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.