Al’s French Diner
Other children grow up wanting to be astronauts, or major league ballplayers, or presidents of great and powerful nations. Me, I always wanted to be a short order cook, and -- lest I leave you with the impression that I lack ambition – to own my own diner.
Here’s a snapshot of Al’s Diner, circa 1958. Enter: you -- making your way to the one remaining vacant stool at the counter. You sit; spin a little; read the menu board; you study the grill, it’s surface nearly completely covered with breakfasts in the making: pancakes, French toasts, eggs every which way; bacon crisping, ham steak browning, home fries … home frying.
You order. And there, sweaty back turned, spatula in hand, stands Al, that’s me, conducting this symphony of grease, much of which has spit its way onto my apron and wife-beater tee shirt. I turn when I hear your voice; pour you a cup of Joe; commiserate with you over the late-inning collapse up in Boston last night.
Odd career choice, you might think, for an upwardly mobile nine-year old who lived in the lap of extreme comfort, if not downright luxury. But there was a simple method to my ostensible madness. The short order cooks in my life: Wayne at the Country Kitchen; Joe at the Eveready; Mikey at the East Side Diner; they were all happy men – cooking and laughing and talking up a storm whenever you saw them; never too busy to say hi to a kid.
Not at all like the other men in my life: my father; my uncles; the fathers of my friends; -- men who returned home from work and entered your life via the liquor cupboard; men who seemed only to relax once they were sufficiently lit; men who were prone to sudden and inexplicable outbursts at the dinner table. Busy men who seldom laughed.
There came a day when I lost the desire to own a greasy spoon. It was the day that I first tasted diner food in France. The diners in France were not at all like the diners at home. French diners existed almost exclusively to feed French truck drivers. And French truck drivers -- men who knew good food and who sought it out as their reward for long days behind the wheel -- can be thanked for the creation of France’s incredible roadside eateries, the best of which earn the designation of “Les Routiers” (literally, “The Truckers”).What the French diner lacked in its passion for baseball, it more than made up for with great peasant cooking. From modest ingredients came meals fit for kings, at prices so low as to be astonishing. And not a grease-stained apron in sight.
If you ever find yourself with time on your hands and a love of great food, there are worse things you could do than to wander around France looking for “Les Routiers” signs. I had gone to France when I was twenty. The plan had been to spend the summer. By the time I got home I was twenty-three. Long summer.
I missed French diners when I got home. So I tried to build one – in Rhode Island. It didn’t work. What I wound up with was this sort of French café/creperie/bistro thing that turned out to be quite a big financial success. But it never really gratified me because it wasn’t what I’d had in mind to do.
Meanwhile, a whole new food scene was developing all around me in America; and by the early Nineties, hip restaurateurs on both coasts were re-visiting the diner, and developing new takes on it, from San Francisco to Atlanta. I had hoped that maybe one of these would be the brainchild of someone who, like me, had fallen madly in love with the French diner, and found a way to make it fit the American landscape. This has not turned out to be the case.
We Americans tend to live our lives in quotation marks; and often the result is that we produce – or re-produce – things of excellent quality that are the products of efforts so very self-conscious that they suffer from a seeming lack of authenticity. The new diner with its “veal meatloaf with a trio of house-made ketchups” ($17.95) comes to mind. Devised as a sophisticated version of the meatloaves of diners-gone-by, I wouldn’t eat the stuff even if you served it to me on Wonder Bread.
I still want to own a diner. And I’m smart enough to know that a literally interpreted and transplanted “Les Routiers” would no more ring true here than does the London Bridge make any sense in Arizona. But that’s not going to stop me from moseying over to France when the weather warms up a bit, where, under the guise of research, I plan to re-visit the “Les Routiers” of my youth. God willing, they’ll still be there, as will Monsieur out front while Madame works her magic in the kitchen. This time I will talk to every trucker from Alsace to Carcassonne: ‘The confit at Les Trois Canards in Cahors is not to be missed.’ ‘You haven’t really lived until you’ve tasted the poulet roti at exit twelve just south of ...’
Lately I have difficulty distinguishing between the things that I intend to write about and those that I intend actually to do. I’ll be curious to see which this is.