Greasy Spoon River Anthology

Sampling the glories of diner cuisine

I was once involved in a slinger affair. It went down like this:

Years ago, I darkened the stoop of my first diner. It was 3 o'clock in the morning, a scurrilous, red-handed hour if ever there was one. Flushed from our watering hole by the heel-nipping bark of closing time, the peers and I sought late-nite sustenance, or, as we blithe young nighthawks liked to call it, "breakfast." Now, a meal that does not follow a snug and restorative snooze is no real breakfast, particularly when its focus is canned chili, but after hoisting one's share of aperitifs, such semantic distinctions seem excessive. Of course, after hoisting one's share of aperitifs, most any distinction seems excessive. In my case, a youthfully injudicious quantity of cheap draft had persuaded me to regard my Camaro-haired date -- who at that moment was challenging a cop to arm-wrestle -- as one of Nature's favorite daughters. It had also caused me to abandon my normally benevolent and nurturing attitude toward my stomach lining. Amid a throng of clamoring drunks, under a penetrating glare and with much convivial slurping of brackish coffee from a chipped mug, I rashly inhaled the contents of my flesh-tone plate: two fried eggs, hash browns and a hamburger patty slopped over with soupy chili. This was that redoubtable configuration of diner foodstuffs known as a "slinger." An hour or two later, this slinger and I, after a brief but poignant reunion in a gas-station lavatory, parted company. Would that parting company with Camaro Hair had been as easy, but I'm saving that story for Jerry Springer.

Well, time heals (nearly) all, so when it came time to write a hard-boiled exposé on the celebrated dish, I thought I might slinger my way across the metropolis, assess the relative merits of several samples and file a report. The scheme would meet with uncertain success.

Lisa (owner), Herb and Wayne at Lisa's Diner, a sterling example of the greasy-spoon breed.
Jennifer Silverberg
Lisa (owner), Herb and Wayne at Lisa's Diner, a sterling example of the greasy-spoon breed.

My first stop was the Hi-Way Bar, a sparkling gem to which I was introduced by Beverly Hacker, station manager of KDHX (88.1 FM) and self-avowed slinger connoisseur. (Yes, there are slinger connoisseurs. I have personally met six of them.) The Hi-Way Bar is a tavern on the edge of Soulard, where 13th Street melts into the brewery. Like all proper South Side taverns, it has always been there and is owned by a couple named Pat and Possum. Aside from some remarkable Naugahyde upholstery, its chief architectural point of interest is an old duffer ruminating over a series of 50-cent drafts. Taped to the wall is a hodgepodge of old Lotto fliers on which the menu has been scrawled in Magic Marker. Diner food: burgers, fries, chili dogs. And slingers.

"The best in town," Bev assured me confidently, and she might have been right, but I'll never know. As the plate hit the table, my stomach let out the warning rattle of a cornered viper. It was too soon; I still couldn't look a slinger in the eye. I shamelessly procrastinated with a very nice hamburger of the diner school -- squashed flat and crisp-edged. Still, something was missing. Maybe this was diner food, but the dark and fusty Hi-Way Bar was no diner. My deeply rooted investigative instincts began to stir. It was time to quit pussyfooting around.

And so it came to pass that, barely six months later, I put on my battle face and breezed into the Courtesy Sandwich Shop. I ordered a slinger, dammit.

I allude to the beloved "old" Courtesy on South Kingshighway, scene of the aforementioned slinger affair. Here, at 2 o'clock on a Sunday morn, there still throbs as eminent an assortment of bleary-eyed rowdies as the city has ever seen -- sort of like what Edward Hopper might paint if he were Brueghel, except on black velvet.

The "old" Courtesy, said one of the cooks, has been here "either since 1965 or 1966," but it looks older, and it feels even older than that. The "new" Courtesy, a shiny spinoff that opened last year, has been the subject of much controversy among diner aficionados. The fries are crispy enough, but an unscientific poll reveals that most folks despair over its clinical, chain-restaurant aura. I have to agree. Those ketchup-red counters, that cutesy checkered dinnerware, that black-and-white tile -- it's more like a Steak N' Shake than a real diner. I mean, the fry cook wears surgical gloves.

So what is a real diner? According to James Trager, compiler of the epic Food Chronology, the very first specimens appeared on the East Coast in the last days of the last century. They were retooled horse-drawn trolleys -- ancestors of the modern catering truck. That they were banned in certain cities when they began to attract "undesirable elements" says more about the clientele than the menu. But, as evidenced by my probe at the Hi-Way Bar, the essence of a diner doesn't have much to do with the food. Turns out it has everything to do with balding Formica, bright lights, something twangy on the jukebox and crease-faced cooks with shoe-polish hair named Ernie. The best diners are the primordial soup of an aesthetic that has since been co-opted for kitsch. They are metallic pockets of American truth and beauty, forgotten by time and smothered in chili.

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