Volume XI, Issue 4 ~ January 30 - Februay 5, 2003

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Burton on the Bay

Bring Back More Diners

If there’s a spider in your soup,
it’s probably after the fly.

I don’t know about spiders in soup, but there’s gotta be a fly somewhere in the ointment when I read in the financial pages that McDonald’s posted its first loss, somewhere around several hundred million bucks. How can that be?

The Big Mac factories always seem busy, busier than the numerous other fast food joints. And when you notice the price of Cokes and french fries, not to mention burgers with or without cheese, it’s obvious that the profit margin is more than robust. So how can the chain that hires more teenagers than anyone else in North America (and serves more meals than anyone else) be loosing moola?

Business writers mentioned write-offs, competition, the economy and such; you know, the usual stuff so common in the financial pages. But what caught my eye, within a paragraph or two farther down the page, was the suggestion that our country’s love affair with not just McDonald’s, but all fast food joints, might be cooling a tad.

To me, that was interesting, maybe even promising news.

Diner Days
Mind you, I’ve nothing against McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Popeye’s, Arby’s, KFC, Roy Rogers, Taco Bell, Hardee’s and the rest on the long list of fast-food outlets that also have drive-throughs that make fast even faster. There are times I patronize them, generally because they’ve driven out of business most of the low-brow eateries that once served meals reasonably fast and reasonably priced, offering diners numerous and varied options on what went on real dishes — maybe not bone-china plates, but sturdy enough ceramic.

The knives, forks and spoons might not have been sterling or even silver plate, but they weren’t cheap, flimsy plastic. Salt and pepper was available in shakers, which not infrequently were clogged or slow, but at least the diner didn’t have to tear open several paper packets to finally shake free enough seasoning to spice up a meal. Beverages came in mugs or glasses, not paper cups, and all the place settings other than the plates were already spread out on the table before you.

You didn’t have to wait in line to order at a counter lined with cash registers, nor did you have to carry your chow to an empty table if you could find one — and on the way, stop for any desired condiments and paper napkins. In the old eateries, cloth napkins weren’t the exception. Today if you want something substantial enough to blot the relish from your shirt, you usually have to patronize a high class restaurant or eat at home — and there’s no guarantee the latter has cloth available.

Incidentally, whatever happened to napkin rings assigned to individual family members in the household, each one with his/her own napkin that was changed once or twice a week? That’s off subject; let’s get back to eating out, something that Americans are obviously doing so much more of these days.

If there is lessening interest in fast food joints, does that mean interest is rejuvenating in the old classic little-frill diners or the eateries just a notch above them like the Howard Johnson’s chain of restaurants? In both, you sat down before you ordered from a waitress who came to you, the table was always set with real dishes and cutlery, the water glass quickly filled, the food from more than ample menus that you held in your hand arrived reasonably fast and hot — and you didn’t pay the bill until it was all over.

When you were ready to leave and the last cup of extra coffee (usually served gratis) was gone, you didn’t have to gather up enough crumpled paper wrappers, cups and plates to print a copy or two of the Sunday New York Times, cart it yourself to a big trash can with a swinging door and force it inside amidst the trash left before you.

When you get right down to it, if, as you’re leaving, you look at the prices posted on the wall above the counter and do a bit of quick calculating, it will be obvious that for a full fast-food meal, including dessert and beverage, you’re not saving that much, if anything, above what you’d pay in a diner. You’re getting food fast, but with it more fat and more do-it-yourself participation in the process.

Diner Delights
Is the love affair with fast food outlets cooling? In the past few years, I’ve noticed at least a few more diners. Double T Diners, a local mini-chain, has expanded (one is in Annapolis) and in any of them, the eggs Benedict are hard to beat for breakfast or lunch. Not far from the Burton homestead in Riviera Beach, there’s now a Rock Creek Diner, something akin to a Double T, a sit-down eatery with everything from fish ’n’ chips (real cod filets) to stuffed peppers, steaks if you so desire, or, if you want to go light, hot bean soup or perhaps a bowl of chili.

This writer, for one, misses the old eateries driven out of business by the fast-food joints as busy people sacrificed good calories for fat calories for the sake of a bit of slow-down-and-relax meals. Who can forget the old Howard Johnson’s with the orange roofs before the chain went upscale, then virtually disappeared in this area?

Among the mainstays on the menu were fried clams and Welsh rarebit. Neither would be considered healthy by today’s evaluations, but they had flavor and were on the menu every day. The milkshakes were made of real milk and ice cream of so many tempting flavors, it took as much time to decide which scoops would go into the shake (or for dessert) as it did to choose the entree.

Remember the Welsh rarebit? A simple and inexpensive dish patterned after the meal enjoyed by hunters, primarily of Great Britain, during a midday break afield: a tasty cheese sauce over crackers, though some would choose toast (but not me).

When the last traditional Howard Johnson’s disappeared from this area, sometimes I’d slip home for lunch and make my own rarebit — though I must admit in fast food fashion. I found that a heated can of Campbell’s cheese soup with no water added poured over crackers wasn’t too distant in flavor from the HoJo’s version. To perk it up all one needed was to crumble a few slices of crisply fried bacon atop the cheese.

Deadline Diets
Such was a favorite luncheon snack among old-time newspapermen before the days of three martini interviews. Those who stayed in the office for lunch had another old standby, a half a can of cold stewed tomatoes poured over a bigger portion of chunky cottage cheese, which might not sound appetizing, but give it a try. This was a favorite nightcap (along with a bottle of beer) among reporters who worked the night shifts.

Another favorite of the old gum-shoe reporters who seldom had the time or means for more formal meals on their outside-the-office beats was a lightly toasted peanut butter and bacon sandwich that could fit in the pocket — holding its flavor and freshness — to be eaten in a minute or two on the run if things got too harried on the beat.

Ours was a different version of fast foods: When there was a bit more time, there were the diners, a complete meal in 15 minutes, 20 at the most, and affordable on a reporter’s salary. If we wanted to eat royally, we didn’t go to Burger King. Hamburgers weren’t on our menus, though sometimes hot-dogs with chopped onions, catsup, mustard and relish were — and you can’t find them in fast-food joints of today. Bring back more diners.



Copyright 2003 Bay Weekly
Last updated January 30, 2003 @ 3:13am