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Photographs by Kris Holland

Any Way You Slice It: The cake case at Flames has never heard of a diet plate.

Counter Revolution

You want to go where everybody calls you 'Hon'

By Amy 'Grease Junkie' Hamlin

FOR MANY OF US who sit at a table in America, the food we eat is not an indicator of economic status or cultural tradition or even appetite. The food we eat is an indicator of need. Not as in nutritional need (recent weight studies have established our determined disinterest in that requirement) but need as in emotional craving. We choose our food by heartache.

There exists a long tradition of dining for consolation and comfort. The very word "nutrition" comes from the Latin term meaning to suckle and nurse, indicating that before anything else, food equals mother, belonging. So food is a form of familial connection, an urge rooted in infancy and indelibly linked to a mother's body. To be fed is supremely oral, in the way Freud meant oral to mean passive pleasure, a receiving of the divine through sensual means. The mouth as pleasure center.

And therein lies the most plausible explanation for the survival of--in both thick and thin economic times--the diner. Sometimes labeled "coffee shop," this uniquely American institution combines the winning attributes of instant gratification, affordability and a casual atmosphere to make it the eternal comfort zone for eating, sucking on a straw, swirling French fries into ketchup or just staring off into space without saying anything at all.

Speaking of Gravy

In 1872, when Rhode Island resident Walter Scott converted a horse-drawn wagon into the world's first lunch wagon, he probably wasn't thinking about his customers' comfort. Unwittingly, though, Scott inspired what would eventually be known as the "diner"--the symbol of American comfort food, a "home away from home."

By the 1940s there were hundreds of companies building the free-standing, streamlined "cars" that we think of as diners. Very few of these eateries were actually converted from railroad cars; rather, the design was meant to convey a modern sense of traveling in comfort, with none of the inconveniences. The diner was a road-trip fantasy, the segue between eating at home and a promised future when a full meal might rise piping hot from a car's very console.

Nowadays, "diner" has taken on a broader meaning, architecturally and comestibly. In fact, the meaning is spread so broad that calling some place a diner is guaranteed to inflame highly detailed disagreements within almost every social group. After several rounds of diner definition, the editorial staff at Metro decided to employ the following criteria in our investigation of dinerdom:

First, a diner must serve breakfast all day. One of the primary functions of a diner in modern society is as a place to nurse hangovers or as a place to prove that sleeping until 2 in the afternoon is not a detriment to anything, let alone getting pancakes.

Second, a diner should have booths. And it must have a counter, so a party of one can eat in anonymity and peace. The material covering the seating is of little importance, although vinyl, a.k.a. Naughahyde, is preferred.

Third, a diner must offer the following menu items: either a diet plate ("containing a hamburger patty and cottage cheese," one editor specified), biscuits and gravy or chicken-fried steak. Offering all three up a diner's credibility by several points.

Other proposed criteria included such myth-making diner qualities as limitless drip coffee, beehive-haired waitresses with toned forearms (if they call you "Honey," so much the better), an old-school milkshake machine and homemade pie. Some discussion was given to a required level of grease. Unfortunately, including all these criteria would have winnowed the list of diners down to diet-plate proportions.

Which brings us to a pertinent question: Where have all the old-school diners gone? Many have gone the way of upscale bistros or salad-based buffets: the American appetite rotates faster than orders on an order wheel. Others have been overtaken by 24-hour coffee shop chains, and still others, like the department store variety, slipped out of existence in a blink, along with the eclectic shopping emporiums that housed them.

Such is the case with Woolworth's, beloved browsing zone of grandmothers, college students and office workers alike, where the dining counter served as a staple of everyday life at its outpost at 27 S. First St. in downtown San Jose. Veteran downtowners Al Barber, Dennis Hooker, Tony Rose, Ernie Glave and Paul Etheridge used to hang out here for breakfast and a running (or running-off-at-the-mouth, depending on whom you ask) critique of the week's events. In 1997, the Woolworth Corporation filed bankruptcy and had to divest itself of all its locations at once. Sadly, San Jose's outlet had been one of the chain's profitable stores. (For an update on possible tenants of the Woolworth's Building, see this issue's Aural Fixation.)

A photo I have from 1978 shows a girlfriend of mine in her cat sunglasses sitting at the end of the Woolworth's counter, alone. We thought that place, with its mottled sea-green countertops, its toast-buttering wheel and griddle that lazily spattered burgers all day would never be gone. But nothing can be taken for granted anymore.

Now we have a resurgence of the 1950s burger joint: Johnny Rockets, which has captured a sliver of what was once America, reproduced it and made it tasty and affordable indeed (with veggie burgers a welcome sight on the menu).

Whether or not you call these "diners"--most don't have an all-day breakfast--the nostalgia factor keeps them alive and kicking. A new place in this vein, called Peggy Sue's, just opened up on Park Avenue, across from the Tech Museum. It features teenybopper waitstaff and jukebox décor--and a burger the heft of which would put Arthur Fonzarelli's fist to shame.

Not one mile away from Peggy Sue's sits an empty building that once housed what was in many longtime San Joseans' minds the ultimate diner: the 5 Spot Drive In. Although the building has been designated a historic landmark, its sign (pictured on our cover this week) remains dark. Driving past it late at night is like glancing in a window and seeing an old couple waltzing to unheard music. Food may ease heartache, but heartache needs no nourishment to flourish.

Eat Here

Diners, by and large, conjure up images of motherly servers and swarthy, tattooed cooks with monosyllabic first names who patrol the kitchen with a half-smoked cigarette dangling from their lips. They're also supposed to be intimate, with the "How's your day going?" conversations and "Anything interesting in the morning news?" queries going back and forth across the counter--patrons who opt for more privacy usually situate themselves at one of the few tables crammed together just beyond the bar. The menu shouldn't be anything fancy, and the prices should be cheap. And bring cash, please; plastic is not preferred.

A Bite of Wyoming
2227 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose
5:30am-9pm Mon-Fri; 6am-9pm Sat; 7am-2pm Sun

A Bite of Wyoming, affectionately known as "Bite" to its fans, dishes up omelettes, patty melts, milkshakes and pancakes with the best of them, but few other places can say they serve buffalo steaks. With half the fat and cholesterol of beef (served under the reproachful gaze of a real wall-mounted taxidermied buffalo head), bona fide bison is dished up in abundance here, sizzling on platters as an accompaniment to breakfast, as a sandwich for lunch or an entree for dinner.

A place like A Bite of Wyoming might seem out of place on busy Alum Rock Avenue, abutting fast-food joints and stucco strip malls, but there actually was a time when the east foothills of San Jose were more about ranching than ranch-style homes. A thriving cattle industry anchored the Valley of Heart's Delight, a story that in most historical recollections takes a back seat to apricots and silicon chips. (Possibly some real estate agents wanted to downplay the ancillary industries, like slaughterhouses, that went with it: Hello, Willow Glen.) You'll still see a few cowboys walking around the East Side wearing their shiny belt buckles and boots. Ditto for some remaining head of cattle roaming around out there in the hills that will one day bear the label "grass-fed."

Today, the counter at Bite is a congenial hangout for diverse regulars, with the only requirement being that you're a Raiders fan or you keep your mouth shut. That established, everything else is moot. "All the girls who work here are cousins," one such local confided. Service is polite and spiffy. The food is freshly made, and coffee swirls generously into thick porcelain cups. Biscuit-and-gravy fans find themselves in Pillsbury Doughboy heaven here with warm, fluffy biscuits submerged in a not-too-salty sausage gravy. And customers rave about the homemade soup that's on the menu every day.

New owner Joanne took the place over about three years ago, painted the once dark interior white and tried to brighten the place up a bit. It's a nice idea, but in my humble opinion was not necessary. A place like Bite is under no obligation to evolve.

Corinne Asturias

Alexi's Restaurant
445 Blossom Hill Rd., San Jose
7am-1:45pm Sun-Fri; 7am-2:45pm Sat

Alum Rock Family Restaurant
2920 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose
6am-2:30pm daily

Betsy's Restaurant
6500 Tennant Station, Morgan Hill
7am-9pm daily; 7am-1pm Sun

Bobbi's Coffee Shop
1361 S. De Anza Blvd., Cupertino
6am-2pm daily; 7am-2pm Sun

Cardinal Coffee Shop
3197 Meridian Ave., San Jose
Open 24 hours

Its reputation as a primordial landmark for nocturnal feeders has served the Cardinal Coffee Shop well. A steady stream of regulars migrates from the lounge to the dining room, shielded from that all-too-common moment of luminosity known to most as "daylight." Apart from retina-friendly lighting and a décor that only Roller Girl could love, the menu provides affordable options in a wide range of food classifications: Breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert or finger foods are served fresh anytime day or night.

A recent midnight dessert craving found me face to face with the Cardinal's richly seductive cake platter. Every unique slice had been displayed to charm flavor preferences, from carrot cake to baklava, pecan pie to cafe latte cheesecake. Jesus himself would shamelessly succumb to the intriguing allure of such a deviously delicious taste temptation. His weakness? Most likely a slice of warm apple pie a la mode. I fell helpless before the Cardinal's very own Napoleon cake. Oh, my Lord! A colossal slice of tart and creamy custard-filled cake layered with thick slices of sweet strawberries and a thin, flaky crust. To top it all off was a delicate swirl of bright red strawberry glaze. Heaven.

Ambiguous service, accommodating atmosphere, affordable prices and a broad menu selection continue to keep the Cardinal Coffee Shop and Lounge a vastly preferred San Jose diner at any hour day or late night.

Nicolette Arrayo

Carrow's Restaurant
1696 Tully Rd., San Jose
Open 24 hours

City Diner
1160 Blossom Hill Rd., San Jose
7am-9pm Sun-Thu; 7am-10pm Fri-Sat

Country Inn Cafe
6484 Camden Ave., San Jose

2010 El Camino Real, Santa Clara

7am-9pm Mon-Thu; 7am-9:30pm Fri-Sat; 7am-8:30pm Sun

Cozy Kitchen
2089 The Alameda, San Jose
6am-9:30pm Mon-Sat; 7am-8:30pm Sun

8425 San Ysidro Ave., Gilroy

200 Serra Way, Milpitas

1390 S. First St., San Jose

2484 Berryessa Rd., San Jose

1001 E. Capitol Expwy., San Jose

Tully Road. and Highway 101

1490 N. First St., San Jose

3399 Bowers Ave., Santa Clara

1745 El Camino Real, Santa Clara

3715 El Camino Real, Santa Clara

1015 Blossom Hill Rd., San Jose

1140 Hillsdale Ave., San Jose

2077 N. First St., San Jose

Open 24 hours

Flames Coffee Shop
1191 E. Calaveras Blvd., Milpitas

1812 Hillsdale Ave., San Jose

3590 El Camino Real, Santa Clara

7170 Santa Teresa Blvd., San Jose

449 Winchester Blvd., San Jose

6am-10pm daily; 6am-11pm Fri

As far as diners go, the Flames Coffee Shop on Winchester Boulevard is just a little bit more. Owned by three brothers, who also own two other Flames Coffee Shops in San Jose as well as one in Milpitas (they sold the Three Flames Restaurant to a former employee last March), the diner boasts waiters with bow ties, a huge menu (offering everything from pancakes to steak, baked potatoes to hash browns), a bakery and a wine list.

Inside, the Flames heats up things with a tropical theme (Hawaiian shirts and hot sauce are sold at the cash register). Customers are greeted with a paper flame that flickers on top of the bakery display. Although the diner does have a serving bar, the large, airy eating area is dominated more by tables and booths. The carpets are palm patterned, while the booths are upholstered with a matching pastel safari pattern--spotted jaguars, elephants and serene lions peek out from under lush jungle vegetation. Artificial coconut palms and birds of paradise complete the look.

The menu, though, doesn't tread the jungle. The omelettes, listed under the heading "Outrageous Omelets," come in more than a dozen different varieties, from seafood to spinach. The omelettes are made with four eggs and come with roughly shredded hash browns and toast. The avocado and feta cheese omelette is quite good. The eggs are light, cooked neither too much nor too little, and the feta, though a little strong, is piled on top rather than wrapped inside with the avocado. Other popular choices include the California burger (avocado, cheese, bacon), the linguini seafood sauté, the Country Breakfast Special and the Maserati omelette (sausage, mushroom and jack and American cheese topped with a meat spaghetti sauce).

Najeeb Hasan

Fourth Street Bowl Coffee Shop
1441 N. Fourth St., San Jose
6am-9pm daily; 7am-10pm Sat-Sun

Fourth Street Bowl is a J-Town entertainment complex with 32 lanes of fun, billiards and inebriated karaoke in a lounge the size of a roller rink. But don't discount its culinary attributes. Fourth Street also sports a diner of classic proportions, one filled with cooks, waitresses and clientele straight outa central casting.

As I slipped into one of Fourth Street Bowl's aqua-blue booths on a recent Sunday morning, I half expected a Jheri-curled Samuel L. Jackson to plop down next to me with a briefcase. No sign of Sam or a smacked-out John Travolta--instead a mix of bikers, older couples and local Japanese-American seniors sipped their morning adrenaline and flipped through the paper, keeping an eye on the 49ers losing to the Bucs on the bowling-alley TV.

As I opened the menu and read the words "Hawaiian Favorites," it seemed everything was right with the world. Yes! This is one of the few South Bay spots where steamed rice is available instead of toast. Rarer still, Fourth Street Bowl is where you can get a "Loco Moco" (a Hawaiian phrase meaning "Instant Heart Stopper Breakfast"), which consists of a hamburger patty and two fried eggs served over steamed rice with brown gravy dumped on top of everything.

If it sounds weird, order the fruit cup you freakin' haole, but the Loco Moco is a genuine icon of cultural cuisine. The combo was conjured up in the late '40s by a couple who wanted to give the teens who frequented their restaurant something cheap and filling to eat. Today, it's a local food staple, a regular of every diner and roach coach on the islands.

And no, you don't have to be crazy to eat one, but it sure helps. After plowing through Fourth Street Bowl's Loco Moco plate (and sampling my wife's huge Portuguese sausage and eggs combo), I promptly fell into a Loco Moco coma (think burrito coma times 10) and wasn't hungry or productive for the next 32 hours. Cool.

Todd Inoue

[ More diners on page 2 ]

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From the January 30-February 5, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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