« Back In Action! | Main | India-Australia Connection »

American Pie: Breakfast With The ROMEOS

...Standard fare includes twenty different sandwiches, four or more soups, hamburgers, hot-dogs, fish dishes, omelets, pasta dishes, and every kind of salad you can think of. You can also order chops, steak, veal dishes, every kind of sausage and chicken. If you order a simple sandwich you will be quizzed as to whether you want it on white bread, rye or whole meal; toasted or un-toasted, mayonnaise or butter. You want coffee? Regular or decaff?...

John Merchant serves up a tasty column about American diners and delis - and the morning ROMEOS who patronise them.

For more of John's appetising words please click on American Pie in the menu on this page.

Each Monday morning I meet with a group of friends for breakfast. We call ourselves the ROMEOS. Before you start to smirk, it’s not that we think of ourselves as a bunch of ancient lotharios; those days are but fond memories, if they ever existed. The word is simply an acronym for Really Old Men Eating Out. The venue that we choose for our get-togethers is selected from several Diners that are scattered about our neighborhood, and we rotate through them for a change of scene, or because one or another has a breakfast special that appeals to our pockets.

This being Florida, they are not real Diners, but approximations set up by owners who want to cater for the many folks from New York and New Jersey who winter here. Strictly speaking, real Diners are not found outside those states, though there are plenty of imitations elsewhere. Simply stated, a Diner is a cheap roadside restaurant built to resemble a railway diner car. The first diners were apparently converted from discarded horse-drawn trolleys in 1897, when they were replaced by electric trolleys.

I have no hard evidence to support my theory, but I suspect the Diner format sprang from the much earlier, and more ethnically specialized eatery, the Delicatessen. My research tells me that the word delicatessen comes from the German Delikatessen, and that this German word is the plural of Delikatesse, which in turn comes from the French delicatesse and means "delicious things to eat". The word delicate is recorded in Latin as delicatus, with the meaning "giving pleasure, delightful".

The best Delicatessens in New York are predominantly Jewish owned, and feature foods that are traditionally Jewish, particularly the cold meats, the breads, the smoked fish and the pickles. But it’s hard to keep anything good to yourself, and now deli food is beloved of many cultures. Some New York delis have become national icons, among them: Katz's Deli on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the 2nd Avenue Deli in Manhattan's East Village that closed in 2006, The Carnegie Deli in Midtown Manhattan near Carnegie Hall, and The Hello Deli.

Though the original “railroad car” style diner is hard to find, they do exist, and even the newer establishments are often built in that style, but with embellishments, mostly in the form of stainless steel cladding on the outside and marble floors inside. The buildings also feature gaudy neon lighting, as if it were hard to spot these uniquely styled edifices. Other than inexpensive, a feature shared by Delis and Diners is, to use an Italian expression, abbondanza; that is, “more is better.” In other words, if the customer isn’t totally overwhelmed by the quantity of food served, then you’re not giving value for money.

To have the very least amount of credibility, a diner must conform to certain specifications. The accommodations must always include a counter with seats at which customers who are alone, or who are on a tight schedule, can sit, or pick up “to go” orders. The main dining room must offer a choice of either booths or tables. The customers always take up their own bill and pay it at a cash register near the entrance.

Located at the side of the cash register will be a very large glass and chrome case full of chocolate layer-cakes smothered in cream, strawberry shortcake, Danish pastries, fudge brownies, muffins and other calorific desserts. The menu is usually at least 6 pages long, rarely changes, and is laminated in clear plastic. Amazingly, any of the scores of items can be ordered at any time, and often around the clock. Breakfast is always available.

Standard fare includes twenty different sandwiches, four or more soups, hamburgers, hot-dogs, fish dishes, omelets, pasta dishes, and every kind of salad you can think of. You can also order chops, steak, veal dishes, every kind of sausage and chicken. If you order a simple sandwich you will be quizzed as to whether you want it on white bread, rye or whole meal; toasted or un-toasted, mayonnaise or butter. You want coffee? Regular or decaff?

Once you get past that stage of the meal, if you’re in the mood for dessert, a similarly overwhelming selection faces you. For the sweet tooth, dessert can be as simple as jelly (with or without fruit?), or as complex as an ice cream sundae. In between there are cakes of every kind, rice pudding, various pies (plain or a-la-mode?), or just plain old ice cream (vanilla, butter pecan, peppermint, chocolate chip, caramel crunch?)

Most diners are owned by Greek Americans, and they run a tight ship. The owners are almost always present, day or night. Often there are several other family members involved, but you can easily spot the “main man.” He’s the dark-eyed, brooding gentleman sipping coffee at a table near to the check-out. Unsmiling, his eyes dart around, watching every move of his staff. If he is dissatisfied with what he sees, swift justice is metered out, without discrimination between hired help and family members. Repeat offenders don’t last long.

Occasionally, the ROMEOS will try out some other kind of cafe for breakfast, generally what is referred to as a “greasy spoon.” The term sounds pejorative, but it is used with affection, and such places are usually OK. But in the end, the diner experience is unique, and draws us back like a magnet. After all, where else could you get a bowl of beef barley soup, followed by an ice cream sundae, at eight o’clock in the morning?

# # #


Categories

Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.