Friday, March 13, 2009

The Welcome Diner--a welcome diner

One summer, Chuck and I made a “Great Diner Tour” through New England.

We ate in diners from such companies as Kullman, Silk City, Paramount, O’Mahoney, DeRaffele, and Sterling (their most famous design was the Sterling Streamliner). We ate in diners in New Jersey (not strictly New England), Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine. We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in diners. And at times, we would stop at diners for a mid-afternoon snack. We ate in diners!

But we had never seen a Valentine Diner, manufactured by Valentine Industries of Wichita, Kansas, until our stay in Winslow, AZ. Valentine diners are best described as small boxes. Definitely not fancy and not even particularly attractive, the little square-sided structures were designed to be easily moved on flatbed trucks.

Chuck posted a photo of the closed (unfortunately) gem in Winslow on an earlier blog and mentioned his fantasy of buying and operating this small prize. What he didn’t mention was his plan that we would serve Chicago Hot Dogs and my aunt Lucille’s recipe for Sloppy Joe’s (known to the Sodeman family as Lucille’s Beefburgers). I was forced to ask what part of “Kate” and “retired” he didn’t grasp.

On a drive around Phoenix with Chuck’s cousin Raina, we suddenly spotted the Welcome Diner. Yes, it was also a Valentine. And yes, it was still in operation. So, we planned to return the following Monday. (Remember Plan A?) Well, we finally returned.

As you would expect at a diner that seats nine at the counter inside and maybe another twelve at a three sided square outside, the menu is short.

But the diner is long on cook and server banter with the customers:
Customer: “I’m trying to decide if I see anything I like. I really didn’t want a hamburger or hot dog. (Pause) I guess not. Thanks.”
We looked at the server; she smiled and shook her head as the fellow left.
“It’s a diner,” she said to the rest of us. (And what is more typical of a small diner than burgers and dogs?) “What was he expecting, Italian cuisine?” she posed to no one in particular.

There are two breakfast items--French Toast in a Bowl and an egg sandwich. Lunch brings you a hamburger, cheese burger, double hamburger, double cheeseburger, hot dog, and grilled cheese sandwich. Both Chuck and I went with the double cheese burgers with fries, and I added grilled green chilies to mine. Raina--a woman of will power--went with the single burger with fries.

I saw you push that piece (a tiny crumb) of my hamburger off the grill. I paid for that part of my burger,” came the feigned criticism of the tattooed customer (left in photo).
“OK, whatever you say,” came Andrew’s reply.
“I can take you out easy. I’m quick and tough,” came the retort from the slim musician. Laughter followed and together they launched into a conversation about the customer’s band and their upcoming appearances.

Now I am not going to pretend that these were the greatest burgers ever. I thought mine was overcooked and dry, although Chuck said that his was “fine.” The fries, which we could see the cook cutting with a gadget attached to the wall (drop a potato in, pull the lever, and instant ready-for-the-fryer fries), came cooked to a dark brown. This appearance was initially disconcerting, but upon tasting them, we three agreed that they were quite good.

I don’t remember if it is Herr’s or Goode’s (two PA potato chip companies) that markets a dark brown potato chip that has an intense and toasty flavor. These fries had a similar taste. All of a sudden, Andrew, the cook, placed a new and large order of fries in front of us and apologized that the original batch was overcooked.

The three of us decided we liked the really brown ones better.

A young fellow was being chided by the server for not pulling the weeds in her front garden--a job that she had already paid him to do.
This pre-teen was doing the crossword puzzle in the daily paper and seemed stumped. His solution? “I’ll just wait until tomorrow and finish it then.”
“You can’t wait until the answers come out tomorrow,” said the server. “That’s cheating.”
“No, it’s not cheating if they give you the answers,” was the reply.

Lunch was capped off with a Blue Sky Root Beer Float. Blue Sky refers to the bottler of organic sodas, and this may have been the best root beer I have ever had. Less sweet than most, it had a bright and crisp flavor that was a pleasant contrast to the sweet vanilla ice cream (which was stuffed into the glass).

"All I know is that this is a Valentine. The owner could tell you more about it. One thing I know is that the "safe" by the door is where the owner put 10 percent of each day's sales. At the end of the month, the company representative would come around, collect the money in the small safe, and use these funds to pay off the purchase price of the diner," related Andrew, who seemed to know more than he realized.
"You can see that this is diner #683; the diners in Winslow and Bisbee (AZ) are younger--they're in the 800s," he added.

I am not going to rate the Welcome Diner’s food. I am not sure it is fair with a restaurant whose kitchen may be smaller than the one in our RV. This is, again, one of those places where the overall experience is more important than eating.

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