Monday, March 26, 2012

Ode to a Greasy Spoon Diner

I belong to the counter culture, the kind of person that prefers sitting in front of a bartender, waitress or short-order cook than in a booth or at a table. Cafes are nice, but sometimes they can have too much milieu. When I want an environment without the fancy French vocabulary attached, I head for pubs and diners.

Growing up in Rhode Island, the birthplace of the American diner, I always looked for the dives and greasy spoons – for the food, yes, tasty, cheap and served in big portions, but also for the conversation and the characters. You could run into anybody. Millionaire. Fisherman. College professor. Stripper. The diner seemed to be a safe haven for all walks of life. Some of my strangest conversations have occurred in diners. Today it was a thread about whether you could eat another human being to survive if you had to. The consensus was it depended on how much Tabasco was available.

(I remember a conversation at the old Jigger’s Diner in East Greenwich about how the town had an unusual number of wedding shops. One man at the counter was from a college town in New Hampshire. He said you couldn’t turn a corner without running into a pizza house. Another guy was from Brockton, Mass. He said, “Our thing is funeral homes.”)

Working now from our Newport Daily News offices above the slots, I can tumble down the hill anytime to Bishop’s 4th Street Diner at the Rotary. It’s the kind of rough-and-ready place where a frappe is advertised as a “Great Hangover Cure!” on the menu. Rhody food figures prominently. There are R.I. Johnny Cakes and stuffies, meatball grinders and clam strip rolls, and plenty of items featuring “Portuguese” in the name, including Portuguese breakfast sandwiches, Portuguese Sweet Toast and even Portuguese French Toast. The Portuguese Omelet includes the signature twist in all Rhody food described as “Portuguese,” a spicy sausage called chourico (it is combined with onions, peppers and cheese in the egg). At Bishop’s, a waitress scrawling shorthand on a receipt pad might yell out, “Drop a fry, Mikey!,” indicating in diner lingo that a particular order has been placed. The customers are mostly locals and regulars, and everyone seems to use a lot of ketchup.

Sometimes even the names of diners create a feeling of Rhode Islandness. The Hope Diner in Bristol. The late and lamented Wampanoag Diner in East Providence, where Mama Dot and her family worked. Like Champs Diner in Woonsocket and many others, the Wampanoag lingers only in the haze of nostalgia and the eternal scent memory of cigarette smoke, infiltrating every fabric of clothing.

The tourists come to see our lighthouses, but the locals prefer the diners. There is Snoopy’s in North Kingstown, the Middle of Nowhere Diner in Exeter and Haven Brothers in Providence. There’s also the Modern Diner and Right Spot Diner in Pawtucket, Seaplane Diner and Liberty Elm Diner in Providence, State Line Diner in Foster, Beacon Diner in East Greenwich and Miss Cranston Diner in Cranston, among others, calling on all souls. Because the average Rhode Island diner always felt to me like the kind of place where the angels and demons might show up after midnight, meeting behind windows and chrome reflecting rain-streaked neon. The winged and horned, mostly invisible to the rest of us, sitting at the counter to square up the previous day’s soul-stealing and soul-saving over coffee and hash. Loser pays the tab. Winner leaves the tip.

What is your favorite Rhode Island diner?