They used to be all over the place: dotted through the neighborhoods as prolific as the corner grocer, confectionery, and drugstore. They were scattered along highways like Route 66 and Route 40. All the fast food
places were patterned after them. McDonalds used to be one. There were two of them close by where I lived: Ann’s and Dixie’s. They were small, with only two or three booths along the wall and a countertop. You could almost tell how good the food was going to be by the amount of grease on the cook’s apron. And he would wipe your spoon on it if you asked him to. It was the place lunch ladies went to retire, bringing with them their pink shirts and white aprons and the mole on their chins.
You could get a hand-pattied burger there, sometimes put underneath a press, sometimes cooked on a bed of onions. The toasted side of the bun offered some protection, but in the end the bun was always soaked with grease. And then there was the chili. The chili, like its venerable counterpart, Chop Suey, was the waste collector. All the little bits of beef or burger that were to small or burnt to serve. Add some spices and some beans and you were ready to pour it on anything. There always seemed to be a good share of characters on the customer side of the counter too. The chain-smoking lady with the stained fingertips sipping her coffee, or the old man reading the newspaper and talking to himself. Of course we’re talking about the American Diner.
A “true” diner is a prefabricated structure that is built at an assembly site and then transported to a permanent location to serve food. The word “diner” is a derivative of “dining car.” Decommissioned railroad cars or trolleys were often converted into diners by those who couldn’t afford to purchase a new one. Here are a few of the best ones in St. Louis:
Courtesy Diner 1121 Hampton. (314) 644-2600 This is a newer version of the old one that sat at the same location for many years. The new equipment shines better and the checkered floors are cleaner, but the comfort food hasn’t changed. The bacon and egg breakfasts here are classic American and the pancake stacks are superb. One thing you might want to do if you are planning a trip to the Courtesy: starve yourself for a couple of days and then order a Slinger. A Slinger is a fat and calorie toxic heap of meats, beans, and cheeses, sometimes mixed with eggs. Sure to send those cholesterol numbers soaring and the taste buds hopping.
Eat-Rite Diner 622 Choteau. (314) 621-9621 The slogan here is: “Eat-Rite or Don’t Eat At All.” And if it’s three o’clock in the morning, you’ll probably take their word for it. Unlike Courtesy, Eat-Rite has counter seating only. With six hamburgers for only $4.50, or a Slinger with crumbled hamburger, sausage and bacon or a T-Bone steak for $6.95, you may want to get a to-go order and take it home instead.
Tiffany’s 7402 Manchester. (314) 644-0929 Tiffany’s, (and a whole block of business next to it) almost fell to the wrecking ball recently when a developer wanted to use eminent domain to build a shopping center. Neighborhood residents went up in arms and circulated a petition and posted signs all over the area, finally forcing city hall to back down. Tiffany’s is one of the smallest eateries that I have ever been to, but it packs a powerful punch to the square inch. Omelets are under five bucks and a burger Slinger will run you about $1.50 to $2.95. If you sit at the counter you WILL be engaged in conversation and make new friends, you simply have no other choice.
White Knight Diner 1801 Olive. (314) 772-6100 Now known as the Super Sandwich Shop. Pretty standard diner fare, but the interesting thing about this place is it was the scene of the movie “White Palace” starring Susan Sarandon. The production company decided to film there when the local White Castle chain refused to accommodate them.