Welcome to Diner Week — What Are You Having?

An old television screen shows an image of eggs and bacon. Behind it are planets and rock formations. There is a meatball with red onion for its rings, looking like Saturn. A hand holds a remote.

Diner Week – All Artwork by Viv Le

Legs sticking to pleather booths. Servers saying honey, hon, sweetie. Cups full of milkshakes or sodas, mugs full of strong coffee. Basket after basket of fries. Jukeboxes. Glass cases of pie, cakes. Feeling frozen in time, existing out of time. Home. Complicated feelings about home. Returning home. Building a new home. Greasy burgers and eggs the way you like them. These are some of the many recurring themes and images that appear in Diner Week, a series of 12 essays by the Autostraddle team all about memories and meanings of diners. From northern California in the 90s to a Montreal morning in 2015 to a Vermont mountaintop during the pandemic to a street in Chicago in 2009, Diner Week is a journey through time, space, previous selves, breakfast specials, forbidden fruit, cuts of meat, body parts, relationships, changes.

I don’t think I have to tell you that these essays are about much more than just diners. In them, diners become sites of personal discovery, connection, healing, and growth. When you walk through the doors of Diner Week, you’ll be greeted warmly of course, but know that you’re going to encounter real shit, the stuff of life. Mental health crises, fear, insecurity, addiction, fraught relationships, ableism, grief, and so many obstacles face the diner dwellers in these stories. But between the bites and burns, there’s tenderness, too. A warm piece of french toast, a gravy-slathered piece of chicken fried steak, a handspun milkshake to wash down the difficult parts.

***
Let’s see what’s on the specials board for this week.

Today, we start in New Jersey, the state Katie calls home — sometimes reluctantly, sometimes with great pride. What better place to begin than in state dubbed the diner capital of the world?

Tomorrow, you get double scoops. Lily writes about french toast and friendship in a very cold college town, where she has been silent about her mental health but finally chooses to open up after a scary morning. Then, back to 1999 we go for Darcy’s winding coming-of-age tale that opens with Counting Crows lyrics.

On Tuesday, we jump a decade to 2009. Standee’s Snack ‘n’ Dine off the red line in Chicago may be long-closed, but Ro’s memories of coming here with friends who accessed their authentic gender expressions within the diner’s walls live on. Later, Sa’iyda returns home to Staten Island, where she encounters the ghost of the girl she used to be and reflects fondly on her relationship with her Gram.

Wednesday’s only got a single serving, but it’s one that’s gonna fill you up. Dani Janae writes about the regional chain Eat’n Park, which transforms from the place where she went after long nights of drinking to one where she connects with fellow sober folks.

Nicole is gonna tell you all about being a line cook at a touristy joint next to a river of death, just at the very edge of the country’s northern border. They were damn good at flipping burgers, and they’re damn good at telling this story, too. And then meet Stef at Flanigan’s, the South Florida seafood and grill chain that is an indelible piece of them. Both these essays mention divorced dads, so I’m calling Thursday the “Divorced Dad Special.”

On Friday, A.Tony finds safety and comfort in a diner where they don’t feel like they have to grow up, where they feel free to make the choices they want to make and steal glances at crushes. Then Diner Week goes international with Niko’s venture to a Montreal diner for breakfast after a hard night. She finds a surprise in a bowl of fruit that changes everything.

Saturday is for prime rib, and don’t you forget it. Follow shea up a mountain road to the place where they took their wife on weekly date nights punctuated by tender, juicy end cuts.

For the final day of Diner Week, step on over to Stepping Stone for an early brunch. It’s where Yashwina’s recent relationships begin and end, the perfect place to flirt with a babe you’ve just started seeing or to soak your broken heart with syrup and gravy.

***
Let me tell you about the diners I’ve been to.

Working on this series and talking to folks about these beloved institutions, I’m struck by how many people have a home diner, the first diner they think of when they hear the word diner, a place that is theirs. I don’t have a home diner, but perhaps that’s because I’ve called too many places home. When I think of diners, I don’t think of one place. I don’t think of a generic diner either, one from television or movies. I think of a constellation of diners.

I think of chains like Friendly’s, where I always ordered the mozzarella sticks with applesauce, the fried clam boat with fries and cole slaw, and the “happy ending” sundae with marshmallow sauce. It was the first diner I ever went to without adults, the unofficial meeting place post-dress rehearsals when I was a musical theater kid at a performing arts high school. There are hardly any Friendly’s left, and I wish I’d known how quickly they’d disappear when I went to one for the last time on my birthday weekend in 2017, because maybe I’d have ordered ice cream instead of skipping it, and maybe I would have taken a picture.

I think of the DMV area chain, Silver Diner, where my mother brought my sister and I when we were little during her work trips in the northern part of the state. I was young enough the first few times to think I’d stepped through an actual time-travel portal, into the world of Grease, my favorite movie from ages five to twelve. Here, I could play out my fantasy of being Sandy.

I think of another regional chain, this one in Michigan. Leo’s with its perfect chicken fingers pita.

I think of the Galaxy Diner in the closest city to my hometown, which I don’t really consider home, but I suppose it is in some way. There was a guy I sort of dated at the end of high school, though I didn’t want to call it that, I thought because we were both heading off to college out of state soon but probably actually because I was gay. We went to the Galaxy Diner once, and he told the waitress he wanted a “regular burger,” but she heard “retro burger,” which was one of the various specialty burgers on their somewhat bizarre menu that always seemed a bit like an alien’s interpretation of what a diner was supposed to be — too on-the-nose in some ways, a little skewed in others. The retro burger came topped with mashed potatoes. My date thought it was disgusting, and I couldn’t stop laughing, truly, nothing was funnier than a burger covered in mashed potatoes for some reason, and why was it even called the retro burger? He didn’t think it was very funny, but to be fair, we weren’t on the same page about a lot of things.

I think of the Golden Apple in Chicago, down the street from the apartment where I slept in the living room on a blocky futon. I loved to open up my burgers and stuff the crinkle fries inside.

I think of Neptune Diner II in Brooklyn. I’ve never been to the original in Astoria, but my best friend lives there now and promises to take me one day. The last time I went to Neptune Diner II was with her and her husband. It was a goodbye on a few levels. They’d just helped me move my stuff for what I jokingly called a reverse-U-Haul situation (just another way of saying moving out of my ex’s). To thank them, I took them to the diner, and my best friend ordered the same way I often do in places like this, which is to say she ordered chaotically. This is my friend who is the only person I know who orders her Waffle House hashbrowns chunked and topped (with cubes of ham and covered in chili). I love her mind.

I think of the 101 Coffee Shop, now closed, and the time I convinced my friends to come with me late at night because I was craving a banana split.

I think of Tamber’s Nifty Fifties in Baltimore. I haven’t been in probably close to two decades, but it’s unlike any diner I’ve ever encountered. Inside looks like a 50s-style diner, and they’ve got the typical American fare on the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but they’ve also got the full menu of an Indian restaurant. You can get a burger with a mango lassi. You can get saag paneer with a side of mashed potatoes and gravy. I don’t think there’s any other restaurant on the planet that feels so thoroughly like me, like all the parts of who I am. We started going to Tamber’s when my aunt and tío still lived in Baltimore, and eventually it became a tradition for us to go the night before Thanksgiving. They live in Nashville now, but we kept the tradition partially alive by ordering Indian take-out every year on the same night. Of course, it isn’t the same. It’s hard to recreate the magic of a combination retro Americana diner + Indian restaurant.

I think of the railcar diner in Biddeford, Maine and the ice cream shop nearby, run by former friends I’ll likely never see again.

I think of the Peppermill. Maybe the closest thing I’ve got to a home diner is the Peppermill, but that doesn’t seem right, because I’ve only been a few times, and because I now live 2,500 miles away from it. But when I close my eyes and think of a diner these days, I think of the Peppermill in Las Vegas with its neon lights and its bowling-alley-esque carpet and its lounge area with indoor fire pits. It exemplifies the out-of-time, out-of-place spirit of a diner better than any I’ve ever been to.

Kristen took me to the Peppermill for the first time in the fall of 2019, a few months before we were set to move to Vegas, before we would get stuck in Vegas during the hottest summer of my life. A woman floated around the main dining room taking photos, which you could purchase at the end of your meal. We got mozzarella sticks (really a recurring theme in my life) and shrimp cocktail, and I got an extra dirty martini, and she got a cocktail the size of her head. The woman asked if she could take our picture, and we said yes. When she left, we agreed we’d only be keeping the free postcard version and not buy a print.

When we saw the photo, we changed our minds. We looked so happy. We had, at the time, barely any photos together. We’d been dating for several months, but we were long distance. I followed her around on book tour for her debut novel, and we bounced from city to city, restaurant to restaurant, hotel to hotel. I especially didn’t have a city or town I called home at that time, but I knew I wanted to make a home with her. This trip to Vegas was a preview of our new life together. And there was something about the Peppermill that made it all feel real, like we were moving toward something.

For a while, the shot from the Peppermill was one of the only printed photographs we had together. She had it framed for our first Christmas, and every time I look at it, I smell, taste, and hear the Peppermill. I don’t know when we’ll be back. But that’s the thing about diners, isn’t it? They’re not usually places you plan to go to but rather places where you end up, sometimes over and over, sometimes only once. But I can’t say all the diners I’ve loved before blur together. No, they’re all so distinct, their own microcosms.

The Peppermill is the only diner on this list I’ve been to with Kristen. I wish I could collect pictures with her in every one of them, even though that’s impossible. Some have closed, some are in places far away, some are places with too many ghosts. A constellation of diners, all perfect in their own ways.

I hope you’ll end up at Diner Week in the coming days, and I hope you’ll keep coming back.

a white napkin with red print that reads AUTOSTRADDLE Diner Week

Diner Week is a 12-part series of essays curated and edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya.


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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 431 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. I’m really looking forward to this week.

    I was smiling and nodding along reading this – and I’m shocked that I’ve been to several of the diners named. Standees and The Golden Apple in Chicago. The regional chains Eat n Park and Friendlys.

    I don’t think I have a home diner but just thinking it brings back so many memories.

    In college, one of my friends worked at the Friendlys near campus. It was the first Friendlys I’d been to and she was the first bi person I met in real life. And she flirted with me. It was very confusing. Until I figured it out.

  2. this is such a cool idea for a series! as an insomniac theater kid i’ve spent so many collective hours in diner booths, eating stacks of pancakes with luxurious toppings, drinking terrible endless coffee that tasted more like burnt than anything else, disrupting the entire place by reenacting SNL skits with my fifteen closest friends, and reading quietly while eating a hearty meal that I didn’t have to make myself

  3. Oh I am so excited for this series Kayla!! Something delicious only you could cook up for us.

    Gives me memories of my favorite diner ever (rip, she died during the pandemic, sadly): fabulous nicky’s cruisin’ diner, where you could order an 18 wheeler for $11 and also there was a pinball machine strung upside down on the ceiling. So many post 2am roleplay brunches :’) love u fncd

  4. this is an awesome concept, can’t wait. i am a big time diner enthusiast. any kind of local hole in the wall is my jam. they have the best coffee. as a customer service veteran, i often slip into my own customer service voice unconsciously when talking to waitstaff. there’s something very disturbing about that in a way that’s interesting to me.

    • One of my Chicago faves was Clarke’s on 53rd street (RIP). It closed during my second year at uni which means it’s tied to the most specific experiences of emotional turmoil and discussions of queer readings (the correct ones) of Moby Dick imaginable

  5. If you want to make it to the OG Neptune, you’d better hurry. They’re closing soon. Developers are buying three square blocks to put up, you guessed it, condos.

    Neptune will always be The Diner to me. I grew up and lived in Astoria for the last 40 years. It’s where I spent so many countless hours with my friends and family at 3am after a night at the club or the movies, or a wedding/christening/funeral. Or as a treat after a half-day at school or doctor’s appointment. Their avgolemono (chicken-lemon, for non-Greeks) soup is still the only thing I crave to this day when I’m feeling sick.

    They were the pillar of the community, and at one time won NY’s best diner for I don’t even know how many years in a row. If I’m honest, their food hasn’t been great for many years now. But it’s still home. I’m gonna miss it when it’s gone.

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