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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

When It's 4 a.m., Go to Eat-Rite Diner for a Slinger -- or a Reason to Love St. Louis Again

Posted By on Wed, Jun 24, 2015 at 7:30 AM

James Harrison, Eat Rite regular. - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS PHILLIPS
  • Photo by Nicholas Phillips
  • James Harrison, Eat Rite regular.

In the right rear corner of the Eat-Rite Diner, up by the security camera, there's a cluster of holes in the porcelain tile. A robber blasted those into the wall with a shotgun in the 1980s. He came in one night trying to hold up the place, but the cooks were too busy to notice — at first. So he fired off a round. That got everyone's attention.

What happened next — how much he stole, whether he truly pistol-whipped someone, whether he got caught — depends on which staffer you ask. Eat-Rite lore is like that. Details get added or elided over time. But it's a decent yarn, and a decent yarn can pull you through the night shift.

Last week, Riverfront Times sat through three consecutive night shifts at the Eat-Rite Diner at Chouteau Avenue and Seventh Street. It's fair to wonder why. The menu hasn't changed much in 45 years. The building is just a 516-square-foot dive a few blocks south of Busch Stadium. Only thirteen customers can eat at the counter at a time. It grosses maybe a few hundred bucks on an average night.

Yet Eat-Rite is unique in our city's nocturnal ecosystem. It's the sole kitchen within a three-mile radius of the Arch that stays open all night and lets you dine in — making it a sort of bottleneck, a place through which the peckish must pass to get their after-hours pancakes or omelets.

- See also: St. Louis' Most Hangover-Friendly Diners

It attracts St. Louisans of all moods: the drunks and demons, clowns and curmudgeons, philosophers and philanthropists. At Eat-Rite, you chow down next to folks who didn't attend your high school and don't care about your career. Black, white, 99 percent or 1 percent — sometimes the only trait you share is a craving for the slinger, that hot wreckage of breakfast foods that the owners, the Powers family, claim they developed three decades ago.

In that sense, Eat-Rite is nothing like Nighthawks, Hopper's romantic rendering of a late-night diner. It's not a spare, glassed-in cavern in which you brood at arms length from your neighbor. It's a bunker, your neighbor's arm is draped around your neck, and he's eating your fries.

The daytime crowds are tamer. Cops and postal workers order carryout. Local celebrities Chuck Berry, Jack Buck, Jim White, Francis G. Slay, Claire McCaskill, Mike Shannon and David Freese have all hunkered down at the Formica counter.

But if you endure three overnight shifts, like we did, you'll watch a whole city cycle through. You'll see St. Louisans on their worst behavior, and their best. You'll see the ways in which Eat-Rite's staff are models of civic patience, and you'll witness the acts of kindness they perform on the sly.

We could use more citizens like them.

St. Louis has had a rough year. Just like the Eat-Rite bandit's warning shot in the '80s, the policeman's shot that killed Michael Brown in Ferguson last August seized everyone's attention. The fallout reminded us that residents here don't enjoy protection, power and money in equal measure — and that we don't agree on who's to blame for that, let alone how to fix it.

Eat-Rite itself had a rough 2014. Twice its exterior was smacked by vehicles. The first time was so bad the owners had to shutter for a month to replace a wall. Inside the eatery, the atmosphere tightened as unrest gripped the city.

But the staff kept pouring cups of coffee. Regulars kept coming back to sip them. Everyone soldiered on.

The diner, we predict, is going to make it. Just like the city that surrounds it.

The Eat-Rite Diner at 622 Chouteau - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/PHIL ROUSSIN
  • Photo Courtesy of Flickr/Phil Roussin
  • The Eat-Rite Diner at 622 Chouteau

City records are vague, but the brick walls of 622 Chouteau Avenue were likely laid in the 1930s. The nearby Maronite church of St. Raymond's was a hub for Lebanese immigrants back then, and two of them, Elias and Elizabeth Mahanna, began grilling burgers at the shack in 1935. They called it White Kitchen.

As a concept, the diner soon took off across America. With the postwar economy churning, blue-collar families found themselves with extra cash to splurge on eating out.

In St. Louis, L.B. Powers' family rode that wave. His uncle ran the Courtesy Diner at Olive and 18th streets. Employed there at age sixteen, L.B. fell in love with a customer — a receptionist named Dorcas, whom he quickly married. (Years later, Universal Pictures would film a romance in that same eatery — although White Palace, starring James Spader and Susan Sarandon, was based on a novel, not their courtship.)

Before long, the couple had five kids and had amassed six diners dotting south city and county. They started calling the chain Eat-Rite after 1963.

By that time, America's middle class was fleeing the city for the suburbs, so diners followed them. Restaurateurs labored to gussy up their eateries by adding booths and waitresses, by hiding their kitchens, and by cordoning off sections for teens, as Andrew Hurley reported in his cultural history Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks.

But the shack at 622 Chouteau stayed old-school: just a kitchen, counter and stools. Bucking the suburban trend, the Powers bought it in 1970. Dorcas cringed at the slummy locale.

"It was a terrible disgrace," she recalls. "People were squatting in these shacks with no electricity or water."

Yet the couple stuck it out, and their gamble paid off in the 1980s, when Ralston-Purina started cleaning up the area. The Powerses eventually sold off their other Eat-Rites to employees and friends, but they held onto 622 Chouteau.

To this day, the decor inside is quaint yet unsentimental. There's a cigarette machine, plus a Can-Can pinball game from 1961. But no memorabilia adorns the walls. Just a "NO SMOKING" sign, a pocket Cardinals schedule, and two hand-written notices: "CASH ONLY" and the unfortunately worded, "We cannot service you while on your cell phone."

Next: The men who work the night shift

Prices have been slow to change at Eat Rite Diner. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Photo by Kelly Glueck
  • Prices have been slow to change at Eat Rite Diner.

Prices have increased slowly here, and the menu, barely at all. An order of six slider-style cheeseburgers costs $7.50. The famous slinger — hashbrowns, eggs, bacon or sausage, cheese, chili and onions — will set you back $7.70.

(Family members claim that around 1985, customers at the Eat-Rite in Murphy, Missouri, asked for chili, cheese and onions to top their eggs, so waitresses told the kitchen to "sling" the order. Variations on this mishmash abound throughout the United States, but only St. Louisans call it a "slinger.")

The restaurant gene has fused into the family's DNA. L.B. and Dorcas have relegated Eat-Rite's bookkeeping to their daughter, Tina. Two of their sons married Eat-Rite waitresses; one of them, David, works the morning shift, sometimes with his son, Josh.

Many Eat-Rite employees have stuck with the family for decades. A few speak of L.B. and Dorcas as adoptive parents — including Pat Fell, who works weekend night shifts.

Fell, 55, has the creased face of a man who works (and smokes) more than he sleeps. He and L.B. were both volunteering at a church kitchen in south county five years ago when L.B. offered him a job. Fell accepted.

When Fell ribs his regulars — "Come back when you can't stay so long!" — he drawls out the words Florida-style (he lived there for 30 years).

Fell's preferred target, though, is co-worker Kevin Hadley.

At work, they both don white aprons, paper side caps and shirts with the slogan "EAT-RITE OR DON'T EAT AT ALL." But Hadley is shorter, with thick hands and a toothy grin. He's five years Fell's junior, but Fell still considers him a fogey.

"Sorry for the wait," Fell faux-apologizes to Hadley's customers. "As you can see, we hire senior citizens."

"Hey," replies a guest. "We're senior citizens!"

"Not like Kevin," says Fell. "He's 94!"

Then Hadley chimes in: "Ninety-four and I can still get it on!"

Staff say Hadley used to drift around the neighborhood until a former Eat-Rite cook, Betty Rutter, pulled him off the street. Rutter was famous for her beehive hairdo and take-no-shit demeanor in the kitchen. At first she paid Hadley out of her own pocket to sweep floors at the diner, but now he's a regular employee. Hadley himself says Rutter was like a mother to him, and to others.

"She taught me how to cook," he adds. "I think about her all the time."

Hadley lived for a while in a group home, and that's where he met his girlfriend. The couple now lives together in Fenton, where Fell also lives.

When Fell and Hadley work opposite shifts, they phone each other to compare sales.

"I usually win," boasts Hadley.

Fell harps on Hadley to keep the kitchen tidy. (Some Yelp reviewers have also questioned Eat-Rite's hygiene, but notably, the St. Louis Department of Health has awarded the diner an "A" rating every year since 2009.)

That aside, Fell says Hadley is a math whiz who can keep straight six orders in his head.

"His drawer is never short," Fell says.

Though sometimes he's short on courage, Fell jokes. With great relish he recounts one night in the wee hours when a "450-pound woman" took a shine to Hadley, who grew nervous and hid, begging Fell for a ride home. Toward the shift's end, Fell went out back to smoke. Sure enough, the woman was waiting for her crush.

"Where Mr. Eat-Rite at?" she asked.

Fell only smiled and said, "I'll be happy to go find him for you."

At 1:25 a.m. on Saturday, the bars are closing and Eat-Rite is ramping up hard. Hadley claws at the flat-top grill with his spatula; frozen meat hisses back. Guests crane their necks and bite sideways into sandwiches to catch spillage. They scald a fingertip on fresh bacon, argue a point in Bosnian, drag on an e-cig.

The scent of industrial soap wafts off Fell, who is towel-drying plates. He spots someone waiting at the glass front door and buzzes him in — a late-night security measure.

A bachelor party of white dudebros piles inside. They are tanked. One of them, in flip-flops and shorts, crashes onto a stool between two rotund black men gulping sliders and shares with them the chorus of Sheriff's 1982 power ballad "When I'm with You."

"O-OH, BAY-BAAAAY" he brays. His face is a broiling tomato. The victims just grin and offer him fries.

Then two couples in suits and dresses file in and stand against the wall, awaiting stools.

"HOW TALL ARE YOU?" a dudebro calls out to one of the men.

"Seven feet!" the man calls back right away, as if it's natural to launch this dialogue across a crowded public space.

"HOLY SHIT!" the dudebro says and scrambles over to chat with him. He later picks up their check.

Next: Some nights, people get sloppy.

Kevin Hadley (left) and Pat Fell. When the two co-workers have opposite shifts, they call each other to compare sales - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS PHILLIPS
  • Photo by Nicholas Phillips
  • Kevin Hadley (left) and Pat Fell. When the two co-workers have opposite shifts, they call each other to compare sales

It's common for Eat-Rite customers to pay for strangers, whether out of drunkenness or late-night camaraderie. Fell claims there's a clutch of regulars who, as a matter of routine, treats half the counter.

(This counterbalances jerks like the dude in the Hawaiian shirt who ran up a $20 tab earlier that night and ditched without paying.)

Regulars also have their "usuals." The staff knows them without being reminded. For many it's just a coffee or cup of ice, though one guy always gets ten orders of bacon, four orders of sausage and ten scrambled eggs. He recently tacked on a sirloin dinner. He's called "The Bacon Man." He's kind of a legend.

As the crowd thins out, eyes grow bloodshot, and lids get heavy. Fell reports that on rare occasions, he's found pot (and even heroin) in the parking lot. The guests tonight are basically holding it together. Sometimes they don't.

He has seen folks passed out face-down in slingers. Once, a man tumbled off his stool three times and smacked his head on the candy machine all three times. On this particular weekend, a young woman tries to walk out of the jukebox, then corrects herself and stumbles out the door.

Fell remembers one gal who climbed atop the counter and flashed Hadley — prompting him to drop whatever he was holding. Another came clad in only fishnet stockings from the waist down. A different lady once asked the male patrons if they believed in aliens, then offered each a blow-job in exchange for a cheeseburger. (All declined.)

Then there was the drunk woman who entered and threw a tantrum, snatching up cups and sugar shakers to chuck across the room. Before Fell could even react, customers pushed her back outside. She bolted, leaving behind a shoe and a hair weave.

The darkest moment at Eat-Rite in recent years occurred on August 16, 2009. A customer named Deangelo Tate got into a squabble with his friend Shevette Chambers at the counter. They adjourned to the parking lot, where Tate shot Chambers four times, killing her. In 2011 a jury convicted him of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

But those episodes are the exception.

"People say St. Louis is fucked up," says Dave Jones, one of the last to dine before dawn breaks on Sunday. "But I ain't never come in here and met anybody whose vibe was anything less than admirable. Or respectable. I'm using a lot of the wrong words right now, but it's true!"

The shirt says it all. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Photo by Kelly Glueck
  • The shirt says it all.

Late Sunday evening an unkempt black gentleman in a baseball cap shuffles into Eat-Rite and drops himself on a stool. He sprinkles coins on the counter. Pat Fell, the cook, asks for his order. The man stares at his coins. Fell says, "Do you want a bowl of chili?" The man nods. Fell ladles him up a bowl. He eats it, thanks the cook, and ambles out.

Fell pays for it himself. But he doesn't do that for everyone.

"If you have enough to get drunk," he explains, "you have enough to eat."

Nor does he do it for gamblers. Earlier that evening, a portly blond guy with a flushed face came in, asking Fell to spot him $20 because he'd just lost big at the casino. Fell balked. So the man retrieved a crate from his car and tried to sell Fell Aerosmith and Nickelback CDs for cash. Again, Fell declined.

He's not made of money. He works odd jobs on his days off. At Eat-Rite, Fell earns minimum wage plus tips — that's not a lot, but it's better than most restaurants, which pay servers less than minimum wage knowing they'll make it up in gratuity.

There's a bill right now in the St. Louis Board of Aldermen that would raise the minimum wage to $15, but Fell knows it won't help him even if it passes. It exempts places like Eat-Rite that have fewer than fifteen employees. Still, he was tickled to spy one of his regulars on KSDK (Channel 5) speaking out in favor the bill.

"Hey, you're famous!" Fell says when the guy walks into Eat-Rite for a burger on Monday night. It's Mikey Carrasco, owner of the new restaurant Taco Circus in Bevo Mill.

"It'll get negotiated down," Carrasco tells Fell as he takes a stool. "A lot of people are up in arms about it. But if somebody's working full-time, they should be able to afford the basic shit they need!" A girl in a Wendy's shirt overhears Carrasco as she waits for her carryout order. She nods her head.

It's about an hour later when 21-year-old James Harrison walks in.

"An old woman came in here looking for you," Fell teases him. "Said you were late on child support."

"Why you gotta do me like that, Pat?" Harrison says. Fell serves him a slinger. Pouring sugar on it, the young man explains that two years earlier, he'd been homeless. He would drop into Eat-Rite and Fell would feed him. Harrison found his way into a jobs program and is now a line cook at Angry Beaver on South Broadway (he proudly shows off his kitchen clogs). Some nights, Harrison hangs out for hours at Eat-Rite after work, waiting to catch the first bus back to Walnut Park.

"Pat's a cool guy," Harrison says. "He watches out for me."

Fell says he almost quit Eat-Rite late last year. The tension from Ferguson poisoned the diner. Some black patrons copped an aggressive attitude with him.

"It got really bad," he says. "For a week they called us racists and demanded I give them free stuff. When I said no, they kept saying 'Michael Brown, Michael Brown.' I said, 'What the heck does Michael Brown have to do with cheeseburgers?'"

At one point, Fell says, six customers came behind the counter and physically threatened him. He pulled out his .45 handgun and warded them off. That week, Fell says, he started saying a little prayer each day before going into work.

One youth got bold during that period and tried to steal the diner's Pot O'Silver coin game. It was too heavy to budge, so he gave up and ran out the door. The next day, the same kid returned to order food. They recognized him, but they served him anyway.

Those patrons and that atmosphere gradually fell away, though. Fell isn't bitter about what happened during that time.

"That kind of stuff," Fell explains, "it could turn you into a racist. Or you just learn to flow with it."

As he stands there, with dawn glowing blue behind the Arch, a semi-trailer roars south on Seventh street. The whole diner trembles, but only for a brief moment, then steadies itself.

See also: Who's at Eat-Rite in the Middle of the Night?

See also: St. Louis' Most Hangover-Friendly Diners

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