Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives

This is the title of a show on the Food Network.  Chef Guy Fieri travels around to various “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants all over the country, most of them suggested by viewers.  He tootles around in his signature cherry red convertible Camaro.  Like I believe that.  They are most certainly flying his car to whatever city he’s in, but it’s a good trademark, and Fieri is a lot of fun.  Each of these restaurants has some signature dish they do very well, and sometimes more than one.  Fieri has never met a food he doesn’t like 🙂

I think of the classic diner as a free-standing place, like an old railroad car that has been converted into a restaurant.  It’s very narrow, with a counter and stools on one side, and booths against the wall on the other. But there are also faux diners, mocked up to look like something from the 1950’s.  One such diner that I believe was in New Orleans had black and white tile linoleum floors, red and white checked table cloths, lots of chrome (light fixtures, stools) and servers dressed up in uniforms like they wore in the old sit-c0m “Alice”.  And complete with juke boxes playing Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.

A couple of real diners are famous, such as the Whistle Stop Café in Juliette, Georgia.  It was made famous in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes”. Maybe lesser known is the diner called the Northside Café, in Winterset, Iowa, featured in the movie “The Bridges of Madison County”. Until the movie was made, Winterset was best known as the birthplace of John Wayne. When I lived in Des Moines, I visited all the locations where the movie was made–the farmhouse, Winterset, all the bridges that were still standing. Every year they have a Covered Bridge Festival in Winterset, and I can say that one of my fondest memories is that this is where I saw my first and only demonstration of live polka.

Drive-Ins: When I think of drive-ins, I don’t really think of restaurants, although it was a revolutionary idea. I think of movies. When I was a child, my parents took me to the movies, always a western, and I always fell asleep before the end, after asking a million questions about what had just happened and what was going to happen next. As a teenager, we had a drive-in movie in our town, which I only went to once. It seemed to me that just being seen there was enough to trash your reputation. When I got ready to move to the big city of Memphis after graduation, several people expressed misgivings about the dangers of a city. I was like, “Are you kidding? At least there’s something to do there. Here, I’m in more danger going to the drive-in”.

Dives: I don’t think of dives as restaurants. I think of them as bars. Three in Memphis stand out for me: Peanuts, the Last Laugh, and The Daily Planet. Especially The Daily Planet. The owners were for some reason obsessed with Superman and Lois Lane and there were posters all over the bar of them. Both Peanuts and The Daily Planet had live music, and even the most amateur of live music in Memphis was a cut above what you usually see in bars.

But for the highest honor you could bestow on a dive bar…that goes to Vic’s Kangaroo Café in New Orleans. I’m amazed–I looked it up and it still exists, at 636 Tchoupitoulas St. It was across the street from my first office there. It was the after-work watering hole for me and my fellow managers. So many memories…like the time we took our boss there. He wasn’t much of a drinker, and after one or maybe two beers, he got offended by something someone said to him at the bar. We don’t know what it was, but our boss Fred was black, and he was the only black person in the bar. So pretty safe to assume it was something racial, or he assumed it was. I think being the only black person in the bar made him a little paranoid, and then you add alcohol to that…So Fred breaks a beer bottle on the bar, leaving shards of glass on the bar and a jagged weapon in his hand. We all surrounded him and marched him out of the bar, all the while shouting “Everything is OK! Really, he didn’t mean it! We’ll be back to clean up the glass! He’s leaving now! Please don’t call the police!”

I should write to Guy Fieri and tell him to check out Vic’s 🙂 They do have food. Every Friday they would do a crawfish boil on the sidewalk outside the front door. They had a popcorn machine that they added cayenne pepper to. I wasn’t able to breathe while they were popping it. I was there so much that eventually they would come to me and say, “We’re about to pop some more popcorn, wanna go outside?” Now there is the epitome of your friendly hometown dive bar.

8 responses to “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives

  1. Oh I love to discover new hidden away restaurants! and reading this I just remembered the name of Pla in Barcelona (which I had forgotten for two years) a marvellous place in a wall, in an alley with a name so easy to forget!!! Thanks for both prompts:)

  2. We get that show on our UK Food Network too, the Guy Fieri one I mean, not our own version. I quite like it, always makes me so hungry though, and a bit like on Man vs Food, I find some of the portion sizes to be bordering on obscene. I don’t like over-indulgence. But it’s an entertaining show nevertheless, and I do like seeing how they prepare some of the dishes. Everything is always “The best…” whatever it is they’re eating in that town/city, I’m just waiting for someone to say “Well it’s ok, but they have better meatloaf at Joe’s over the road” or something, hehe.

  3. Welcome dame DJ, glad I was helpful 🙂 I entirely know what you mean, Vanessa. Sometimes you just want Fieri to say, “Well, this was okay, but not really worth wasting my time on” lol., Not gonna happen, of course. I have on occasion seen him give sort of faint praise, though.

  4. Interesting post FN. I have not yet watched the show, although I am aware of it. I very much enjoy finding cultural dining icons around the country and in my travels have visited quite a few from 5 star to no star. It is a real delight for me to discover and often revisit old Florida spots that reflect the states food heritage. Here are several that I highly recommend should you find yourself near them.

    If you want a blast from the past try Angels Diner in Palatka, food is good and fun and its one of the few spots left older than me.

    The next 2 are not older than me but are fantastic examples.of old Florida sea food “shacks” that look like dives and taste like the Ritz (for those who like fresh sea food. Nothing frozen here) Nicks is on Highway 20 at Choctaw Beach which is on the inland side of Choctawhatchee Bay….away from the tourists at Sand Destin.


    The Star Fish Company and restaurant is at Cortez which is part of Bradenton. They only take cash and you stand in line to place your order then find a seat at the common picnic tables on the wharf overlooking the Bay. It is a very social atmosphere full of happy people enjoying their food and the ambiance of “time travel” to a simpler time and place.


    There are of course many more around but these kind of fit into your theme.

  5. Not sure it qualifies as a “diner” but Mom’s is NO is homey, if somewhat of a tourist attraction.

    La Teresita in Tampa is a diner, in that most seats are along
    a “W”-shaped counter and just a few table. The food is somewhat “fast food” style but it’s decent and you get lots of it for the money! You’d love the clientele, which ranges from students to locals to tourists.

  6. pt, I loved that little video of Angel’s…that’s my idea of what a classic diner should look like. sc, you must be talking about Mother’s on Poydras St. We used to go there for the debris sandwiches 🙂 If we could get in the door. But Mother’s is one of those places that attracts both tourists and locals because it’s just good.
    We should be sending all these suggestions to Chef Fieri!
    Vanessa, that’s really cool that you get the original in the UK. If you guys, pt and sc, haven’t caught it yet, you should. It seems like it is almost always on. And really, Fieri is so upbeat and fun.

  7. Suddenly I remembered my late night life saver, Verti Marte on Royal St. in the French Quarter. A few tourists may have wandered in but this was truly a local secret. It looked like a convenience store, but the food was incredible, and it wasn’t just sandwiches. I had no idea it burned down in 2010. It’s amazing it could reopen, property insurance is through the roof in the Quarter, and when you burned down from a grease fire already?

  8. Also, sc, Mother’s was one of the few restaurants that remained open in the aftermath of Katrina. They put FEMA trailers in their parking lot, and moved their employees in. Otherwise, they had no way to work. No public transportation and it was too far to walk for many. They took care of their people.

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