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.

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.

One such pocket is the Eat-Rite, a white metal box in the shadow of the Ralston Purina office compound. Here I recently enjoyed, with a pretty decent slice of cherry pie, scalding coffee from a plastic cup inscribed with the catchy "Eat-Rite or Don't Eat at All" slogan. The cook didn't know how old the Eat-Rite was but guessed that the current owner has had it "for 35 years, maybe longer." A matron of regal bearing, she wore a sumptuous turquoise apron dotted with pink flowers and brandished her spatula like a scepter.

Although I would scarcely advocate eating an Eat-Rite hamburger (mine distinguished itself with a netherworldly slime), there was a stirring quality about the place. Indeed, a stool at the Eat-Rite offers many lush opportunities for pithy and poetic contemplations on the naked city. Its windows frame spectacular steel-gray vistas of industrial downtown. I watched freight trains grumble by on elevated tracks to reveal the slick face of the Arch glinting ironically in the distance. Plenty of colorful characters, too. Sitting next to me was a pale, haunted chappie who pored vigorously over a religious pamphlet. I couldn't help noticing his belt buckle, a royal flush fashioned in silver.

No less a sterling example of the breed is Lisa's Diner, which basks in the umbra of a steel mill in Granite City, Ill. (the archetypal diner always basks in the umbra of something). Until recently Lisa's Diner was called G's Grill and resembled a gloriously desiccated old railroad car. A new facade gives it the unfortunate appearance of a lean-to shack, but inside there still flourishes the good, greasy stuff diner dreams are made of. When the gang and I tottered in, still shaken from a harrowing careen across the McKinley Bridge, everybody at the counter turned to see whether we were somebody (we weren't). A country tune jangled on the jukebox. The counter was rubbed thin from a generation of elbows, the floor scuffed from a generation of steel-toed boots. The waitress gave us coffee in Santa Claus mugs and called us all "hon." We had biscuits and gravy (closest culinary relative: library paste). It was an invigorating excursion.

Meanwhile, back at the Courtesy ... it was 2 in the afternoon when I returned to conquer the slinger. Gone were the rabble-rousers, profligates and skanky ho's of the wee hours, and with them the sweaty din of urgency and dissipation. Today it was all good old boys and dusky quiet. Down the counter, a leathery ex-Marine was administering burgers and fries to his malfeasant grandsons, and a couple of fry cooks smoked cigarettes in the corner. The place was ripe with, shall we say, the earthy aroma of the proletariat. I traced the origin of this overpowering fragrance to a coveralled personage fresh from his toil, who was scowling emotively at a plate of chili mac.

The cook was an artist. I watched her craft an omelette with the fluid efficiency of a master sculptor, lobbing bits of ham and squares of orange cheese onto an expanse of egg the size of a hubcap, then folding it all up into a neat cadeau with a couple brisk flicks of the spatula. She created my slinger in much the same manner and set the thing before me in about 90 seconds.

The result of this excellent woman's labors is the reason this article really isn't about slingers at all. In the end, I couldn't quite choke it down.

Most everything's under 5 bucks in all these places:

COURTESY SANDWICH SHOP, 3155 S. Kings-highway Blvd., 776-9059

COURTESY DINER, 1121 Hampton Ave., 644-2600.

EAT-RITE DINER, 622 Chouteau Ave., 621-9621.

HI-WAY BAR, 2732-A S. 13th St., 773-8420.

LISA'S DINER, 1621 Madison Ave., Granite City, Ill., 618-876-6000.

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