I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Great Idea #4 Not Necessarily Diners

In his 1948 culinary tour de force “The Unprejudiced Palate,” Angelo Pellegrini wrote “The American breakfast, an ingenious combination of fruit, cereal, eggs with bacon or ham, and the finest coffee found anywhere is a superb culinary achievement.” There is no better place to begin my description of Great Idea #4. Yes, once again, we enter the realm of food. I can’t help it. I like to eat and so, dear reader, do you. Today I want to call to your attention an institution that goes by many names and is one of the finest cultural achievements of these United States.

Some would refer to it as a Diner. This is fine, as far as it goes. However, when many folks think of diners, they instantly go to the chrome-encrusted railroad car, or the equally shiny ‘50’s themed restaurant. Stop yourselves, please. Many such establishments suffer from the rather odd belief that one wants to pay more than one should to listen to Buddy Holly and be treated rudely by the waitstaff. This, they feel, is authentic. This, in reality, is a rip-off. Others (particularly the railroad-car variety) used to be something more but have become tourist traps or places for the yuppies to buy coffee. The “Miss Brunswick” (a "Worcester Diner" and, therefore, a purist's dream) for example, has phases of tastiness, but when I was in high school, at least, was a great place if you needed a lawyer.

Still, to call it a diner is as accurate a description as one might desire. After all, to call it a “breakfast place” neglects its ample burgers. To say “lunch counter” ignores both breakfast and the fact that some have no counter at all! “Greasy Spoon,” is a sign of disrespect toward the hard-working, often immigrant families that run these establishments. These are people who would die of humiliation if the restaurant were found to be unsanitary! However, you could call it a “Grill (or Grille)” or even a “Place” as these are the words you will often find over the front door.

Sometimes they are known by the name of the proprietor. When I was the minister of the First Universalist Church of Sangerville, Maine, I was expected, from time to time, to hold down a seat at the counter of “Gloria’s”. The fact that this was not the name on the sign out front was beside the point. Gloria was behind the counter. If you sat at it, it was Gloria’s restaurant. I also ate at Drake’s in Guilford and a variety of other places over the years.

To describe them by one blanket name is, of course, to miss their uniqueness. Going there you enter a community. If you go there too many times, you must be prepared to converse with your neighbors and tell your waitress how you are really feeling. When at Gloria’s, I was expected to chat with my neighbors, the workers, and anyone else who may drop in. Popular topics were the Pats, the Sox, the weather, church, business, and politics. Such conversations help to define you. They give you a place and a reason to be there. Conversation is, more than the money, the currency of breakfast.

In a dining establishment where belonging is important, the rules of politeness change. When you go to one of these places it is true that they might not at first give you a menu. This isn’t, actually, an attempt to be rude but, in fact, the opposite. “Regulars” don’t always need or want menus. It may be that the staff doesn't want to insult someone by not remembering them! This, friends, is very different from the practiced snobbery you might be familiar with. However, if they are rude when you ask for one, you have my permission to get up and leave.

My local "Great Idea" is called the Central Street Grill. It is located, not surprisingly, on East Central Street in Natick, MA. There is no better place to go in the morning when you don’t feel like breakfast at home or when you want to spend some time in an unpretentious environment with your family. All kinds of people go there. Everybody is welcome, just like churches should be, except that it is “more true” at the Grill. There is no counter here and I miss that, but the service is welcoming...even friendly. I highly recommend it.

In fact, I recommend that you take your first available morning and explore a bit, yourself. Particularly if you have avoided the store-front diner and the road-side breakfast place. There may be more inside than meets the eye! Of course, there may not be, too. However, life without risks has few rewards. It is the brave bird that gets the best Breakfast Burger…