Counter Intelligence: RFT stages an around-the-clock diner-thon

Counter Intelligence: RFT stages an around-the-clock diner-thon

Counter Intelligence: 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.


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.


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

The Buttery, 10:11 a.m. The tiny shoebox of a diner is full, every booth and counter stool, with people eating in hushed mumbles. Cigarette smoke swirls silently with the steam hovering over the coffee cups, and the three waitresses at the griddle flip eggs and pancakes with only the occasional clink.

A short, stout Hispanic man walks in and sits at the counter three stools away from a group of young women. He looks like a graying toddler, with his fire-truck-red hoodie and a blue Band-Aid with spaceships wrapped around his right thumb. Without a word his coffee cup is filled. For no reason, the jukebox plays one funk song, then turns off. The man rubs the sleep out of his eyes and, although he never ordered, a waitress brings him a plate of scrambled eggs, toast and sausage. She doesn't ask if he needs anything else.

He slices everything coarsely, mixes it into a large heap and goes at it with a slice of toast in his left hand and fork in the right. While he eats (toast, fork, toast, fork) the young women wolf down plates of food that "is sooooo bad" for them. When he has finished and stacked up his plates, the man pulls out a red bandana and turns away from the girls to blow his nose. The waitress clears his plates and goes to refill his coffee cup. He shakes his head and gestures to the three girls. They're too close to ignore it but don't know what he wants. He points again and says in just a whisper, "Café? Más café?" They smile widely, say, "No, thank you. Gracias," but he has already turned away, and their faces drop into confusion.

The waitress looks at them. "Oh, he can't hear," she says and leaves their check.
— Kristen Klempert

Tiffany's Original Diner, 1:49 p.m. Donny's in town from the West Coast — he won't get more specific than that — running through comedy sketches with a friend over the phone.

"So they blamed Dwayne for all of the plagues, but he really only caused the last one. He comes home from school, grinning, on the day of the death of the firstborn. Didn't affect him, because he was adopted." Donny pauses, gives the person on the other end a chance to think about it. "Dwayne the Egyptian: He benefited from the death of the firstborn. Isn't that a funny thing?"

As he paces through Tiffany's — first leaning against the counter, then sitting on the edge of a chair near the video-poker machine, then shuffling back to the counter again — Donny worries aloud about the complexity of his routine. "Once I get into the Red Sea, there are just too many details," he laments. "I'm thinking about doing the one about the teenage dolphins smoking pot in a station wagon. It's hilarious. But I have to pass a joint and do two different dolphin voices."

He stares thoughtfully at the video-poker screen. "Once you get into the mechanics, you lose the magic."

Donny's the only one talking in the diner, except for when Marilyn engages customers in conversation, something she does frequently and with considerable charm. She provides an exhaustive, nearly academic description of the various ways to cook eggs, after a teenage customer says she finds runny yolks creepy. She gives a regular patron an update on a change coming soon to Tiffany's: the daily lunch plate. Fried chicken on Tuesdays, pork steaks on Thursdays, your choice of two sides.

"Sounds good," says the regular. "Seems like you guys are doing a good business again."

Marilyn waves her hand, either dismissing the compliments or making a more general gesture about the impact the bad economy has had on this small place, where everything is homemade, cheap and delicious.

Today Tiffany's is doing good business. The stream of customers has been steady. This is a place where little things matter: onion and green peppers mixed into the crisp hash browns, the TV turned to the History Channel so a customer could watch a program about World War II. If business ever slows, it's because of an outside force. Nothing to do with what's happening inside.

Donny's still on the phone, this time with a producer for a cable show he's doing, and he's offering a mea culpa. "I'll take the fall. This is the truth: No one is exempt from criticism. Even Jesus Christ took criticism for what he did." He takes a deep breath. "I'm OK with things not going well. I have to be."
— Brooke Foster

Courtesy Diner (Hampton), 2:43 p.m. The tail end of the lunch rush, but the newer, less grungy Courtesy Diner still hums with activity — literally hums, as the ventilation hoods keep pace with the hissing grills. Burgers are the hot item right now, the cook tossing patties on the flattop as casually as you might deal playing cards.

"Looks like we got a lot of young kids in here," a waitress tells the cook. Young children? Not so much. Teenagers and young adults? Yes. They throng the counter and fill the booths, snippets of their chatter now and then rising above the collective hubbub:

"Are you that stupid?"

"Can I have one of those steaks?"

"You have to get right with your child."

"Those aren't steaks. They're pork chops."

"I'm like, 'You're a douche. I hate you. If I could punch you right now, I would.'"

This last statement dissolves in a fit of giggles. And then, suddenly, silence. The counter is empty, save for a father and young daughter digging into bowls of chili. The booths are abandoned. With the grill empty, the hum of the ventilator hoods fills the space.

After a while the cook ventures out from behind the counter and feeds the jukebox: Elvis followed by George Thorogood and the Destroyers followed by Cher.

Anything to drown out the hum.
— Ian Froeb

Uncle Bill's Pancake and Dinner House (Kingshighway), 2:57 p.m. Despite the few cars in the parking lot with out-of-state plates (Iowa, New York, Minnesota), the stone-and-brick diner sits largely empty. Inside, the staff takes advantage of this downtime by refilling salt and pepper shakers, whisking away drained coffee pots and wringing out wet towels over old plastic ice-cream buckets.

A young woman named Heather comes in and is greeted with a chorus of Hons and Tootses from the other employees. She used to work here, she says, liked getting to know the customers on a personal level and, despite the occasional drama, became good friends with many of her coworkers. Heather left Uncle Bill's, though, because she "needed something better."

Over the clinking of clean utensils, fresh out of the dishwasher, a customer lobs a question: "Betty, do you ever go home?" "Never," Betty replies.

And up at the hostess station, sixteen minutes later, a man requests an application for employment.
— Kristie McClanahan

Hy-Ho Restaurant (Belleville), 7:03 p.m. It's quiet at the Hy-Ho but not deserted: Five tables of senior citizens wait for dinner. A woman with a white bouffant and a Bluetooth in her ear sits with her husband, both tucking into the meatloaf-and-mashed-potatoes special. There's no conversation. Billy Idol's "White Wedding" rumbles from the kitchen.

Peas and carrots, creamed spinach and brain sandwiches on the menu. It's a breakfast-for-dinner night. There's a little hinged pitcher of fresh cream on the table and a stack of real butter in the dessert case.

"This thing's crap. This salt shaker. There's salt coming out the side," the man at the next table says to his elderly mother. He's disheveled, middle-aged. And frowning. Together they examine the salt shaker, though they've already eaten and had their plates cleared. He wonders if they could get a discount because the salt might have poured onto his $9 rib eye and baked potato.

Dinner's served by the smiling blond waitress. White china plate loaded with buttery eggs over easy, three strips of bacon, rye toast sandwiching a glob of melting butter and a mound of American fries: rounds of small potatoes crisped in butter with golden edges and fluffy centers. The coffee's strong, fresh and doesn't need the help of the cream.

After delivering the order, the waitress stops at the salt shaker table. The mother shows her the shaker, and the waitress apologizes. There is no discount.

"How was the fishing?" a customer inquires of the dishwasher.

"All I got was a snapping turtle. He would have been good for soup, but I hate cleaning those things."

Two young women with bare midriffs, just seated next to the turtle conversation, order Dr Peppers, snickering and snapping.
— Robin Wheeler

Lisa's Diner (Granite City), 8:41 p.m. Smoking is not permitted in Lisa's Diner. It's Illinois state law, but in Granite City, it's a nod to the obvious: Even the most grizzled chain smoker can't compete with U. S. Steel. The mill belches plumes of smoke into the drizzle-spattered night, blue flames jetting like the earth's own exhaust.

Inside Lisa's you can escape the mill's noxious fumes but not its shadow. A quiet night: a few customers, the kitchen running short (no applesauce, no cauliflower, no chicken wings), the TV playing a countdown of heavy-metal icons on VH1. A guy picking up a to-go order recognizes a fellow mill worker, and once they introduce themselves and establish mutual friends, a conversation ensues, meandering from the merits of a math teacher in a class the mill offers to the mill's security — there's mention of "Barney Fife" and of an incident in which no one, miraculously, ended up shot — to the perilous state of the economy. "It's not just the U.S., it's the whole world."

The guy with the to-go order says he should get his food home. Soon the other mill worker and his tablemate, who said nothing throughout this conversation, stand to leave. The tablemate wears a red T-shirt with Romans 1:16 inscribed on the back: "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile."
— Ian Froeb


City Diner, 12:10 a.m. "Hey Joe" has come on the jukebox for the second time in twenty minutes, but nobody seems to mind the repetition. Waves of laughter ripple up and down the row of booths along one wall, ebbing and flowing between couples and groups. It quickly grows quiet as one group gets its check, then another. A couple walks in, wearing matching fishing hats, red with a blue-plaid band. They slip into a recently vacated booth, sitting together on one of the benches. Iconic piano chords fill the air.

Just a small town girl....

It is their second meal out of the night, and they smile sheepishly when they talk about their dining proclivities, all the while thinking of other places you just have to go. Diane, 55, lives in Maplewood. She wrinkles her nose at the thought of the food at the adult daycare where she knits and crochets with clients. "It's disgusting and unhealthy."

Just a city boy....

Gerald, 63, lives near Hodak's. His eyes are bright blue, set in a smooth face that belies his age. His hands are animated, tripping across the tables as he talks about his daughter and new grandson.

For a smile they can share the night....

The server breaks through the hush, cajoling the customers, "Come on, we should be singing along to the number-one karaoke song of all time!"

The drums kick in, and everyone in the room imperceptibly exhales. A father and daughter pick up their Pabst Blue Ribbons one last time before their check arrives, and laughter sweeps across the booths once more.

It goes on and on and on and on....
— Alissa Nelson

Eat-Rite Diner, 12:12 a.m. The front door of the Eat-Rite Diner won't budge until Kevin the fry cook hears pounding on the glass. Then he ambles away from his griddle, reaches under the counter and triggers an alarmingly loud buzzer that unbolts the door just long enough to allow the hungry customer to squeeze inside.

The door slams shut, and a hush envelops the tiny room. The bars don't close for another hour, and a lone guest feels like a trespasser during this equivalent of the early-evening lull. A new disc starts to spin on the old-fashioned jukebox tucked in the corner, breaking the tension. It's a slow country ballad, steeped with fiddle and steel guitar and the golden-throated bawling of a female vocalist.

Jackie the waitress sits at the far end of the counter. Her hair is bunched in a homely gray bun, and smoke from a Marlboro burned down to the filter curls out of her hand. Kevin, wearing a white paper hat and a grease-stained shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Eat-Rite or Don't Eat at All," grabs a pen and pad and stares the intruder in the face, silently awaiting his order.

"Three small cheeseburgers," the guest says. "And a Sprite."

Kevin plops three thin patties with the circumference of hockey pucks onto the grill, sprinkling chopped onions on top of each one. The burgers sizzle as the sad song blares.

When I think about cheatin'....

"Is this Loretta Lynn?" the patron inquires.

"Sounds like her, doesn't it," Jackie replies. "Kev, who's this singin'?"

"Gretchen Wilson," he answers curtly, flipping the burgers so the onions cook up tender in the beef fat.

The next song is Patsy Cline, "Back in Baby's Arms," followed by LeAnn Rimes' "Faded Love."

"Do you guys get to choose what goes on the jukebox?" the guest asks.

"A guy comes by and changes it every couple weeks," Jackie says. "He'll put something on it if we ask, but usually we work so late we never see him."

Just as Kevin plates the burgers, adding a few thin slices of pickle to the toasted buns, a large group staggers in, and their booze-fueled chatter and the cacophonous door buzzer replaces mournful country as the soundtrack to early Sunday morning.
— Keegan Hamilton

Old Town Donuts, 2:18 a.m. Filling allegiances. Jelly, cream or custard, there's one that we all choose first, every time. It's 2:18 a.m. at Old Town Donuts in Florissant, a.k.a. decision time. Located in a squat brick strip next to a dentist's office and across from local ice cream mecca Fritz's, Old Town projects a glow in all directions, thanks to the bright white and yellow lights inside. The small bakery (open 24 hours and family owned since 1968, thank you) sports a large backlit sign atop that reads "DONUTS" in bright blue letters.

Once inside, seating here is cozy — eight tables and eight more high-backed chairs at a lunch counter — but the proximity to others doesn't create a din of post-bar half-yelling like you might get at a diner closer into the city. No, the conversation is polite; there's no music overhead and there's no smoking allowed (this is a bakery, after all).

How many doughnuts does Old Town bake daily? "Thousands," offers the middle-aged woman behind the counter with a half-smile. "Sometimes we have 200 dozen go out at a time." There's a slight pause while she closes the door to a cooler. "It's big business."

But at 2:32 a.m., the only indication one is inside a major north-county baking hub comes via a peek through the kitchen window. It looks to be about twice or three times the size of the dining room. Staying open all night just makes sense for bakeries. There are bakers working all night anyway, why not keep them company? There's no public restroom immediately visible, the place is bright, and the sugar rush from these doughy lumps of heaven seems to compel people to be on their way quickly.
— Nick Lucchesi

Uncle Bill's Pancake and Dinner House (Kingshighway), 2:43 a.m. On the way to the bathroom, you see everything: rows of cigarettes sprouting up out of every booth, a young man passed out on the floor in the corner, his boots resting on his chair, a leather jacket unzipped to the navel revealing cleavage, lots of cleavage, and a 90-pound waitress balancing seven plates on one arm. There are people talking, people laughing, people eating and ketchup and hot sauce everywhere. Two overweight women with bleached hair and dark roots to match are laughing. "Between Jeff, Dave, Joe and work, it's fucking crazy." Another waitress has eight more plates. There's a head of messy hair asleep facedown on the table, a pink boa, a zebra print shirt and a tiny Asian girl with giant round glasses, in her p.j.'s.

Inside the women's restroom, the hand dryer is roaring. When it stops for a moment, it's quiet. Both stalls are occupied; a voice giggles from behind one of the metal doors.

"I'm at breakfast now. But I'm sobering up, and I'll be leaving soon."

The toilet in the other stall flushes, and young brunette in jeans walks out.

"Yeah, but when's the last time you got tested? No, really...."

The brunette quietly washes her hands. When she's finished, she lingers with dripping fingers, listening to the happy, oblivious voice still in the stall. If she listens hard enough, she can just detect a string of mumbled male responses.

"And you were clean? Really, you promise?" Both girls wait. "OK. I'm on my way."

A cell phone snaps shut, the toilet flushes, and before the other stall opens, the brunette rushes out of the bathroom, shaking her hands dry. — Kristen Klempert

Denny's (Hampton), 3:57 a.m. The windows are dark, but there's one car in the parking lot, which means there's still hope. Maybe the late-shift cook and server carpooled? There's no way Denny's — of all places — would foil the plans of countless drunks and insomniacs by closing.

"Oh, for fuck's sake."
— Ian Froeb

Coffee Cartel, 4:42 a.m. The woman has been in the restroom for at least half an hour now. African American, average height and build, strikingly big, round eyes, short ash-gray hair pulled back into a tight bun. She went in there with a backpack, which isn't at all remarkable — who wants to leave stuff unprotected in a public place, especially at the asscrack of dawn? — except that she left another backpack at her table. Every few minutes comes the sound of water splashing in the restroom sink. It's hard not to conclude that the woman is washing herself, maybe changing clothes.

No one seems to notice. The half-dozen customers are lost in the dull glare of their laptop screens. An employee is cleaning up, iPod buds in his ears, the motion of his sweeping matching the beat of his music: Stab into a corner with the broom, then sweep, sweep, sweep out. Stab — sweep, sweep, sweep.

Finally the woman emerges. She has changed from one dull, formless tracksuit to another. She sits at her table and from her other backpack removes what looks like a stack of brown paper towels. She unfolds this stack to reveal a banana, which she peels, then slowly eats. Finished, she carefully folds the brown paper towels into a flat stack, which she stows in her backpack.

After another trip to the restroom, she ties her hair in a kerchief, puts on a coat and leaves. The barista says something. To whom isn't clear until she turns, revealing a Bluetooth headset plugged into one ear.
— Ian Froeb

Courtesy Diner (Kingshighway), 6:48 a.m. Ed Hardy is eating at the Courtesy Diner.

OK, clearly, the guy's not the Ed Hardy, but the designs crowding his pale Ed Hardy T-shirt blend seamlessly with the tattoos on his pale biceps, so the name seems appropriate. He's in his early forties, fit, with close-cropped hair, a heavy brow and a flattened nose — boxing or bar fights or maybe a little of both.

He paces outside the diner's entrance, talking on his cell phone, gesturing dramatically with his free hand. He's ending the conversation as he walks into the restaurant and takes a seat at the counter: "Keep your head up, OK?"

He orders coffee and a special, "The Hangover." His phone rings. "I think he's going to pull through," he tells whoever's on the other end. "They had to cut open his head on both sides. Because of the hemorrhaging. Blood on the brain."

The conversation takes a turn. Now he's describing his night in south city, a nameless woman: "We were dancing real slow."

The phone call is over, breakfast served. Ed Hardy eats slowly, pausing every few bites to stare at the wall behind the grill. Suddenly, out loud, he sings the chorus to "Push" by Matchbox Twenty.

I wanna push you around, well I will, well I will.

A few bites later, he turns to the man seated to his right. "What's really going on?" he asks, and, after another few bites, says something that sounds like, "He shoulda had a mustache."

The waitress clears his empty plate. Ed Hardy props up his arm on the counter, rests his head against his knuckles and soon, as his head sinks toward the counter, falls sound asleep.
— Ian Froeb

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