Wherein we wax philosophic about the joys of Dallas’ diner culture
If I wanted a home-cooked meal, I’d cook a meal at home.
But home cookin’ well, that’s another matter altogether.
Home-cooked requires a mom or dad and any sass-mouth will get you a smack. Home cookin’ has a saucy waitress who dishes as well as she takes, and the only smacking is from the gum in her mouth. (Diners also tolerate things mom never would, like the spelling “cookin’.”)
My mom was a great home-cook, turning out lasagna, baked rosemary chicken, standing rib roasts, even doughnuts all with lots of TLC and no little bit of skill. Her misguided effort at mousaka, on the other hand, is notorious in family folklore, but that’s a story for my therapist.
Yet the very fact she attempted mousaka is precisely why you can’t draw a one-to-one parallel between home-cooked and home cookin’: In general, the universe of the latter simply could not tolerate a Greek eggplant dish. Nope, when you’re talking about diners, you’re talking about a fixed constellation of stars: Bacon and eggs, hamburger and meatloaf, chicken-fried steak, biscuits and gravy, cream pies. Go much further, and you’ve left down-home comfort food and entered into the dimension of New American cuisine.
That’s because, in a very real sense (and one that would likely appall many patrons to think too carefully about), diners are actually microcosms of socioeconomic equality experiments in socialism with ketchup bottles on the table. Like a supply queue in the old Soviet Union or medical insurance plan in present-day Canada, everything at a diner the same, yet different.
Upscale eateries like Stephan Pyles and Bijoux are inherently capitalistic exercises: Money talks, and greasing the palm of a maitre d’ might get you further than the chump cooling his heels at the bar.
Not so with diners, where the only greased palm is likely carrying a tray of blue-plate specials. Like a midnight snowfall, diners bathe everyone who enters with the same moniker of “customer.” Each patron is alike and pretty much treated that way.
Case in point: Mama’s Daughters’ Diner. Walking into this legendary local hang is like walking into a factory that produces kitsch. Barbara, who has been serving customers with inimitable familiarity since sometime in the late Triassic, still waits tables with a personal style you can’t only find at a greasy spoon.
Walk in as a solo luncheoner, and you’ll be seated in an empty chair at any available table, where passing friendships develop with other seatmates who chat you up. On one visit, my waiter happily grabbed my magazine, salivating vocally over the cover photo of Clare Danes, before filling my water glass.
The selections are soul-food staples, like turnip greens, buttered rice (and buttered corn, and buttered bread they like butter here), beans and broccoli with cheese (we’re not talking aged gouda, either: this is thick, yellow, Velveeta-style spread, clinging to the stalks like the giant squid cleaved to Capt. Nemo’s Nautilus). Daily specials include the unmissable chicken-fried steak.
The Purple Onion is relatively new compared to Mama’s Daughters’, and its youth still shows. Service isn’t the strongest factor: We waited full five minutes after sitting before being offered coffee or a breakfast menu. But once the food arrived, our quibbles ceased.
Were the yolks of our fried eggs really preternaturally yellow, glowing like wet saffron in the midday light, or did they just seem so against the stark-white porcelain of the dish? They proved the reason they’re called “sunny side up,” and despite a leisurely meal, they never hardened into the chalky pills that often signal a need to move on to another item.
Try the special with waffles or the one with a meaty chunk of ham (both are good), just be sure to get the hash browns, which are actual brown (undercooked breakfast taters are a sore spot) and just greasy enough to remind you how soothing a little indulgence can be.
Lucky’s Cafe could probably get licensed as a rehab clinic, so established is its rep as the Sunday brunch meeting place for countless club kids who have partied a little too hard on Saturday nights only to sober up on coffee and a sarcastic once-over by the camp-loving staff.
Nothing absorbs lingering alcohol and prompts recovery quite so comfortingly as a plate of biscuits with gravy getting a full dish of fat and carbs here is as much as rite of passage as playing spin the bottle at a sleepover.
You’d be hard-pressed to spot the river alluded to in the Riverside Grill (the Trinity hasn’t roared by the back door in ages), but you don’t come for the view anyway. “It’s the best food we’ve ever had,” volunteers one loyal customer, who looks like he’s frequented more than his fair share of greasy spoons.
Bright and inviting inside, Riverside’s staff of waitresses are always handy and ready to bring you out of the featured lunch plates, which include catfish and open-faced turkey sandwiches. But the street sign hawks the hamburgers for good reason. With toasted buns and fixings piled on generously, the single- and double-patty bacon cheeseburgers (the double-stacked should come with a side of Lipitor) are hearty delights, and the crispy sweet onion rings are as good as anywhere in town.
It doesn’t require a forensic expert to realize what the top attraction at the Original Market Diner is. Walk into the Harry Hines institution, and your eye is instantly drawn to the glass tower proudly displaying well-lit, rotating tiers of pies, glistening with whipped cream and fruit syrups. For some, enjoying a thick slab of Mama’s meatloaf (really Miguel’s meatloaf, our waitress confides) is merely the necessarily prelude to dive into dessert.
The crusts are flaky, the cream recipes cocoanut, chocolate, banana patently heart-clogging, but also irresistible. And with hot, flavorful coffee constantly refreshed, it’s a pairing the greatest diners put a lot of care into.
Dallas is flush with such institutions (Oak Cliff-dwellers cheer about Norma’s), although they seem to spread like chickenpox around Uptown and the Design District. And it is true: Going to one of thee diners is not the same as cooking food at home.
The following diners are all open for breakfast and lunch (Lucky’s is the only one open for dinner), and while most serve similar dishes, we picked the ones from each that stood out. Feel free to decide for yourself on a favorite.
Lucky’s Cafe. 3531 Oak Lawn Ave. 214-522-3500.
Don’t-miss dish: Biscuits and gravy.
Mama’s Daughters’ Diner. 2014 Irving Blvd. 214-742-8646. (Three other locations.).
Don’t-miss dish: Chicken-fried steak.
Original Market Diner. 4434 Harry Hines Blvd. 214-521-0992.
Don’t-miss dish: Banana cream pie and coffee.
The Purple Onion. 1838 Irving Blvd. 214-747-0101.
Don’t-miss dish: Ham, eggs and hash browns.
Riverside Grill. 940 Industrial Blvd. 214-655-6300.
Don’t-miss dish: Cheeseburger and onion rings.
Savor Dallas, the annual celebration of wine and food, returns this weekend. It starts Friday with the Wine Stroll at Victory Park and the Arts District, and continues all day Saturday with tasting seminars and cooking demonstrations. The grand tasting will include participation from local chefs such as Doug Brown with Amuse, Abraham Salum with Salum, Matthew Dunn with Stephan Pyles and Scott Gottlich with Bijoux. For a complete schedule and admission prices, visit Savordallas.com.
It looks like Joel Harloff won’t get a chance to take The Landmark Restaurant to the five-star heights the new owners of the Warwick Melrose had in store. After four years with the Oak Lawn eatery, more than two as executive chef, Harloff has announced he’s leaving to start up Screen Door. He’ll helm the previously-announced down-home cooking concept from Dallas restaurateur Scott Jones, and will also design the menu for Jones next branch of Caf? Italia, opening soon in the Bishop Arts District.
Mockingbird Station will introduce another hip eatery this month when Urban Taco opens. Described as the first upscale taqueria in Dallas, it imports the Mexico City-style of tacos. Fernando Huerta, formerly the sous chef at Stephan Pyles, will create the menu.
Philomeno Aceto will host a special wine tasting with food pairing at her delightful Gourmet Garage in East Dallas. Oriel Wines will be served along with six courses. It takes place March 21 at 6:30 p.m. Sign up at Philomenafood.com.
Caf? Toulouse chef Jim Oetting has added some new seasonal dishes to the menu, including smoked salmon with citrus-watercress and coq au vin.
Downtown’s historic Dallas Magnolia Hotel, the first high-rise in America to feature air-conditioning, has named Jason T. Nealy its new executive chef. Nealy was most recently with Chaparral atop the Adam’s Mark Hotel and also worked at Dragonfly.
Nove Italiano joins its sister restaurant N9ne Steakhouse as part of the dining scene at Victory Park. Alberto Lombardi’s newest Uptown eatery, Sangria, opens on March 21. The Spanish-style tapas bar joins French-style Caf? Toulouse and Italian-style Taverna in Lombardi’s tour of European cuisines.
For Easter, La Duni Latin Kitchen offers unique chocolates in charming shapes of ducks, bunnies and eggs. Gift boxes run from $5.75 to $7.50.
Wine dinner, anyone? Vue in Addison hosts a Catena wine dinner on March 24; the cost is $65. Stephan Pyles welcomes the Neal Family Vineyards to a dinner on March 26 it’ll set you back $175. Caf? Toulouse holds a George Duboeuf wine dinner on March 20; the cost is $65.
Or how about a cooking class? Chef Avner Samuel will hold a cooking class featuring luxurious black truffles at Oak Lawn’s Aurora on March 24; the cost is $95.
Arnold Wayne Jones
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 09, 2007