If you haven't seen the movie Diner, you may have missed more than Barry Levinson's vision of the iconic diner culture, or one reason the world once thought Mickey Rourke was the best thing since, well, a tuna melt with a side of chili fries. Levinson's vision portrayed something our senior generation was familiar with: diner as social centerpiece – diner as third place -- a place that isn't home, but that sure isn't work either.
The diner once was a place of safe haven, open at all hours, and serving the key staples of the human condition – food, light, shelter… and conversation. Since the heyday of the American diner, which held sway from the down-on-its luck thirties through the frenetic sixties, new third spaces have vied for first place in the American collective consciousness: bit by bit, coffee shops usurped the diner as a social gathering place, and fast food joints took a bite out of the diner's primary stated raison d'être – fast and cheap eats.
Although dimmed in popularity, the diner is still alive if you know how to look.
A Few Things to Know
A diner affords the kind of diversity today's fast food supplicants can't imagine. Like those small cities sprinkled along Route 66 before massive freeways and bypasses made them irrelevant, each diner that has survived into today boasts its own scents, sights and personality – and most importantly, its own stories. A caveat to those unfamiliar: Expect a leaky faucet here, an intimidating septagenarian waitperson (she'll call herself a waitress, thank you very much). In some diners, the food presentation will vary from plate to plate, and the neighboring guy might strike up a conversation with you or – a special treat - himself.
If you want impersonal and predictable: stick to your strip malls and easy-marts.
The Fleetwood Diner
300 S Ashley St
Ann Arbor, MI 48104-1351
Built from a prefabricated diner kit in the late 1940s, this Ann Arbor institution represents not only the purist's vision of diner as transportable restaurant, but a prime example of diner culture. If it's character you want, and the odd cloud of American Spirit cigarette smoke doesn't phase you, this is your destination.
One cook frequently sings and juggles, skin and hair art are common among patrons and staff alike, a large hunk of glistening Gyro meat swivels on the countertop within poking distance, and what seems like ten thousand stickers announcing bands, social movements, organizations and events are affixed to the walls. While you wait for your dose of delicious, molten chili fries, you can try to read them all. The module itself is dominated by a counter and houses about seven or eight tables. While you're soaking up the ambience, check out the subterranean restroom with its wealth of graffiti.
A Different Time of Day, a Different Culture
After midnight on weekends, the Fleetwood can be overrun by post-bar revelers. Depending on the time of year, they line up inside or outside, crowding against the backs of those eating at the counter and waiting for a table or a take-out order. The crowd has been known to get rowdy– but at those times of night you'll almost always see a police car somewhere nearby to damp any flare ups. In other words, unless you're causing the trouble, it's thoroughly safe.
During the day time the crowd is utterly different. There is a great deal of staff-patron conversation, while those wanting a quiet meal are left alone. Patrons vary from downtown professionals like attorneys and shop-owners to students, senior citizens, and veterans.
"There is a different culture at different times," says Melissa Sheffer, an arts education graduate who works at The Fleetwood, and says it's one of the best jobs she's every had. "There's rarely a dull moment, especially on weekends."
Sheffer points out that one of the best features of the Fleetwood is the way it makes everyone, staff and patrons alike, feel utterly comfortable to be themselves. The worst part, Sheffer points out, and various patrons agree – the parking situation.
Like many diners, the Fleetwood is just emerging into the 21st century. It only started accepting credit cards in 2008. A brief non-smoking decree was hastily repealed the same
Try the famous hippy hash – a vegetarian blend of feta cheese, vegetables, and grilled potatoes served up fast and steaming on an oblong plate --and don't miss the coffee-- a delicious locally brewed variety – with a cigarette or without.
The Village Kitchen
241 N. Maple Rd.
Ann Arbor, MI, 48103
Owner Helen Pianos opened the Village Kitchen with a partner 30 years ago, and while it's not in the classic diner prefab unit, it's certainly a fit for providing both diner fare and diner culture. The Village Kitchen resides in the center of what feels like a parking lot on N. Maple near Plum Market. The advantage is visibility (the nearby stores bring customers), and a plethora of parking spots.
Looking around the Village Kitchen on any given afternoon, you'll see a comfortable dining area populated with three generations of customers. Pianos says that kids who used to come in when she first opened are now bringing their own families.
"Admitting all this really dates me," she laughs.
To cater to the regular-rich clientele patronizing the Village Kitchen, Pianos changes her menu monthly. Some staples can be found again and again, like the meatloaf on Meatloaf Mondays (yes, it exists!) and the well-regarded City Lasagna (a recipe that has been around since the restaurant's inception). The menu is mostly a product of Pianos, who works onsite for breakfast and lunch crowds. But the Village Kitchen's menu goes beyond her imagination. Unlike any other restaurant you can go to, the menus are a little interactive.
"My customers suggest recipes," she says. Pianos has customers frequently bring her recipes they have found while traveling. "If it's good, we run it."
The establishment has had its ups and downs over the years, like any business that has existed for so long. When the Fox Village movie theater closed its doors a few years ago, business died down quickly.
"It was a ghost town," she says. Now, with the arrival of Plum Market, business has improved enough that the Village Kitchen has adjusted its hours to include a dinner hour.
But whatever time you come, you'll find an atmosphere that is welcoming of both the large family out for a fast breakfast or the solitary patron with a book and a few hours to kill.
The Bomber Restaurant
306 E Michigan Ave
Ypsilanti, MI 48198-5620
Its unbelievable portions and strong reputation for good food and community involvement have earned this diner a great deal of recognition by national and local news agencies, the Food Network and many publications. In that sense, it's certainly an exception to some of its under-celebrated brethren. One reason is the way the business is run: the co-owner, John Sebastyen, is very savvy at staying in touch with his community. Yet, today's increasing fascination with "road food" has helped to make places like the Bomber Restaurant a major destination hotspot for travelers. Most importantly, the Bomber is an environment: In addition to the glutton's paradise of a menu, it offers a museum of WWII memorabilia that hangs from the ceiling and covers every inch of wall.
"Most of the stuff has been brought in by customers – and much is simply dropped off without information about who gave it," says Sebastyen, who can be found at the restaurant most days of the week.
The Bomber wasn't always such a success, nor was it a WWII reliquary – it had gone into some disrepair when Sebastyen and his partner acquired it.
"It had pink hot rod cars and Elvis pictures everywhere," he says. "When we took it over in 1995, I thought we needed to play on the theme of the name "'The Bomber.'" So Sebastyen redesigned the restaurant – even tracking down the original sign, which now hangs in a place of honor over the kitchen. It had been stored, says Sebastyen, for 30-odd years somewhere in Tennessee.
An insurance agent by trade, John started cooking as a hobby. Under his ownership, the restaurant had been doing "okay," but a feature on the Food Network in 2003 "put us over the top," he says. "They run that thing all the time."
"We're hanging in there," he says. "Everybody's broke - that's all people talk about. But we're priced right. We're not high end dining."
From a quick look at the walls, you can tell that The Bomber customers aren't just coming in for food or conversation. In fact, says Sebastyen, they do more than come to look as well: Often customers are looking for a safe place to display family heirlooms. In that way the Bomber has become a community effort museum - the collection doesn't stop upstairs. According to Sebastyen, the collection extends to a basement full of undisplayed treasures.
What to Check Out
Be sure to look for the aircraft blueprint found at the Yankee Air Museum that Sebastyen had preserved at his own significant expense ("That thing cost me $500 to preserve!"), the Japanese rifle, a real great coat, and the balsa wood model airplane hanging above the counter.
Sebastyen also attributes the Bomber's success to a gradually improving Ypsilanti. He says that local events like the Heritage festival and frequent classic car tours definitely popularize the city at large and bring customers in to businesses.
"You got to promote events and stuff in the area," says John, mentioning the Motor City tours and heritage festivals. "We support other restaurants and other business with recommendations, and we try to buy as local as we can."
Student discount programs, of which The Bomber is a participant, keep the students swinging through. And a good reputation doesn't hurt: Even high schoolers come in to eat the Bomber Breakfast in all its greasy glory - an enormous plate of food once cited by Playboy as a good way to cure a hangover.
Indeed, the Bomber's clients are a diverse group that includes construction and auto workers, business owners and, recently, a few celebrities-in-disguise. It's not unusual to find Ypsilanti's mayor or state representative having a meeting, or a group of EMU coaches and administrators pow-wowing over coffee. Students camp out over their computers to enjoy free Wi-Fi.
Stop by for some biscuits and gravy that, while it might cause a minor artery blockage, will certainly have you coming back for more. While you're there, ask about some of the artifacts on the walls, and if you've got one, share a story.
228 W Michigan Ave
Ypsilanti, MI 48197
"Big Greg" Batianis bought the Wolverine in 1963. By then, it had already been there since the late 1930s. Although he semi-retired about five years ago, the business has remained securely within the family. Today his daughter Deborah owns the storefront diner, and Big Greg still comes in at five every morning to make the specials and the soups.
"We've seen three generations of us. A lot of my customers tell me they used to come in with their parents," he says.
"The young generations don't know the diners," says Batianis, who hails originally from Greece. "Now it's all McDonald's, Burger King. They don't sit down and enjoy. Back in that day we had a jukebox on every table," he smiles.
Of course, in the '50s and '60s, downtown Ypsilanti was a different city than today. Many shoppers were drawn to the downtown area for stores and restaurants at that time. According to Batianis, large stores like Meijer reduced the need for small businesses and virtually took away the need for people to come downtown. Batianis points to the empty buildings on either side of Michigan Ave to illustrate how things have changed.
Yet Batianis is cheerful when he discusses the shift. "I know things change," he says. "It's been a nice town and I worked hard to make a living out of it."
To keep customers coming in, the Wolverine has frequent food specials. But there is a great deal of competition for what is a small body of patrons who often can't be bothered to contend with parking difficulties or would prefer the impersonal nature of a drive-through window. Batianis, who knows many customers by name, isn't knocking the drive-through: He freely admits to eating at McDonald's from time to time himself.
Like most diners fashioned on the old model, The Wolverine draws a diverse group of customers: all ages hunch over generous portions in the particle-board booths. Above their moussaka, Coney burgers and Cokes hangs a beautiful tin ceiling. The Wolverine has also been home to several General Motors commercials and a Drew Barrymore film – see her smiling from an autographed picture over the counter top.
In the diner's heyday, says Batianis, 90% of business was made up of regulars. Now with plant closings, retirement, move-aways, and deaths, the clientele has shrunk and more booths are empty, despite food that is still delicious and hot fresh coffee.
The menu is mostly American but has startling delicacies like moussaka, pastitso, lemon soup and even lamb from time to time. Although a very small diner, the Wolverine makes a special every day, keeping standards as high as ever.
The Big Sky Diner
1340 Ecorse Rd
Ypsilanti, MI 48198
The Big Sky Diner was once the classic diner of old postcards – the metallic lines of a narrow stainless steel trailer built for rail transport. Since its creation almost 70 years ago, it's been through some changes. Although inside you can still admire the sleek lines and design sensibilities of a different time – you will also see the build-ons that allow the restaurant to serve more people. Owner Tony Metko is devoted to creating a menu consisting of fresh ingredients.
"Everything is home made," he says. Metko bought the business five years ago and began renovating the dining areas and upgrading the kitchen.
The menu is laden with affordable delicacies from prime rib to Goulash, stuffed peppers to lasagna. Seafood, steaks and pastas round out the offering of usual diner suspects like omelets and tuna melts. It's particularly famous, Metko stresses, for its chicken dumpling soup.
"I have people that come from everywhere for it," Metko boasts.
Indeed, Metko reports that he has a diverse population of customers, including many foreigners from Greece, Poland and Croatia. With 24 hour service on weekends, the Big Sky Diner is also popular among cross country freight haulers, students (although it's a bit off the beaten student track to attract a crowd) and health care workers with fluctuating schedules.
A separate smoking section allows the restaurant to cater to a broader audience. So while families happily converge, solitary smokers can puff away in the rear dining area.
Walk into the restaurant on a weekend afternoon and you'll see a peppering of families with children, and lone diners of the agricultural bent, judging by the John Deere hats and the camouflage. The friendly wait staff is no-nonsense, and parking is never a problem.
Taking the Time
The experience you have in a diner depends on what you want. If it's conversation, that's almost certainly waiting for you at the counter. If you want food, it's there in abundance. Want to be alone? The diner is the perfect place to stare off into space unmolested. The diner as a third space offers some of the most variety and volatility any place. You never know when you'll be seated next to the CEO of a major corporation or a potential ne'er do well (who is almost certainly harmless).
And the stories of the diner's history, how it moved from hand to hand and how it changed from here to there are always unique. But in all cases, the diner is a fluid entity, one that belongs entirely to the people who run and patronize it.
In that sense, you can never go back to the same diner twice.
Leia is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor. She gained several pounds researching this story.
Her previous story was Virtual Health, Real Success.
All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. His favorite food just happens to be hash browns, not American fries...