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Counter Culture:
Diners are Good for Your Heart

or, So That's a Short Stack, Side of Bacon, and Coffee... Want Me with That?

by Margot Ebling

"This is Guilford. It's a bore."

Nearly every day of my high school existence, as I tore through the sleepy streets of my Connecticut hometown, the spray-painted message on the underpass was a dull, drippy reminder of my social woes. In a wasteland of dork-a-thon dances and gruesome parties, one beacon of light reigned supreme: the Guilford Diner. Exit 59. Open 24 hours. There we would gather, a wretched cluster of action-starved youth, to chain-smoke, ingest comfort food, stare at the door, and play the Cure on our mini-jukebox until the wee hours.

Alas, the Guilford Diner ain't what it once was (it's now a "Vegetarian Enclave," whatever that means). And I like to think my social options have expanded somewhat in the past ten years. Nevertheless, I still love diners. If you're hungry for a date, head to your nearest diner counter -- where all the low-key people do lunch, solo -- for just the right blend of comfort and opportunity.

Where else can you consume an entire dinner plate of disco fries while contemplating the profile of the truck driver/cop/grad student sitting a spilled cup of coffee away? Settle down, weary traveler of the singles circuit, and settle in: being at a diner is like being home... except that random strangers keep popping in for a cup of joe or slice of baklava. (And you don't have to do dishes.)

Know How to Pick 'Em

Not all diners are created equal. Be wary of restaurants parading 1950s retro decor and name-tagged waiters that, in my mind at least, do not qualify as diners. Like a drag queen pretending to be your grandma, such fakes may amuse, but they do not satisfy. In short, avoid anyplace that looks just too throwback to be real; it isn't. Also be wary of spots that, while not exactly fakes, still don't have the right meet-and-greet vibe; they may be too loud, too rude, too isolated, too truck stop, etc.

Believe it or not, there are few geographical pockets of the country not covered by Zagat. To find your finer diners online, try Diner City, which has a nationwide directory. You'll find more restaurant reviews on Dave's Diner Homepage. As you sleuth, consider the following three criteria for finding a diner with all the right moves -- a diner that says "Sidle up, honey; the coffee's hot, and so am I."

1. No singing waiters. I am thinking in particular of Ellen's Stardust Diner, located in the heart of the New York City's Broadway Belt. Steer clear of any establishment that tries this hard. Diners are not about effort. How could you possibly make sweet-and-low talk with that darling construction worker if you're going to be interrupted by the maitre d's yodeling rendition of "Music of the Night"? I say, no thank you. True diners do not require fancy tricks in order to attract a following; if they do, there's something wrong with the chili.

2. Waffles at 2 a.m. Your diner must boast some, if not all, of the standard features that make it worthy of the category. These include prominent neon signs (flickering, preferrably) that beckon you with such siren songs as OPEN 24 HRS and THE BEST CHOPPED MEAT MONEY CAN BUY!

Breakfast round-the-clock is a must, of course. A surly Greek or Italian waitstaff. A well-trafficked counter lined with stick-to-me stools. And, the crown jewel, a pastry display (rotating is ideal, but not required) with a selection of unidentifiable but dazzling desserts, most topped with jellied fruit. In addition, shiny surfaces (steel or chrome, polished to a high sheen) are key for mate hunting, as they allow you to survey all areas of the establishment with a few quick flicks of your eyes.

3. Location, location, location. Although diners nationwide attract a highly datable, less pretentious demographic than your average corner bistro, you are most likely to Mr. or Ms. Right in the neighborhood where he or she works or lives. Unlike the narrow-hip clubs and bars of SoHo, where even the Bridge-and-Tunnel people are hustling to wedge themselves in, most do not venture far off the beaten path for chicken salad on rye.

If you have your heart set on an investment banker with a yen for egg creams (and don't we all?) go to your city's financial district and stake out the diners catering to J.P. Morgan. Don't feel like the stalking thing today? Head to your local joint. If you like the vibe, keep dropping by. Remember, familiarity breeds balls: the more comfortable you feel, the more likely you are to initiate conversations with random strangers when they've got coleslaw stuck to their chin. And that's a good thing.

[Editor's Note: You can often find Team BG at Corfu, just around the corner here on 10th Ave., tucking into a Monte Cristo or the Souvlaki Deluxe, getting sassed by our beloved, hard-as-nails waitress Judy. And yet, we have to confess: nothing can ever beat the Doodle.]

More: How to Speak Diner; Reading the Napkins


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