OPINION: A diner is NOT a ‘greasy spoon’
Recently, to my surprise, I have seen many online references to diners as “greasy spoons” on the web. I have seen this misuse of the term on local blogs (one called the El Greco diner in Sheepshead Bay a greasy spoon, which is akin to calling a Mercedes Benz a jalopy) and even in the New York Post. I first saw diners referred to as greasy spoons about two years ago, which leads me to believe that this use of the term is fairly recent.
For the record, throughout most of my life, a “greasy spoon” referred to a small, unhygienic luncheonette that has about 10 items on the menu, has wobbly counter stools and a cracked counter and fries everything on the same griddle throughout the day. The very name “greasy spoon” connotes unhygienic conditions – it means the spoon is still greasy when they give it to you, meaning that they didn’t do such a good job of washing it.
Today, because of changing populations, the rise of fast-food joints and higher commercial rents, the number of these places is declining. But in my childhood, they were plentiful, and usually had a sign saying “luncheonette” outside. There usually was one person behind the counter who often didn’t make much of an effort to be nice to the customers. Nobody ate in these places if they could help it.
By contrast, most diners are extremely clean, occupy a large amount of space, are very well-lit and have waiters or waitresses who are very helpful. Just the large number of offerings on the typical New York City menu takes these establishments out of the realm of “greasy spoons.”
Of course, diners and greasy spoons do have several things in common. Both offer basic, non-pretentious types of food, usually of American origin (those foods of European origin that they do serve, such as eggplant parmesan, became assimilated into the American diet years ago). By contrast, I’ll be that many of the food writers who lump diners and greasy spoons together grew up eating sushi, tapas and Asian fusion cuisine. Diners are not what they’re familiar with.
People like myself, on the other hand, who grew up eating at diners, neighborhood Chinese restaurants, pizza places and Jewish delis, are very attuned to the differences between good and bad diners, good and bad pizzerias and so forth. We don’t lump them all together.
It may come as a surprise to some people that there is a movement to preserve classic diners. I remember when one famous Manhattan diner, the Cheyenne near Madison Square Garden, closed and preservationists started looking for places it could be moved to. There was a possibility that it could have been moved to Red Hook, but eventually the Cheyenne was separated into two parts, put onto trucks and taken to Birmingham, Alabama. Another old Manhattan diner, the Moondance, ended up in Wyoming. Diners were never a New York-only phenomenon.
I don’t think diners are the beginning and the end as far as cuisine is concerned. I’d rather have eggplant parmesan at an Italian restaurant than at a diner. I’d rather have grilled or poached salmon at an Asian restaurant than at a diner. But for good basic food – especially late at night, after other restaurants have closed — you can’t beat the typical American diner.
So it’s time to honor the diner for its place in society. Please don’t call it a greasy spoon.
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