Carlisle, Pennsylvania, nestled in that sweep of country where the chain gang of American cuisine settled, is not what could be called a diner’s paradise. Like roadside crosses in the Bible Belt, Applebee’s, Chili’s, Red Robin, Olive Garden, Panera, and every iteration of the Chinese Buffet dot the landscape with neon signs and trademarked logos. If it sponsors a commercial with glistening stacks of ribs, steaming bread, oozing chocolate, delightful-seeming, hunger-inducing, mouth-watering, wallet-trimming images on late night TV, you can find it in Carlisle.
Every now and then a gem tumbles through town. A quaint café, an Indian restaurant cum hookah lounge (!), a sushi place. But these wonders come and go, ephemeral delights squashed under the heavy-handed thumb of reliability and seven dollar margaritas. Many of my friends have done their time waitressing at Chili’s or Red Robin, and we’ve been known to indulge in a stack of short ribs from Texas Roadhouse without feeling bad at all, but when I think about where I want to eat when I make the journey back to PA, my first thought is always for the diner.
I did a lot of theater in high school (and I was in band – ok you can make fun of me now). After every performance, the whole cast would go to the Diner for scrambled eggs, buttery toast, French fries, fried mushrooms, bacon, pie piled with whipped cream, omelets, and hash browns. The Diner was for special occasions like that and conversations which just itched to be held late at night – crises of prom dates and friend fights, gossip mongering, life debriefs. Of course, after we left high school, we learned to appreciate a beer or two, and after you’ve had a few beers, any occasion is a special occasion. So now, when we see each other on holidays or opportunely timed visits home, the diner is where we often end up after a round or two at the G-man. Though the conversation topics seem eerily familiar.
Unless you drive a truck, it’s kind of a rule that you can’t go to the diner before midnight or after six in the morning. Diner ambiance is designed to soothe your night-addled brain. A porcelain mug, with rounded edges and a hairline fracture dyed the color of dark coffee. Heavy, white plates. Cream colored walls accented by the same wallpaper that’s in your grandmother’s bathroom, Formica tabletops, vinyl booths, unobtrusive yellow light. If you are still thinking at three in the morning, your brain doesn’t want to think about food in addition to your life’s current calamity. Your brain needs canola oil for frying, butter and jelly, mozzarella sticks and marinara sauce.
The late-night diner phenomenon is not one strictly limited to Carlisle’s diner. Diners everywhere beg to be frequented when your body really needs nothing more than to be in bed. There’s a diner near where I work in New York that serves pancakes with piles of whipped cream and real strawberries, homefries scrambled with peppers and onions, crisp bacon, and eggs sunnyside up. Sometimes I’ll go if I’ve just gotten off the closing shift or after late night wanderings through SoHo with friends. I find their yellow, beveled plastic cups, just like the ones my hometown diner uses, comforting.
I appreciate the diner’s inimitable nature. Its closest cousins can’t compete. Brunch is too crisp and elite, fried chicken too social, breakfast too personal. The diner is intimate and casual, comforting, yet slightly squalid with grease and ketchup. The diner is dining out’s guilty pleasure. Although I won’t say I don’t often dream about a plate of fried mushrooms – a perfectly crisp fried batter and the buttery, earthy umami of mushroom balanced by tart ranch dressing. I don’t even feel guilty.
It soothes me that in diners from North Carolina to New York, I will find the same heavy china, the same waitress with tired eyes but good-natured sass, the same brown plastic dish filled with bite-sized packets of jam. It’s good to know that wherever I am, if I am there at 5 am, there will be cheese grits and sausage patties to sustain me until I manage to make it to my bed. But then again, I could simply lay my head on a fried egg, and that pillow would do just fine.