was despised. Not only was a white-tiled fast-food outlet more modern than a diner, it was faster, cheaper, and— at the insistence of McDonald’s Ray Kroc— unequivocally wholesome. By the end of the 1960s, when well-intentioned highway beautification plans and urban renewal razed so much of the American roadside. Silver dining cars looked all the more out of place and past their time.
Down-home Americana enjoyed a great renaissance in the 1970s (for example, our fascination with Jimmy Carter’s colorful relatives, Smokey and the Bandit, All in the Family, and Laverne and Shirley), and diners were suddenly fashionable as they had never been before. Artist John Baeder did resplendent photo-realist paintings of them. Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1975) became the basis of television’s successful sitcom Alice, set in a diner. The Empire Diner opened in New York City in 1976, pioneering the concept of a diner that is better than a diner (candlelight, tablecloths, wine lists, double-digit prices)> IN 1982, director Barry Levinson made his reputation with the movie Diner, since then scores of diners have opened or reopened all around the country. A few are theme restaurants as well-orchestrated as an attraction at Disney World (waitresses store pencils in their beehive coiffures and serve sloppy joes and black cows), some are esteemed temples of deluxe bistro cookery (Fog City Diner in San Francisco), and many gigantic, ultramodern coffee shops with menus that list literally hundreds of dishes representing most of the cuisines of the civilized world.
O’Rourke’s Diner of Middletown, Connecticut, is, by all appearances, a classic. It is a modest-sized jewel tucked inconspicuously behind the last storefront at the north end of Main Street. Originally trucked up from the Mountain View diner factory in New Jersey in 1946 and now officially recognized as a landmark by the Middletown Historical Society, it features an exterior with a gleaming, pointed “cowcatcher” corner- a design fillip typical of the Mountain View Company, which went out of business in the mid-1950s. Wrapped in bands of steel with columns of glass in bands of steel with columns of glass brick on both sides of the door, O’Rourke’s has been expanded once (total seating capacity now 45), nut it hasn’t been modernized recently. It is worn, worn like a fine old saddle- all the more comfortable and inviting for its years.
Inside, blue and white tiles rim the marble counter; in booths that creaked with age meals and served on unbreakable plastic plates in plate pastel colors; on the counter, near pans of cooling blueberry muffins, newspapers are fanned out for patrons to read. Most of the booths have their own jukeboxes, but the prominent sound is that of conversation among patrons, countermen, and the manager of eight years, Barbara Feegel.
The clientele of O’Rourke’s is an agreeable combination of old-timers, students and faculty from nearby Wesleyan University, well-dressed local professionals, and a healthy smattering of not-so-well-dressed nonprofessionals, too. Some patrons, such as Wesleyan professor J. Seeley, are such steady counter stool that every other regular recognized as theirs, and they may even have a dish named for them. (The J. Seeley Special is an omelet filled with onions, tomatoes, cheese and guacamole. It got named because Seeley is a Southwestern-food fanatic and showed the chef how to make guacamole.)
Proprietor Brian O’Rourke grew up in the diner; his uncle John opened it, and Brian began as a potato peeler in 1958, when he was seven. Arriving every day at 2:30 A.M. (1:30 on weekends) to start breakfast, he is a fanatic about this place of his- about its history and about its current status as a bastion of diner cooking, both classic and modern.
Brian O’Rourke loves to talk about the food he makes. He can regale you with a short thesis about something as simple as large-quantity baking (his repertoire includes Norwegian rye, Portuguese sweet bread, potato bread, pain noir, banana bread, and muffins), and he delights in enumerating the complexities of his deluxe Sunday breakfast, which includes seasonal omelets- “spring grass” (asparagus, Swiss Cheese, and hollandaise), “Just July” (provolone, chopped tomatoes, and pesto)- Southern-style biscuits and gravy, and Irish-soda-bread French toast topped with cream, sabayon, and fruit.
On a May afternoon a few years back O’Rourke enthralled us with a clever story about how he exchanged meal tickets with a local fisherman to get fresh shad and shad roe for his dinner menu. (One weekend last fall, his past du jour featured a wild mushroom, nine varieties, and wine sauce because he was able to barter breakfasts with the local mushroom man.) And when we stopped in recently he explained in mouth watering detail how he made an all-greens soup because he came across a good supply of fresh collards and mustard greens and because the caraway in his garden was ripe for picking; these were combined with kale, sorrel, ricotta, sour cream, and yogurt to create a thick, invigoration brew as hearty as vegetable soup can be.
If you are a regular customer, or even if you are a stranger but express interest in the food, it is likely you will be given something to taste. Brian O’Rourke is an inveterate experimenter who almost always has some new dish he is working on- roasted eggplant soup, broccoli pesto, pumpkin oatmeal pancakes- and he relishes trying out innovations on customers.
J. Seeley, who has been coming to the diner for more than two decades, recalls his first visit after Brian bought the place from his uncle some fourteen years ago. “It was a rainy day, and I was sitting on a stool between two cans that were collecting water leaking from the roof. I ordered split pea soup, and on the side he brought me a little plate with crackers on it. Of all things- homemade crackers, topped with melted cheese. I knew something good was about to happen to this old diner. I became a regular, and now I eat lunch here for or five times a week. I never order anything, though. I just sit down, and something experimental gets put in front of me. I love Brian’s soups, stews, and shepherd’s pies. Of course, I have to test the J. Seeley omelet periodically, just to check. I was worried at first It might taste a little too California, but it’s a good combination.” When we last spoke to J. Seeley, he had just come back from a trip in New Mexico, bringing with him two bushels of fresh chilies that he and Brian then roasted.
“I’ve been doing a lot of drying lately,” Brian told us last September, holding up a quart carton that once contained ricotta cheese but now held chili powder made from hundreds of ground dried golden cayenne peppers. “Here, smell,” he said, opening the top. The aroma was dizzying- sharp, earthy, sunny. “This is a season’s worth,” he said. “All I need is a pinch for my soups or sauces.” Then, even though we had just finished dessert, he brought out a little crock of chili so we could taste. It was zesty and tongue-tingling but not scorchingly hot, with a deep wine savor, its soft shreds of tender beef heaped with grated cheese and onions. Brian watched as we spooned into it and beamed when we polished off the bowl. Clearly this is a man who loves his work. And, let us say after having eaten at )’Rourke’s on and off for the last twenty years, What’s not to love?
Have a good sniff when you enter. If you are a student of dinerology, or if you are in the slightest bit hungry, you are bound to swoon with pleasure. In the morning the air perfumed with the aroma of frying spuds, laced with onions, and of bacon sizzling on the grill. Later in the day the fragrance is less of frying breakfast meats and more of baked hot meat loaf and plated piled high with mashed potatoes, gravy cascading down the fluffy white mountainsides; of split pea soup or bluefish chowder wafting its bouquet of spices into the air as it is whisked into a hungry consumer; and of creamy Cheddar melting.
The cheese is being melted, most likely, for a steamed cheeseburger, hereabout referred to as a steamer. O’Rourke’s is known for steamers, as are about half a dozen other restaurants in central Connecticut; in fact, it was at Jack’s Lunch (now defunct), also on Main Street in Middletown, that hash-house historians believe the first steamer was served. Jack Fitzgerald had started in the food business early in the century with a lunch wagon featuring all kinds of steamed meals, which he sold to local factory workers. When he opened his little café in the 1920s steamed food was considered especially healthful by nutrition-conscious people, who were starting to worry that anything fried was difficult to digest. Popular as Jack’s steamed beef-and-cheese sandwiches were on Main Street, however, they never went the path of Buffalo chicken wings or Chicago deep-dish pizza or Tucson chimichangas. The steamed cheeseburger remained a strictly local obsession; and today, even in Connecticut cities as close as Hartford and New Haven, most people have never heard of it. But in Middletown and Meriden the handful of restaurants that make streamers are doted on by their loyal clientele, and at the VFW booth at the Durham Fair each fall steamers are the main attraction.
What, precisely, is a steamed cheeseburger? It’s a medium-thick burger that has been cooked by steam- in a small metal box made especially for the job- until it is juicy but miraculously grease-free. The meat is topped with an oozing blob of melted Cheddar, which has been prepared in its own separate tray in the steam box. It is set forth upon a fluff-centered hard roll and garnished with thick slices off a crisp raw onion and a schmear of mustard. It is possible to order a steamer with lettuce or mayonnaise, or without the onion and mustard, but, in the diners of central Connecticut, any of these other configurations are considered as serious a faux as asking a waiter at The Russian Tea Room for a bubble pack of syrup to accompany your beluga caviar and blini.
The key to a steamer’s goodness is the cheese. Moderately aged Cheddar is the best: When steamed, it transforms into a lush, pearlescent mass that is just viscous enough to seep into every crevice of the meat below but not so runny it escapes the sandwich (although it will seriously leak- caution, balance, and many napkins are required). In fact, this cheese is so beloved by )’Rourke’s regulars that many people order it on things other than hamburgers. Hot dogs and slabs of meat loaf and plates of fried potatoes get topped with steamed cheese. Some prefer steamed cheese alone in a roll, and the connoisseur’s choice is hot apple pie covered with a thick mantle of it- a marvelous combo.
O’Rourke’s may not have been the first lunch counter to steam cheeseburgers, but in our not-so-humble opinion it is the best place to eat one today. In fact, it is a fine place to eat all sorts of other things, high or low on the food-status chain. Have a meal your way in this venerable establishment: sloppy chili dogs or an elegant smoked salmon croissant, good old chowder or retro-chic “pine-bark stew” (a thick, peppery fish soup), fried fish-and-chips or a “Brian’s best” omelet made with roasted green tomatoes and provolone and accompanied by sweet-potato have fries and potato sourdough bread, a “Black burger” (peppered and blackened and served with andouille Cerole sauce) or a classic steamer. Sometimes Brian O’Rourke likes to make a dowdy Yankee boarding-school classic, American chop suey (a mélange of ground beef, macaroni, and tomato sauce), but at the height of mushroom season last year he was searing up a pan of Suillus americanus mushrooms for his “Wild Thing” omelet.“My only complaint,” J. Seeley says, “is that Brian is always experimenting. Sometimes when he gets too good at something, he loses interest and goes on to something else. His menus are a chronicle of great achievements. I know there are a lot of people in Connecticut who say that O’Rourke’s Diner is an institution, but they are wrong. An institution is always the same. O’Rourke’s is always changing. When you walk in the door, you know there is going to be something new and wonderful to taste.”