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Posts tagged ‘Diner’

Chains of Love: Denny’s Manhattan

twoshovelNearly four years ago Denny’s rebranded itself as America’s Diner. That might ring false in parts of the country teeming with chrome, Formica, and counter stools, and I thought the tagline was a little silly at first. Growing up, though, the Denny’s across the street from my high school’s football field, did serve a diner-like function since it was one of the few places where you could kill time with friends drinking mug after mug of coffee, chain smoking (the cigarette machine in the lobby practically encouraged it) and ordering the occasional Super Bird, if you had the kind of uptight parents who wouldn’t let you go clubbing or hang out downtown after sunset.

Nobody would argue that New York needs a chain diner. It doesn’t. But at least from the outside, the city’s first Denny’s is fairly understated, housed on the ground floor of a landmarked stone building facing City Hall. Maybe it was the scaffolding obscuring the signage, which I don’t even recall being gold and red, but I wouldn’t think twice if I walked past it.

Inside, is another matter. As everyone’s heard by now, this isn’t a suburban Denny’s, no sir. The first thing you notice when walking up the ramp and through the door is the prominent bar featuring plenty of exposed brick and pressed copper ceilings with requisite Edison bulbs sprouting from them. The only thing missing was a chalkboard with an avocado toast special hand-written in a jaunty script. (Even KFC knows what’s up with the scrawls on the wall.) On a Friday afternoon, the bar seats were occupied by middle-aged European tourists drinking margaritas and beer. A young well-dressed man, possibly a Pace student, sat alone with a laptop.

denny's paloma

Keeping with the indie ethos, the cocktail menu is faux letter-pressed and touts a drink called The Fixed Gear. A $10 Manhattan, here the Lower Manhattan (meaning the addition of Cafe Lolita coffee liqueur), is a pretty good deal even if you’re brought a margarita first. (Service is wildly friendly, though still a little shaky in execution. If you want to rat them out–I did not–more than one manager will likely check in on you.) Palomas are better suited for day drinking anyway, if not a little gross with eggs.

The food menu is pure Denny’s, laminated with specials also encased in syrup-resistant plastic tucked inside. My old standby turkey club now has a cosmopolitan spin-off The Tuscan Super Bird that includes spinach and sun-dried tomato mayonnaise just like they do in Florence. They’ve also rebooted the Moons Over My Hammy and made it Baja (yes, that would be avocado).

denny's belgian slam

In comparison, my Belgian Waffle Slam, two eggs, said waffle and four pieces of bacon (even two breakfast sausage links is two too many for me) felt demure. There’s no arguing that this is diner fare and as good a rendition as any. You can also have Tabasco and Cholula.

The lower Manhattan Denny’s won’t be an aberration for long (it’s also not the chain’s first attempt at being on trend–let’s not forget Baconalia) as it’s just the beginning of a number of planned locations. Downtown Brooklyn and Harlem branches will supposedly be themed to fit the neighborhoods, whatever that means exactly, yet it will be areas that consider Denny’s gentrifying not cheapening receiving the chain first: East New York is already listed on the website and the building that will house a Jackson Heights branch is under construction. The odds of Dom Perignon popping alongside pancakes are likely slim to none.

Denny’s * 150 Nassau St. New York, NY

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Clinton Hill Times Three

Soco red velvet waffle and chickenSoCo I’ve been spending time in Clinton Hill recently, trying to assess the livability of the neighborhood (I would say the prognosis is good; we put an offer on a condo yesterday). I’m not a total stranger to the area since I did work at Pratt briefly in the late ’90s (my first-ever, full-time salaried job [$22,000] which I left to work at a food website–yes, they existed 13 years ago–for $3,000 more. Everyone got laid off six months later…) but Myrtle Avenue has ten million more bars and restaurants than in my day. SoCo was the craziest (well, the booming sit-down Chino-Latino place with the name I always forget technically was) in that there was a huge crowd spilling out onto the sidewalk. More club than restaurant. But the next afternoon, the post-brunch crowd seemed mellower so I joined in, lured by the promise of fried chicken and red velvet waffles on the window menu. It’s the most popular dish, too, I was told. I would estimate that at least half of the tables had at least one plate of red waffles on it. The mash-up was far less breakfast/dinner than dinner/dessert hybrid. The sweetness was there, and pumped up by the maple syrup, but the cocoa flavor almost grounded it. You really didn’t feel like you were eating chicken and cake, just a tasty new form of fat and carbs. Lovers of unnaturally colored food and nonsensical flavor combinations will be pleased.

Speedy romeo dick dale pizza-001Speedy Romeo I love processed cheese, not just Velveeta and Cheez Whiz, but thickly sliced deli cheese, too, all extra creamy and salty. I also love Hawaiian pizza, so it’s almost as if Speedy Romeo’s Dick Dale was custom made for me. Using popular-in-St. Louis Provel cheese (a melty, processed cheese that combines cheddar, swiss and provolone) plus pineapple and smoky speck ham on a wood-fired pizza is pure genius. Adding a spoonful of pickled chiles, the restaurant’s condiment of record, provides a sharp contrast against the smoother, sweet flavors, and makes this pizza one of my all-time favorites. That is not say, all will love it, especially considering ham and pineapple is a scourge to purists, never mind the utterly un-artisanal cheese. Oh, Slice covered this very pizza this week with a nice slide show and everything–I had no idea it contained béchamel.

Putnam’s Pub It’s a gastropub, nothing out of the ordinary, but good to know about if a late night roasted bone marrow or devils on horseback (not bacon-wrapped dates here, which is the usual interpretation, but fried oyster topped deviled eggs) craving strikes.

Sunset park diner & donuts grilled cheese sandwichSunset Park Diner & Donuts I never ate here once when I lived down the street, though that’s not really a judgment of the restaurant but more about my rarely eating at diners. It’s slim pickings for post-2am dining in the area, and they do a grilled cheese with bacon deluxe, i.e. with fries, as good as anyone. The restaurant is even on Seamless, which is surprising. It almost makes me wish I still lived over there just so I could have french toast and jalapeño poppers delivered to my door at 3am.

Skylark Diner

It used to be Bergen County for New Jersey excursions, but lately the communities along the Middlesex and Union county borders have won me over. Edison is as suburban as anything but there’s a substantial Indian and Chinese community that makes food shopping and dining more interesting while hitting the biggies like Costco, Target and Trader Joe’s.

Skylark_interior_2We were looking for a Sally Beauty Supply so I could pick up some bottles of professional hair color (it’s cheaper than buying consumer boxed dyes and I was specifically looking for the Miss Clairol Gray Busters line, which you can’t get at your corner Duane Reade) and a few blocks before our intended address we impulsively pulled into a mini mall, lured by the A&W/Long John Silver’s combo store advertised on the sign. I then remembered that we’d eaten Indian food in this strip before, ages ago before I even knew what Edison was. There was still an Indian place, but the name has since changed from Delhi Gardens to Hyderabadi something-or-another.

Skylark_bruschettaStill hungry, we noticed a gleaming, tricked out modern diner across the street. Skylark. I’d actually heard about this relatively new eatery, but didn’t realize this was where it was located. It was worth a try. I might’ve called it an upscale diner but that was before I saw the last episode of Top Chef. There were no tempura vegetables & mozzarella with cornichon aioli, but they did have crispy shrimp tempura with spicy citrus aioli.

They also ask if you want bottled or tap water, which is a bit too much. However, the emphasis on wine and cocktails didn’t put me off. It was too early for a martini, but all of the many color coded iterations using scary things like Midori and chocolate sauce were only $7. Maybe I’m just Manhattan-ized but that seemed like a good deal (minus the Razzmatazz liqueur).

Skylark_tasso_eggrollI was a little freaked out when they brought complimentary bruschetta to the table. It just seemed like an odd thing, and initially I was concerned that we’d gotten someone else’s starter. To be honest I’ve never understood the appeal of chopped tomatoes on bread. Let me clarify, pa amb tomaquet is surprisingly good in its simplicity and I’m sure “real” bruschetta with garden grown produce is similarly bewitching. But supermarket tomatoes in the middle of winter not so much. But I like free, so no complaints.

I really loosened up with the appetizer. Melon is my enemy but I was willing to try the chicken and tasso ham egg rolls with a jicama watermelon slaw and bourbon bbq sauce. The crunchy pink cubes didn’t really bother me as much as I’d feared and it was a tasty, albeit slightly overwrought dish.

Skylark_monte_cristoEven though it was 4pm, we hadn’t eaten anything yet so it was a toss-up between breakfast and lunch food. I chose the best of both worlds, my old Portland fixation, the monte cristo. As I’ve recently pointed out, it’s treated more like a breakfast food in NYC. I was pleased to see that this specimen was listed with other sandwiches and came with fries. But it did come with a little metal pitcher of warmed maple syrup. In the NW you’d just get jelly. This version came on cinnamon-swirled french toast. Classy. The sliced turkey was on the dry side but as a whole the sandwich was satisfying. I ate it with a knife and fork because it seemed wrong to drizzle or dip into syrup when eating with your hands. The fries were also better than decent and came covered in a spice blend that’s more typical of curly fries (why are curly fries frequently spiced, anyway?).

The one thing I’ll say for New Jersey is that they keep it nice and Jersey for you. Yes, they were pumping in the dreaded ‘80s music but it was all rock: Bon Jovi, Journey and more. At one point it struck me how jarring a random dirty guitar solo stood out amidst the retro-contemporary décor. Around 5pm, it started getting dark and smooth jazz came on. I got scared for a second like it was now officially moody dinner time, but then the power chords came back on after the brief interlude. Phew.

Skylark Diner * Rt. 1 N. & Wooding Ave., Edison, NJ

More: route 1

Gus’ Red Hots

Gus Do you know what a Michigan is? I’d never heard of such an edible until we made the mistake of believing an I-87 roadside sign with the generic symbols for food and gas. Ten winding miles later we were in Willsboro faced with nothing more than a ratty convenience store/bait and tackle shop. There wasn’t much in the way of sustenance, they didn’t even have seltzer water, the only thing I could’ve dealt with. James picked up a soda and dill pickle Lay’s. The only thing that caught my eye was an upside down paper plate covering an empty metal vat with “We’re out of Michigan sauce today. Sorry.” chicken-scratched on its back.

Gus_michigansStill starving, we took our chances a few miles up in Plattsburgh, due to a highways sign that said Gus’ Red Hots. I’m a freak for chains in big cities, but there’s no need for that in little towns. I knew red hots were hot dogs. What I didn’t know is that they’re also Michigans. I’m a weirdo who doesn’t like hot dogs so I convinced James to order the combo meal so I could at least look at them. Michigans are essentially chili dogs. These came with a sloppy joe looking meat slurry that had a faintly sweet cinnamony aroma like Cincinnati-style chili. Chopped onions are optional. Gus_french_toastThey don’t use typical hot dog buns, but a top-sliced bun almost resembling white bread. James insisted these are common, though I swear I’ve never seen them.

I had french toast, eggs and bacon. The staples were all diner good, but I was disturbed by the default three mini packs of Smart Balance and synthetic syrup. Being an inexplicable condiment skimper, I only used half a vegetable oil spread and a third of one syrup container anyway. Gus_bearBut whatever happened to butter and maple syrup? Heck, we were only 22 miles from Canada.

I love discovering new regional specialties (and bear art–I loved the painting over our booth)New to me, I mean. Obviously, upstate New Yorkers have known about Michigans for some time. Me, I’m only hip to bar food staple Buffalo wings. Apparently, Michigans can also be found in Montreal, which is news to me. Chili dogs just feel completely un-Canadian. Maybe if they swapped the ground beef for gravy and cheese curds, I’d be convinced.

Gus’ Red Hots * 3 Cumberland Head Rd., Plattsburgh, NY

Chez Claudette

Poutine. I always imagined it pronounced like Poo Teen, but after hearing it
uttered aloud by a proper French-Canadian, it sounds more like Putin, as in
the surname of Russias President.

Poutine, which is really no more than French fries covered in gravy and
cheese curds, strikes me as way more British than French. Peas are also an
optional accompaniment, and I could see the mushy concoction right at home
on some demented chip shop menu in England.

Origins aside, this was a dish that needed to be tried. And no, I didnt
want fancy foie gras poutine or mass produced chain restaurant poutine. I
wanted Montreal greasy spoon, 24-hour diner style spuds, and Chez Claudette
came through for me.

East of the boutique-y part of Laurier St., sits this no nonsense corner
caf with little tables and counter stools. The menu is filled with basics
like eggs, bacon, burgers and oddballs like fish and chips and spaghetti.
Most baffling was the use of Michigan as descriptor; there was a Michigan
burger listed as well as a Michigan hot dog. I've never associated Michigan
with any particular food style.

I ordered the poutine as a side with eggs and bacon (most meals have
poutine as an add-on for a few dollars more). It wasn't bad at all, sort of
gloopy, and more peppery than I'd imagined. The cheese curds are in large
chunks, not like baby-sized cottage cheese ones. And the base wasn't really
French fries, but cubed potatoes. I'm not sure if thats standard or not. I
think the crispiness of fried potatoes might work better, even though the
gravy would inevitably make them soggy anyway. I need to do more poutine
research before coming to any conclusions.

Chez Claudette * 351 Laurier E., Montreal, Canada

Mike’s City Diner

There was a line out the door Sun. morning, which I took to be a good sign
(though I suppose lines are typical during the weekend brunch hours–not
that I would know, I only get up early enough to eat breakfast out like four
times a year). There was a long wait, but I didn't know anywhere else to go
in town and figured it'd be the same everywhere. I ordered what I think was
called an Emergency Room Special (scary, no?) and was treated to an obscene
amount of food: two huge pancakes, two eggs, almost half a plate of home
fries, three strips of bacon and two pieces of toast. It was pretty
impressive. What was even more impressive was the skinny guy sitting next to
us who ordered the exact thing after I did, and polished off the whole plate
and was digging into his pancakes while I was still picking at mine. My
dining companion ordered a side of corned beef hash and the portion almost
filled a dinner-sized plate. Not that quantity equals quality, but I was
pretty happy with the meal. The waffles also looked really good–maybe next
time. (8/19/01)

Mike's City Diner * 1714 Washington St., Boston, MA

Cooper Square

I wouldn't mention this place at all, but a certain sandwich needs to be talked about. I was at a birthday party at Leopard Lounge across the street, and I noticed James kept peeking out the window. I guess he was dreaming of cheesesteaks and looking for nearby options. Now New York isn't a cheesesteak city anyway. I'm not even sure where you get one during the day, let alone at 3 a.m. Short of driving to Philly (which was tossed around as a viable option), we decided to take our chances on the closest 24 hour place.

When I saw a "New York Style" steak sandwich my curiosity was peaked, yet I knew I was in trouble. Whenever someone takes a regional specialty and puts their own spin on it, you know the results will be mixed. (When I was home last Sept., Ringler's Annex had "Portland Style Cheesecake" on the menu, which was baffling. I didn't order it, but I wondered all night what could possibly be Portland-like about it. Filberts? Marionberries? Salmon?!)

The New York style sandwich came out open faced with thickish long pieces of meat on hamburger buns with cheddar cheese melted on both sides and some onions strewn about. There was too much meat to close the thing, and the pieces weren't thin like I'd wanted. And to top it off, they appeared to be suited for a hoagie bun, not a round roll. It disturbed me. The oddest part was the bottle of HP Sauce that was brought to the table as an accompaniment. Philly cheesesteak by way of New York with a pit stop in England? What kind of freaks do they have working in that kitchen anyway? I did like getting to dip my fries in the brown sauce, but it just wasn't the sandwich I was craving.

Cooper Square Restaurant * 88 Second Ave., New York, NY