leave your inhibitions at the door
There are some things we all need to live a content and comfortable life: Someone who loves you (even if it is just your mom). Cozy bedding that coaxes uninterrupted sleep. A favorite pair of faded blue jeans. And finally, a great neighborhood diner where everyone knows your name—or if not, at least calls you hon.
I’ve been thinking about writing a post about my favorite regular diner for a while, but what inspired me to finally curl up on the sofa and do it tonight after a very long day was this snarky statement I just read in a blog post by The Hedonist about me elevating “food snobbery to new heights.” Okay, so I can be opinionated . . . but there is a time and place for food snobbery. What The Hedonist and others may not know, is I have a soft spot for neighborhood diners. And when it comes to diners and diner food, food snobbery has no place.
My first affiliation with a neighborhood diner was the Flim Flam restaurant in Northeast Ann Arbor, which closed in 2011 after 40 years in business (the space is now occupied by the Songbird Café). We would go to Flim Flam after middle school let out and spend our allowances on orders of fries and cokes. In high school, I got my first job there as a hostess. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, I seated guests and tried not to slosh coffee on them—even more of a challenge after the occasional high school party, where there just might have been a keg of beer and where minors just might have been served. (Hey, it was the ‘80s, an entirely different era—“Risky Business” and all those John Hughes films weren’t far from the truth). One time while working the cash register at the Flim Flam, I was literally Flim Flammed: some fast talking guy came in asking for change for two $20 bills, and then change for two $10s, confusion ensued and—big shock—the register came up $20 short that day. I guess the “Flim Flam” sign outside was too much for a con man to resist.
Flim Flam had all the great diner food: thick slices of French toast, patty melts and bacon cheeseburgers that my skinny teenage self would wolf down during lunch break, and crisp fries that were neither shoestring nor streak fries but somewhere in between—the perfect diner fry. There was a dessert case filled with slices of pie and delectable chocolate-glazed cream puffs. A perverted line cook named Dino would make those . . . he also made a sport out of calling my name and, as I looked over, vigorously thrusting a pastry bag filled with whipped cream into a puff, searching my face for a reaction as a lewd grin spread across his own. But other than Dino the perv, I have fond memories of my first job, where my paycheck for the weekend was always the exact same amount: $36.
After high school I went to college in California, started a career, got married and had kids, and after nearly 20 years moved back to Ann Arbor for a better quality of life for our young family. After we had a house built in South Ann Arbor, it didn’t take me long to discover our neighborhood diner: Alpha Koney Island in the Oak Valley Centre off Ann Arbor-Saline Road. It’s less than a mile from our house, as your favorite neighborhood diner should be. I’ve been going there with my kids for the past few years on Saturday afternoons, often after skating at the nearby Ann Arbor Ice Cube.
I will tell you what Alpha Koney is not. You won’t find toast made with artisan bread here, or omelets filled with sprouts and avocado and goat cheese, or grass-fed, hand-formed beef burgers on brioche buns. Forget the organic chai tea or the Sumatra roast with responsibly sourced coffee beans. You won’t find a wait staff of fresh-faced, size-zero fraternity kids like the ones that skitter around the chic eateries in downtown Ann Arbor. Nope; the waitresses at Alpha Koney come in all shapes and sizes, some with the sort of weathered faces that suggest they have some interesting life stories to tell—and not the sort of stories one acquires from pledging Delta Gamma.
What you’ll also find at Alpha Koney is consistently good diner food, and a place where you can still get out for under $10 per person. Like a good diner, the waitresses may call you hon. There’s no Dino the perv, thank goodness, but there is a kind elderly man whom the waitresses call Papa who has two jobs: bus the tables, and make the supremely delicious and authentic chocolate milk shakes. You’ll hear the blender whirl for a few moments, and then Papa delivers the shakes in tall soda glasses to the table with a beaming smile. I suspect he loves to do that as much as my kids love drinking them.
That’s not to say I’m not picky about what I eat there. I don’t order the burgers, for instance. These days, it takes a really good burger for it to be worth all that fat and calories, and Alpha Koney’s doesn’t hit that bar for me.
No, the secret to enjoying your regular diner experience is finding something decent and then sticking with it. You know, as in, “I’ll have the usual.” I’ve found two things at Alpha Koney I really like: The Greek salad with grilled chicken, or when I’m in more of a breakfast mood, the egg skillet with spinach.
Nothing trendy with the salad, just a good solid lunch for a reasonable $8.49: mixed romaine and iceberg lettuces, cucumbers, beets, red onion, tomatoes, kalamata olives, peperoncinis, and topped with a piping hot grilled chicken breast. It’s served with a side of Alpha’s warm pita bread, soft and fragrant, cut into four fluffy slices. (As traditions go, my daughter and I always have a deal—I trade her a slice of pita bread for several of her perfect diner fries).
The egg skillets are equally awesome. My favorite is the spinach skillet: two eggs (best poached or over easy) that are served on a mound of hash browns with cooked spinach, crumbled feta, chopped tomatoes and onions. Add a few splashes of Frank’s RedHot sauce and enjoy it with a cup of diner coffee, and you’ve got comfort food at its best.
So am I an opinionated food snob? Yeah, when I’m paying $27 for an entrée, it better damn well live up to its lofty description and trendy preparation. But the neighborhood diners? Leave them alone. Their food doesn’t need to deliver any culinary epiphanies. It just needs to be solidly good, once you know what to order, and a nice warm place to visit for a little, “Hi Hon, you havin’ the usual today?”