In Praise of the Greasy Spoon


Back in my youth, such eateries as coffee shops and diners were known as "greasy spoons." They were all over the place. I recall one at the corner of the elevated subway and Prospect Avenue in the Bronx. And which everyone in the neighborhood called "Los Griegos," or "The Greeks," since most diners, at the time, were Greek owned. There was another one on the corner of 110th street and Lexington Avenue, also called the same name by everyone around. Today there aren't as many as before, although you can still find them in certain areas. Where I live on the East Side there is a local diner that my wife and I frequent, usually on Saturdays, when we do our errands. We have a set routine. We go to a nearby farmer's market to get our produce, then to the Supermarket for the regular groceries, and so forth. At lunch time we have a bite to eat. I like eating at the dinner. I can get a bagel, or a tuna fish sandwich, or even an egg cream. It's convenient, filling and cheap. Nothing fancy, just plain down-home edibles.

These days, however, we are also confronted by newer more "in" places, more "nutritionally correct" places. In my neighborhood recently, a new place has opened up that touts "organic burgers," "organic salads," and even "organic shakes." It even boasts "organic wines and beer." So this time around, my beloved wife suggested we try out the new place; that we eat "healthy" for once, rather than have the same old deal at the greasy spoon. I complied, curious to note how this new upscale place would compare. I'm always game for a new adventure.

Thus we sat in a comfortable booth in this new organic joint. The waiter or server, as they are known these days, a solicitous handsome young man, asked for our order. My wife knew what she wanted, she would try one of their organic bison burgers and a ginger ale. I ordered the usual for my Saturday noon meal, a bagel. "We have no bagels," the server replied. This to me was weird. A New York eatery without bagels? That's like a Catholic Church without incense. So I said, "O---kay, what have you got?" The server suggested one of their burgers, like my wife's bison burger. Perusing down the menu I noticed they had  listed portobello mushrooms.  I decided on that. Then the server replied that they didn't serve portobello burgers. "O---kay, I'll have a portobello sandwich," I said, and added, "on a roll." We have no rolls," the server informed. "You have a choice of a brioche or 2-grain bread." Stumped, I said, "I'll have the 2-grain bread."

We had ordered, and we waited for our meal. My wife loved her bison burger. I, however, had a different experience. The minute I took a bite into the portobello sandwich, I couldn't keep it down. It was the most salty thing I ever tasted. For health reasons, I avoid salt and sugar whenever I can. I seldom will grab the salt shaker at a table. This sandwich tasted like fatback. What looked like the manager of the place noticed my barely eaten sandwich on the table, and came over to ascertain what was wrong. I told him the sandwich was just too salty for my taste. He explained that could be because the portobellos had been.  dipped in balsamic vinegar before cooking. I cook with balsamic vinegar. I've never had this taste before. Something definitely was not right. The server came back and asked if I wanted something else. I figured I didn't want to push my luck too far, so I ordered simplest thing I could think of: two pieces of buttered. "We have no butter," the server said. "What?" I shook my head. "No butter?" "Yes," the server elaborated, "we don't use butter in this establishment."

I sat there dumbfounded. Finally I just told him to bring me two pieces of 2-grain bread. And this was my lunch: two pieces of bread washed down by water. It called to mind those tales of prisoners on Devil's Island subsisting on the same meal; or a young Edmund Dantes eating bread and water in his island prison before he became the Count of Monte Cristo. Had I known what was coming I would have ordered the organic wine or beer. At least I could have had a buzz while dining on bread and water.

The whole experience brings to mind an old adage by the writer Nelson Algren: "Never play cards with a man named 'Doc' or eat at a place called 'Mom's." That says it all. Sometimes the best recourse is the old greasy spoons where you can get what you want without fuss or bother. I sing their praises every day of my life.
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