November 6, 2003

The A Spot

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Just to beat a dead horse a little more, and in keeping with my impeccable sense of timing, this week’s A Spot discusses what it should have discussed two weeks ago — diners. Don’t worry, the State Diner will be not be talked about at any length, since there just isn’t anything left to say.

Diners have paradoxically retained a certain kind of cultural respect based on what most people will readily admit are predominantly negative qualities. The ruder the wait staff, the greasier the food, the grimier the establishment, the more tacky the decorations, the better it is. Diners seem to earn their respect by thumbing their noses at reasonable eating establishments and offering up soggy hash browns and burnt coffee instead.

Of course, we all know that if we really believed a particular diner to be unsanitary or otherwise ubiquitously lousy, we wouldn’t actually go there. No one under normal circumstances would willingly subject themselves to potential food poisoning or attack by waitress. If a particular diner were really that bad, we’d leave it to the starving or the truly brave (read: brainless). Then, we would find somewhere else, somewhere just meeting our standards, and sing its praises for the very same reasons we avoided the other one. It’s so greasy, it’s so tacky, it’s so grimy: it’s the best. We commonplace diner-goers are not brave, but we like to pretend we are. It’s like saying you love playing with explosives, when you’re really just lighting some sparklers.

Still, diners are a cultural phenomenon simply by virtue of the fact that they have kept their hipster connotations without being yuppified. They never fell victim to the same fate as the coffee shops, which turned yuppie faster than a picket fence in the suburbs. Diners, the ones that uphold the three tenets of the “real diner” at any rate, seem to be the same as they have always been. These tenets are, of course: 1) 24-hour service; 2) breakfast anytime for under $5; and 3) free refills on coffee. This is not to say that all diners that stick to these principles will be kindred spirits of places like the State Diner — some may even be clean, friendly, and delicious. Nevertheless, they will almost always be reputable, even among the hip.

The Ithaca area has its share of diners scattered around town, each with a slightly different reputation. The State Diner is probably the most often brought up in conversation — everyone’s got a story. Ziffy’s on Lincoln St. seems to be perpetually closed when you actually get the motivation to find it out there in the middle of Fall Creek land. The Falls outside of Trumansburg supposedly has the best toast in the area. Mano’s has great grilled cheese.

There’s also the Ithaca Diner, across the street from the State Theater. The Ithaca Diner, like most of the places mentioned above, disappointingly fails the first requirement for diner status (still, how many all night eating establishments could this area really support anyway?) and is only open for breakfast and lunch. Even so, it’s probably one of the best places in town to do anything there is to do at a diner in the morning-afternoon hours. The highlights are: the food (granted, I have not sampled the non-breakfast choices, but who does?) is just greasy enough to help soak up the alcohol in your system after a long night, without making you sicker than you started out; the waitresses are actually friendly; there are pictures of Grecian beaches taped to the walls (alongside the all-caps list of all behavior prohibited in the establishment — feet on seats, paying with credit cards, smoking, etc.); the booth upholstery is repaired with red duct tape. Plus, the breakfast special, which includes plenty of food and coffee, is $3.75.

Basically, the Ithaca Diner seems the ideal place to have a pleasant diner experience, despite the fact that it’s not open the hours most college students are in need of an omelet and some home fries. In addition, it’s a place that allows you to feel less like a spectator at some bizarre human circus, and more like a part of the everyday action. I have yet to encounter belligerent drunks, obnoxious, noisy, partied-out girls, or any other stereotypical diner clientele at the Ithaca Diner, which in all fairness probably owes a great deal to its hours of operation.

Some might think this makes the place less interesting or exciting, but come on, if we were really looking for “exciting” eating experiences, we’d hold up the Pita Pit with beebee guns and demand our double chicken with extra hot sauce. Not to sound like a bore, but I think I’d prefer something a little more low-key. I’d like to mind my business and eat my eggs without profanities bouncing off the walls and orange grease dripping from my fork. One word of caution though: if you do end up at the Ithaca Diner, those signs on the wall mean business: feet are not allowed on the seat, and you’ll get told pretty quick if you try to break the rules.

Archived article by Thea Brown