MAR 2001

Nothing Could Be Finer
Than to Eat in a Diner

Breakfast all day. Fries and a coke.

Naugahyde booth. BLT.

Ham and bean soup. Waitress with a sway.

Formica counter. Corned beef hash.

Hot coffee refills. Hot turkey sandwich.

Hot apple pie. Warm glow.

Iíve always been a sucker for diners. For the unpretentious dťcor, the predictable menu, and waitresses that call you "hon." While diner afficionados wage war about what constitutes a real diner (for example, does it have to be in a railroad-car-style building?), my main criteria are that, wherever you are, a good diner makes you feel like youíre sitting down at a friendís kitchen table, and you know what to expect.

Big Sky Diner in east Ypsi (1340 Ecorse Road) is that kind of place. After grabbing a newspaper at the boxes outside (like the weekly hometown Ypsilanti Courier), you can slip into a blue vinyl booth, throw your coat to the side, and expect to be served by a professional waitress who will keep the coffee coming. When you open the standard menu of pancakes and eggs, burgers and fries, liver and onions, patty melts, and rice pudding, you heave a sigh of relief. Itís your three favorite food groups: salt, fat, and sugar.

Jack Kerouac ate in diners as he hitchhiked across America, hanging out to watch the waitresses, and ordering only apple pie and ice cream, because it was cheap and, he argued, "it was nutritious, and it was delicious, of course."

With him in mind, I ordered apple pie ŗ la mode at Big Sky. Iím sure you know what I got: a cold white porcelain plate holding a slab of unheated gooey pie with a thick crust, topped by a scoop of off-white vanilla, with a fork perched on the side. Nothing fancy, and certainly not the best apple pie Iíve ever eaten, but it met my expectations. No challenges. No new information to digest. Oh, and no nutrition, really. Sorry, Jack.

In downtown St. Pete, Florida, where I was born (and where Kerouac died the same year, believe it or not), thereís an old diner that still serves cokes in the bottle, with a straw for the lady but not for the man. I like the tradition of a diner. A girl can still be a girl. Men are still allowed to flirt. A family can still afford to eat out. Food is still allowed to be bad for you.

Thereís no question that Big Sky knows youíre there to eat. The portions are huge, like three pieces of meatloaf (sliced and then grilled to be crunchy on the edges), mashed potatoes, and thick beef gravy, brought on a plate the size of a serving tray (with bread and coleslaw for $5.95). Or try the fried chickenófour golden crispy pieces, with potatoes and yellow gravy ($6.25). But skip the side of mixed vegetables; theyíre from a can and colorless, and youíre not really there to eat veggies anyway. Actually, though, Big Sky makes a delicious homemade vegetable soup with big chunks of potato, carrots, cabbage, onions, and celery in a fatty tomato broth.

On a recent visit to Big Sky, our waitress was younger than most of the others there, and with only six weeks of experienceóunlike the 12 years of one of her co-workersóshe was no veteran. But you wouldnít have guessed it from her friendly, patient, unerring service. And she already had the diner waitress look: long straight hair with bangs, hoop earrings, sensible shoes. She told us sheíd gotten to recognize the Big Sky regulars and knew what they were going to order before they did. It made me want to become a regular just to be known by her, to exchange daily pleasantries and tip her well.

The reason I donít care for Ann Arborís Fleetwood Dineróeven though itís housed in a classic diner caróis that it misunderstands one of the crucial details of a good diner experience: the waitress. I donít expect anything more from the Fleetwood in terms of cleanliness, atmosphere, menu choices, or food preparation. And it can be a godsend late at night when everything else in town is closed. But the brusque and sullen (and no doubt underpaid) wait staff ruin it for me. I always get the feeling that Iím not really welcome there, and thatís simply antithetical to real diner charm.

On the other hand, the charm is palpable at Bodeís Corned Beef House, Inc., in Plymouth (280 Main). Opened in 1959 in a 150-year-old brick building adjacent to train tracks, this diner has had years to perfect its no-nonsense style. Chrome stools run the length of the Formica counter, overlooking pies in a glass case and a covered dish of donuts on a pedestal. The rest of the two-room restaurant is filled with booths, and the radio plays oldies that are barely heard over clinking silverware, waitresses taking orders, and bus boys clearing tables.

Nothing on the menu at Bodeís is more than $9.95, and the daily specials include "all u can eat" spaghetti (Mondays) and fried fish (Fridays). But the reason young and old, families and individuals, stake out a spot at Bodeís is the kosher corned beef. Corned beef hash, made of succulent minced corned beef and potatoes, grilled until itís slightly crispy, is a breakfast staple. With two eggs and toast for $4.25, itís an artery-stopping steal. Corned beef and cabbage is available every night for $7.95, and for $5.95 on Tuesdays. I havenít had a chance to be there for the Tuesday-night rush, but a friend says you can see the cooks in the kitchen hauling out one brisket after another from the steaming pots. You can also get a sloppy Reuben, and they even serve a chef salad with corned beef. Of course, all the other regulation diner fare is there too, like excellent ground rounds ($1.95), tuna salad sandwiches, and milkshakes. And while the cooking at Bodeís is high quality, itís the experienced and hard-working waitresses that surely encourage people to return. Even though itís a bit of a drive, Iím definitely planning to spend some more time there.

Itís just so much more comfortable than Ann Arborís boutique eateries. So if youíre anything like me, feeling the weight of these wintry gray days, take my advice, honey: get out of town, find a real diner, and stay awhile. By the time you get that apple pie and ice cream, youíll feel like youíre at home.

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