The 24-Hour St. Louis Diner Tour

RFT stages an around-the-clock diner-thon

Edward Hopper never ate at the Courtesy Diner.

Hopper, of course, is the American artist whose painting Nighthawks has become the iconic image of the lonely, late-night diner. Its period details — the counterman in his crisp white uniform, the male customers in suits and fedoras, the silver coffee urns — hardly matter. Its mood, somehow equally romantic and terrifying, is universal.

Right?

Rene Cavaness takes orders during the 8 a.m.-to-2 p.m. shift. She's worked at Courtesy Diner for almost six years.
Rene Cavaness takes orders during the 8 a.m.-to-2 p.m. shift. She's worked at Courtesy Diner for almost six years.

Thing is, in a few hours that lonely late-night diner becomes a lonely very-very-early-morning diner, and some drunk stumbles in to demand three slingers to go. And then, a few hours after that, bleary-eyed parents drag their kids into a booth for pancakes (kids) and coffee (parents). Soon enough, the romantic, terrifying diner almost looks like any other restaurant.

The key word being almost.

What's one day in the life of a 24-hour joint really like? On a recent weekend, Riverfront Times grabbed some quarters for the jukebox and fanned out across the St. Louis region to find out.


SATURDAY

Lumière Place, 8:37 a.m. A rainy Saturday morning makes for ideal sleeping conditions. And yet there are cars in the parking lot at Lumière Place. Not a lot, but enough to suggest that the place is mildly populated.

Inside, confusion reigns. It's not the exciting, pandemonium sort of confusion. It's just the sort of confusion born of miscommunication between people who got up too early or have been awake too long. People ask: How do you pay for brunch? Where's the bacon? Do they make omelets anywhere? And their interlocutors stare back blankly: What did you say? Oh, um, go back to the beginning, I think it's over there.

On the casino floor, patrons sit in front of the penny slots, puffing meditatively on their cigarettes (except for one poor soul with a shiny handful of change who wanders the aisles asking, "Can I buy a smoke off you?"). They appear sunk deep in misery. And indeed, playing slots seems to be a good way to magnify your miseries: You lose more often than you win, but pressing the "spin" button doesn't require much effort or distraction from dark thoughts, and if you bet only a penny a spin, a dollar lasts a really long time. You could stay there forever.

One old woman gets assistance at her slot machine. "You want to press that button," a young man tells her. She turns on her stool to look at him. "Why?"

At the poker tables, groups of men slouch in their chairs, eyes glazed. The dealer at craps makes attempts at cheerfulness — "There's an eight!" — and the stickman rakes the chips with something approaching gusto. The dealers at the empty tables stare off into the distance at nothing.

Things are slightly livelier in the buffet line. For $12.06, it's all the carbo loading you can stomach, plus bacon and sausage, and, for the cowardly, pale slices of melon. Diners hunch over their plates, not speaking. If it weren't for the aggressively loud classic rock (with "Your Body Is a Wonderland" thrown in, for some reason) blasting over the loudspeakers, the place would be quieter than a library. It's brunch — no, at this hour, it's still breakfast — for the antisocial. Which defines every soul who finds him- or herself at a casino at eight o'clock on a rainy Saturday morning.
— Aimee Levitt


Courtesy Diner (Kingshighway), 9:13 a.m. The waitress stares at the jukebox, frowns. "What does everyone want to hear?"

Truth is, no one much cares about music right now. This is an hour for sweatpants and blinking eyes, sips of coffee and the savoring of first cigarettes. A few conversations burble. A toddler twists in his booster seat. Newspapers rustle, one diner studying the ads for ATVs, another, last night's box scores. Rain spitting against the windows, a couple of eggs sizzling on the flattop grill: That's all the soundtrack this morning needs.

"Play some Hendrix," the cook calls out. "Play 'If 6 Was 9.' It's album 1804, I think."

Now there's a backbeat, an insistent guitar. Diners aren't tapping their feet or forks, but the pace of business begins to pick up. Where only a couple of tickets were stuck above the grill, now there are half a dozen. Plates are lined up along the rail. A second cook arrives, and a carton's worth of eggs are being fried or scrambled or shaped into omelets.

"I just pushed a lot of buttons after that song," the waitress says as Jimi gives way to some saccharine Nashville dreck, which, mercifully, yields the floor to "Space Cowboy." But music's moot now. The diner is awake and rocking, its rhythm the chopping of vegetables, its harmony the scrape of metal on metal, whisk against grill.
Ian Froeb

Continue to the next stop on the 24-hour St. Louis diner tour.
 
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