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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

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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.

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