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Musing: Diners and Greasy Spoons
A not-so-great meal at a greasy spoon this week reminded me of a fabulous adventure from many years ago.
I was sure the questionable-looking place hid tasty food. The overflowing parking lot. The generic name on the fading sign. The view through the plate glass windows of people gabbing as they ate.
We finally got our chance to try it, but I wasn’t impressed. Despite all the outward signs of a hidden gem, the only thing we received was disappointment.
Even the fried okra was bland. Whether you love the vegetable or hate it, you can’t think of fried okra as boring.
I’m not going to name the restaurant because that’s not the point. It’s somebody’s business and I don’t want to harm their livelihood. Other customers are clearly happy, so it’s more about my taste.
From last week’s experience, though, memories bubbled up of an adventurous trip during my college years. We subsisted on diners in small towns. I couldn’t name a single restaurant today, though I bet many still exist. I barely remember the names of any of the towns.
Here’s how it came to pass.
A group of friends and I were in New Mexico. My fall semester resumed at Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, North Carolina, in a mere week. The seven of us piled into a van and took off with a sure-fire plan to get me to my academic pursuits on time.
This was, of course, long before the days of Google Maps. Or, frankly, Google. Or cell phones. Or consumer-friendly GPS.
Our directions came from a paper map. More accurately, a stack of them. One from each state, acquired at welcome centers or gas stations. Anyone under a certain age who is reading this tale has no clue how hard it is to fold a map.
We stretched a series of them out on a floor. New Mexico. Texas. Oklahoma. Arkansas. Tennessee. North Carolina. The obvious and quickest route was Interstate 40. I would be on campus days before class started.
Which meant we had time for a slight diversion. By adding a couple more state maps, we realized that driving toward San Antonio and then across to Houston meant New Orleans was “on the way.”
This route was decidedly longer. I would be cutting my arrival mighty close. But we all agreed we wanted to visit the historic sites in that glorious city. Our thought process, of course, had absolutely, positively nothing to do with Bourbon Street.
At this point, I should mention that we also decided to “swing by” Roswell and Carlsbad on the way to San Antonio, which is how I ended up seeing the movie St. Elmo’s Fire in a Fort Stockton, Texas, movie theater. This, however, is not a story of how I arrived a few days late for fall semester and almost lost my dorm room.
No, this tale is about finding places to eat in tiny towns across rural America. And not fast food, but good old diners. The trick was figuring out which ones were good and which ones weren’t.
If you’ve ever driven lonely, rural highways—especially those in the vast deserts of New Mexico and West Texas—you know the answer is simple for many small towns. No eateries exist.
Our map, now wadded and not folded because we surrendered to its superiority, showed a name beside a dot, but when we arrived, we couldn’t find a town. Maybe an old, boarded-up gas station. Perhaps a house far in the distance. Once, the “town” consisted of nothing but a dirt road intersecting the paved two-lane we were on. We saw no other proof of humans anywhere.
In slightly larger towns, a single restaurant existed. Our choice became a simple eat now because we can, or drive for the next town that might be a hour away and may or may not have visible human population.
What was the deciding factor to stay or go? We weighed our comfort level that seven boys piling out of a van would be welcomed. Or, at least, tolerated.
In one town, for example, the lone establishment was a squat, cinder-block building. A neon sign hanging in the window advertised cold beer. Not a particular brand, but cold. In the desert temperature which we estimated to be about 512ºF, that was smart advertising.
We pulled off the road into the dirt parking lot. No car or truck was in sight, but dozens of Harley’s leaned on their stands. Our arrival attracted attention as two heavily tattooed, leather wearing, beefy guys stepped out the open door and glared at us.
The debate was short. We weren’t quite hungry enough to stop. None of us really wanted a beer right then. We got back on the road and headed for the next town, glancing in the rear view mirror at a thankfully empty road.
Fortunately, the best towns offered at least two options. On one end of town would be Rosie’s or Clyde’s or someone else’s name. The other end would have Sunset Cafe, Desert Diner, or, my personal favorite, Eats. We needed to choose.
We applied the highly scientific method of counting pickup trucks. Our theory was simple. Farmers and ranchers knew quality food and how to get a good value. Thus, a popular place would be both good and inexpensive.
Sure, when we walked in, the place grew quiet as all eyes sized up the young strangers, but a waitress would appear, call us sweetie or honey, and the patrons would return to murmuring.
After a bit, someone would inevitably turn and start talking to us. Where were we from? Where were we headed? Did our mamas know where we were?
New Mexico. North Carolina. More or less.
Sure, it sounds like questions crazed serial killers would ask visiting strangers in some horror movie, but our experiences were all positive. We would end up hearing tall tales and laughing at stories. When we finally took our leave, we would hear a sincere wish to return if we ever found ourselves in their town again.
Plus, the food was consistently delicious. Whether it was a meat-and-three or a burger-and-fries place, the cooks knew what they were doing.
Well, almost all. There was the place whose house speciality was jalapeño pizza and pitchers of icy, cold draft beer.
We really, really should have skipped that one. The aftermath wasn’t pretty, especially the next day’s drive. Seven guys. One van. The memory makes me queasy.
Somehow, I survived the trip. My college gave me back my dorm room. My studies went well.
New Orleans was fun, but the memories of those greasy spoons have stayed with me more than anything.
Except maybe that jalapeño pizza.
Enjoyed the Story? Try a Novel
If you enjoyed today’s musing, please consider reading one of my novels. Each standalone book tells the story of big lives in a small town, ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges.
On The Website This Week
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Just in time to help you decide what to give to your loved ones, I asked my readers what the best Valentine’s Day gift would be. Here are the survey results.
This month’s survey ask when your mind tells you it’s spring—Meteorological (March 1); Daylight Saving Time (March 12), or Astronomical Time (March 20). Fun tidbit—Results so far show that “other” is leading the way with some great answers. Share your thoughts by taking the survey here.
Gratuitous Dog Photo: The Grand Entrance
Landon certainly knows how to make a grand entrance with that high-stepping strut and the beaming smile. Behind him, Frankie seems a little less enthused.
Until Next Monday
May your meals be as tasty and the company as welcoming as the diners and greasy spoons I’ve visited.
See you next Monday.
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