“Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” and they “Do the Evolution” of the Diner

I tend to hit my fair share of diners in my travels. In the past few years there has been a resurgence of the old diner concept with new establishments popping up in even some of the chic metropolitan areas of big cities (places like The Little Goat in Chicago and Rose and Sons in Toronto).  Although the “evolution” of new school diners have grasped onto some of the concepts of their ancestors (such as vinyl booths and counter seating), nothing can replace some aspects that make the old school diner what it is.

Here are a few observations I have made about diners:

1. Ninety-percent of old school diners are either named after a person or some kind of geographical entity or location. In Sudbury, I grew up going to Gloria’s restaurant.  The Countryview diner in Chatham inspired me to write this blog.  There’s the Lakeview in Toronto, the Southside restaurant in London and the Elgin Street diner in Ottawa.  The fact that there is there is no view of a river at the Riverview or that  Alice’s is owned by some dude named Paul  seems a moot point in the diner culture.

2. Much like you can count on any Chinese restaurant to have either a cocktail menu or a horoscope written on  their disposable menus (which eventually will be laden with bright red sweet and sour sauce), diners slap down the generic bilingual Welcome/Bienvenue mats which quickly get soaked with egg grease or globs of strawberry jam.  The table is also adorned with a carousel of prepackaged peanut butter, strawberry jams and orange marmalade (which in fact may be the same marmalade that has been there since 1984), hard butter packets and creamers which  not only lighten the less than stellar coffee but serve as building blocks for bored 6 year olds who eventually shove one or two in their mouths and pop them much to the chagrin of the accompanying family members.

4. As much as the show “Two Broke Girls” annoys the hell out of me, it’s a fair depiction of the old school diner.  The blackboard is reserved for the soup of the day plus/minus today’s special which tends to be a classic comfort dish.  My personal favorite is the “hot hamburg” (the “er” on the end of hamburger is entirely optional for some reason) in which  a hamburger patty in placed between two slices of white bread and laden with rich gravy and served with frozen crinkle cut fries and “homemade” slaw. The special also comes with soup or juice as a side.  I’ve always been intrigued by how the provision of a 3 oz shot glass of juice even compares to a steaming bowl of “homemade” soup. The same show also depicts the reality that the minimum age to work behind the cash in a diner is 70 (perhaps this was the inspiration for Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town)”.  This person is clearly the quarterback of the organization despite the fact they take ten minutes to enter the price of each of the hand written orders into the Casio cash register and verify with the waitress that I indeed ordered the addition of grilled onions on my homefries for $0.45.  The process is interrupted two or three times when the cashier engages in a conversation with the three of four regulars about the size of Mabel’s homegrown pumpkin or the fact that toilet paper is on sale at the local grocery store.

5. Rice pudding and jello are mandatory desserts in any old school diner.  Furthermore, the pudding must be topped with an amount of cinnamon equal to a Rob Ford stash and the red or green jello must be cut into squares with architecture I.M. Pei would envy.

6. Small town diners ultimately have a dichotomy of staff.  On one side is the surly old woman who could tell you the number of pieces of gum stuck under table twelve, the amount of force you hit to hit the chugging ice machine with to keep it fully functional and the name of every regular who has walked in since the sixties.  On the other is the 17 year old “friend of the family” waitress whose angst is evident in the nose piercing (which later becomes the focal point of conversations at the counter when she’s not there).  This angst is partially rooted in the slight reality that she, like her coworker, may never leave the tight web of a small town and be forced to marry some guy named Billy and have a stag and doe the whole town will attend.

In the end, I adore diners.  They scream Canadiana in the same fashion as snowbanks and poutine.  Whether they have stayed the same for 50 years, evolved over time (including replacing old staff with hipsters with an equally surly attitude) or recently opened with adherence to an old school philosophy (like Mae’s in Detroit), they are a fundamental component of the food service structure and deserve respect. I think of the numerous food network shows in which the celebrity chefs cite the perfect fried egg as the pinnacle of culinary expertise yet it’s second nature to many of the seasoned veterans who grace the grills of diners across the country.

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Fare..Eat..Ales Predictions of 2013 Food Trends.

Each year sees a shift in the direction of the restaurant industry.  I’m going to take a chance and speculate on what food trends will start or continue  in the Toronto dining scene  in 2013. Feel free to agree, disagree or suggest your own trends by commenting here, voting in the poll or tweeting #2013tofoodtrends.

1. Ramen Rage

Arguably the biggest craze in 2012, noodle houses will continue to appear like Starbucks and Subways in the coming months.  Given the versatility of this noodle dish, I suspect new variations will emerge and will not be limited to ramen restaurants  alone.  I expect the big chains and even the small fusion eateries and food trucks to join the ramen rage in some way, shape or form.

2. Offal Offerings

Black hoof has gained international exposure for its offal menu with thumbs up from celebrity chefs including Anthony Bourdain during his lay over visit and  Richard Blais’  endorsement on his list of favorite restaurants on Urbanspoon.  Adaptations of  the nose to tail concept have been adapted by many eateries, even including  a beginner’s lesson in offal  at Skin and Bones in Leslieville. This concept will continue to flourish given the surge in responsible eating as well as those seeking the adventure of multiple organ consumption.

3. In a Jar

I’m not referring to the traditional strawberry jam, pickled cucumber and mango chutney here.  In efforts to use more local ingredients throughout the year, preserving is gaining popularity.  Local and seasonal cranberries, tomatoes, peppers and tree fruit can be used year round when processed into sweet or savory condiments to compliment meats and even cocktails.  Savory and briny condiments are definitely in.  One of the best dishes I had in 2012 was a pickle tray at Sidedoor in Ottawa and it only makes sense that these creative, unique and in many cases  relatively inexpensive foods are housemade to complement  menus and blackboards in 2013.

4. Eat Street

Despite strict downtown by-laws and less than favourable year round weather, Toronto is catching up with other large metropolitan centres regarding  the presence of food trucks offering anything from smoked meats to tacos to cupcakes. More and more private businesses and fundraisers are seeing the potential in these nomadic sculleries as an awareness raising tactic. In addition,  the low overhead, creative license and geographical flexibility are appealing to restauranteurs, ensuring that the fleet of food trucks will continue to grow.

5. Carrying the Torch

The chef’s blowtorch is a cooking method which has typically been reserved for creme brulee and more recently sushi.  The ease of use and aesthetic properties of charred food could expand the use of this handy tool to other areas of food preparation.  Vegetables, cervices, meringues, terrines and even fois gras could be meliorated with a quick singe  of the blue flame.

6. Mexican Mania

Tacos were the rave of 2012 with the success of Grand Electric and  La Carnita taco-heavy menu. Burrito Boyz, Mucho Burrito and Burrito Bandidos are lunchtime and late night hotspots.  Baja fish tacos adorn almost every chain restaurant’s lunch and dinner menu.  Modernized twists on tasty tostadas, multifarious moles and piquant pozole will expand beyond the traditional taquerias, making Mexican fare one of the hot ethnic cuisines across the board in 2013.

7. Soul Train

Soul food has just gotten started.  The success of Barque, Stockyards and new additions such as AAA combined with the Hogtown and Urban Smoke food trucks have put pulled pork and brisket on the must eat food map.  Look for  southern food to dominate  in 2013 with the expansion of  southern-influenced mainstays such as shrimp and grits, collard/mustard greens, gumbos and maybe even a crayfish or two.

8.  Snack Time

Tastebud teasers  including  spiced nuts and other savory snacks have been a complimentary mainstay of bars and taverns for years.  It seems this concept has crossed into the dining room, with a snack menu available offering munchable morsels, such as warm olives at Patria and Campagnolo, even before the appetizers arrive.   In particular, popcorn is gaining popularity, providing a blank slate for various flavors including  truffle at Origin and chipotle-caramel at Cava,

9. Comfort Zone

It appears chefs have dusted off  their old copies of  “They Joy of Cooking” and “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.  A return to comfort food is an emerging trend. In 2012,  coq au vin was a staple at Richmond Station and Trevor Kitchen. Chicken Pot Pies were  being baked up traditionally  at C5 and with fois gras gravy at Reds Wine Tavern.  Fried chicken is half the menu at Paulette’s and is available for two at County General.  Old school bourguignon and gamy stews are emerging elsewhere.  Expect a cornucopia of European inspired comfort food in 2013, complete with the use of fresh meats and seafood, rich sauces and homemade, flaky pastries.

10. Icy Indulgence

Frozen desserts have become a common default dessert item for many big name chefs, especically those with a aversion to baking.  Working on the notion that frozen sugar and milk fat make anything taste better,  unique flavours have been incorporated into ice creams, sorbets and gelatos alike.  Whether it be savory flavours such as thyme or balsamic vinegar, sweetness through the use of commercial sodas or fruit nectars or incorporation of tart flavours like yuzu, a good ice cream maker and imagination is all that’s needed for this trend to blow wide open.

What do you think?  Answer the poll and add your comments.  Multiple answers are acceptable!