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Diners in my dreams

Meredith L. Cohen

Earlier this week I woke up in the middle of the night craving a Monte Cristo sandwich. I settled instead for a clementine orange after assessing the contents of the kitchen and seeing none of the necessary ingredients. While in mid-peel, I was thinking what a shame it is that people living in Rocky Mountain hamlets have no way to enjoy the delicious convenience of 24-hour diners unless vacationing in sea-level metropolitan areas. Diners, of course, exist west of the Mississippi, although not all diners are created equal. There’s nothing quite like the Greek diners of Manhattan. To the best of my knowledge, no single-family Onassis-like empire dominates the New York diner market. But like Korean women have a monopoly on nail salons and Russians the waxing parlors, people of Greek descent operate most, if not all, 24-hour diners in New York City.If a diner is as it’s supposed to be, the walls are lined with floor-to-ceiling smoky mirrors, the booths are narrow, plastic and stiff and the tables forever feel sticky from pancake syrup that stubbornly refuses to be wiped off with a wet, dirty rag. The really good diners feature individual jukeboxes at each table. For a quarter, Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” Debby Boone’s “You Light up My Life,” Hanson’s “Mmmbop” or Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” can be heard while drinking cloudy ice water out of a mustard yellow glass. The spaces in front of the counter seats are always lined with cake plates full of individual boxes of Rice Krispies, Raisin Bran and Corn Flakes and muffins and croissants as large as Bill O’Reilly’s ego. While the culinary merit of only a couple of dishes other than grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries are fit for judgment, the variety of options in the 15 to 20 page deep menus is still appreciated as its own kind of modern marvel. Meals available year round at any hour range from Belgian waffles to Asian bok choy salads to osso buco to fettuccine alfredo to chicken tikka masala to broiled stuffed squid. I don’t know anyone who’s ever ordered the porterhouse for two and I’d be curious to know if the shrimp remoulade is even in stock at all times, yet somehow it’s comforting to know that options exist at 3 a.m. on Tuesday should the overwhelming urge to eat stuffed clams arise. I vacationed in Greece in college and not once was I offered soup of any kind. But next to my mom’s, Greek diners serve up the best matzoh ball soup west of Eastern Europe. Most diners in New York offer pea soup on Thursdays. And for those with a taste for melted cheese in non-grilled sandwich form, French onion soup is almost always on the menu. Ordering soup for delivery from a Greek diner assures that stainless steel utensils won’t be needed at home for a month since take-out bags are always chock full of plastic spoons (and enough saltine crackers to satisfy even a pre-stomach-stapled Star Jones).Forgetting that Manhattan is roughly 300 miles from Maine, live lobsters are also a diner staple. An algae-laden tank teeming with black crustaceans adorns a trophy spot in the dining room, each lobster most probably dreading the moment it’ll be chosen to occupy its half of a surf-n-turf platter. For the health conscious, Greek diners always make a diet platter available. There’s no variation: A freshly opened canned of mixed fruit rests atop a scoop of room temperature whole milk cottage cheese which is unceremoniously positioned on a bed of wilted iceberg lettuce.The only other safe menu bets beside fried mozzarella sticks and hot dogs are generally anything Greek – souvlaki, gyros and anything with tsatziki and stuffed grape leaves – or breakfast-related. It’s hard to screw up eggs (any style), French toast and pancakes, although blueberry pancakes are iffy since most diners dump blueberry pie filling on the plate instead of putting actual berries in the batter. It’s also wise to avoid oatmeal unless armed with the knowledge that the gritty bits mixed in with the cereal are there because the same pot has been used for at least a generation without ever seeing the inside of a sink.No New York Greek diner is complete without a sparkling showcase of desserts that look as if they were shipped directly from Willy Wonka’s factory. Forget that the pages of this newspaper are tastier than the assorted cakes, pies and cookies offered – it’s enough to just look at the glittering lights shining on the pastries as they twirl around in the revolving glass cabinet and fantasize about sugar plum fairies, chocolate waterfalls and everlasting gobstoppers. The only universally edible diner dessert is rice pudding.Anyone who forgoes dessert can still choose to satisfy a sweet tooth while paying the check at the register by the front door. A bowl of unwrapped mints is ever-present next to a toothpick dispenser. A spoon sits in the mint dish, presumably a nudge for people who used the rest room at meal’s end who might have forgotten to wash their hands. The mint dishes usually look undisturbed, perhaps a sign that no one actually believes that the spoon ever gets used.Sure, a round-the-clock bus system might be more useful and an all-night pharmacy more practical in a valley where everything except the bars shut down at 9 p.m. during the high season. But where’s the local entrepreneur with fire in his belly or grease on her hands willing to indulge an occasional 4 a.m. turkey club sandwich yen by opening a 24-hour diner? As Woody Allen said in the documentary “Wild Man Blues,” it’s simply reassuring to “know I can get duck won ton soup at four in the morning; of course, I don’t get it because who wants duck won ton soup at four in the morning?”Meredith Cohen doesn’t understand why the sugary joy of black and white cookies is limited to the northeast. Questions or comments may be e-mailed to meredith_cohen@hotmail.com


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