Hash browns or home fries?
Restaurateur Paul Ruppert posed the question to the public in an online survey as he planned his newest Petworth eatery, Slim’s Diner. More than 800 people chimed in.
People have a lot of opinions about diners.
Hash browns won three to one. But at the end of the day, there’s good news for each camp: “I think we’re going to do both,” Ruppert says.
Ruppert’s public survey also asked neighbors about their favorite diners and favorite diner dishes. Answers were all over the map, but everyone seemed to agree on one thing: They didn’t want a “fancy diner.” Ruppert concurred. The restaurateur had visited 40 diners up and down the East Coast to come up with his ideal version.
And so when it opens sometime in the coming weeks, Slim’s Diner will offer all the classics: all-day breakfast, milkshakes, burgers, sandwiches no fancier than a BLT, and a display case full of pies and cakes. Prices will cap at around $15, and most items will cost under $10.
But Ruppert is quick to point out that Slim’s Diner is a “traditional diner,” not a “nostalgic diner.” Although the restaurant has 1950s-style red counter stools and booths, the restaurateur says he’s not trying to recreate a specific era. “We don’t want to be stuck in the past,” he says.
That likely won’t keep anyone from bringing their own nostalgia. Diners are like dive bars: Everyone has their own slightly varied definition of what makes it “real” or “authentic.” You say the word diner, and people have expectations. They have demands. To open a diner is to compete with memories, which is like trying to recreate someone’s favorite childhood dish without the recipe. People tend to romanticize the greasy plates and bottomless mugs of coffee, while overlooking frozen, commercial-grade meats and shitty ventilation systems. They like the idea of eating eggs at 3 a.m. but would never actually stay out that late themselves. They still bemoan the loss of Capital City Diner—which closed more than four years ago—but rarely, if ever, actually ate there.
That’s what a new generation of diners has to compete with. In addition to Slim’s, at least three other diner-style restaurants are set to open in the D.C. area this year.
At his forthcoming restaurant in Bethesda, Winthorpe and Valentine’s Community, owner Mark Bucher (who also owns Medium Rare) plans to serve all-day breakfast, matzo ball soup, and roast beef sandwiches. Initially, he described the place as an “urban diner,” but now he’s shying away from the word altogether.
“It’s like a coffee shop that serves food. It’s a comfortable place to hang out and get a drink and eat great food,” he says.
That’s a lot of words to avoid saying “diner.”
But Bucher finds too many things that ultimately disqualify him from the term. After all, he has his own expectations having grown up in southern New Jersey “where there’s a diner on every corner.”
“Diner makes me think of three-ingredient food. It makes me think of a family running the business where the mother and the father are in the kitchen, and the kids are the servers, and the grandma’s the cashier. It makes me think of a place where you walk in, and the first thing you see is a huge bakery case filled with cookies, cupcakes, and cheesecake,” Bucher says. “And that’s not what I’m creating or recreating.”
When Bucher first announced plans for the “diner” last year, online commenters immediately began comparing Winthorpe and Valentine’s Community to Tastee Diner less than a block away. But Bucher is looking to create something entirely different from the neighboring greasy spoon.
“I don’t want people to think I’m going after Tastee Diner. Any restaurant that’s been around for 65 years, I respect that,” he says.
Rather, Bucher draws more inspiration from Continental, a Stephen Starr restaurant in Philadelphia. He’s also tied references from the Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy movie Trading Places into the restaurant’s theme. Winthorpe and Valentine are the names of the main characters, and the restaurant will offer orange juice at market price, a recurring joke in the film. Meanwhile, Winthorpe and Valentine’s Community will have a mixologist—not something you typically find in a traditional diner.
“I’m following a path that was developed in my brain from going to diners for decades my entire life, but I’m making it cooler and hipper and more relevant to today,” Bucher says. “You can get hammered at my place. You can’t get hammered at a diner in Jersey.”
Still, Bucher is debating whether he should add corned beef hash to the menu. To him, that’s the item that might push the restaurant into diner territory. “It might then make people’s expectations that if you have corned beef hash, then you also have creamed chipped beef. And if you also have creamed chip beef, then that means you have liver and onions,” he says. “And then if don’t have that, you’re not real.”
But other forthcoming diners aren’t looking to be “real” by being traditional. Blue Diner, coming to 1248-1250 H St. NE, aims to be a “modernized version of a traditional diner.” Father-son owners Larry and Justin Harbin plan to have influences from around the world and possibly even some Baja California twists on the menu. The restaurant will have vinyl-style booths, but it will be “a bit more ‘today’ than other diners,” Justin says.
Fare Well, coming to 406 H St. NE, may be making an even bigger departure from the traditional diner: It’s vegan. Definitive diner menu items like bacon and eggs? Not on the menu. But the restaurant will have all-day breakfast including non-meat sausage, Southern-style fried seitan and waffles, biscuits and mushroom gravy, and tofu scrambles. Owner Doron Petersan, who also runs Sticky Fingers, says other diners staples like pancakes, French toast, and breakfast sandwiches are easily made without dairy or eggs.
Like others opening diner-style spots, Petersan put some thought into how she would describe the place. “We didn’t want to use the word bistro because then people think it’s expensive. We didn’t want to use the word cafe because then cafe means coffee and cookies. People do have their preconceived notions,” she says. She’s tried to manage expectations by calling the place a “bakery, diner, bar.”
“Basically we’re a new take on a diner,” Petersan says. “We’re working off of the ideas and nostalgic notions of what a diner is, and we’ve expanded off of that.”
And the truth is restaurants have evolved in such a way that it’s not practical, or not worth, replicating certain nostalgic notions. For example, restaurants today don’t have the distinct smell they once did because “everyone’s chasing that 100-percent odor-free, grease-free exhaust system,” Bucher says.
In fact, Fare Well’s menu centers around the oven, and the restaurant is using induction burners rather than gas grills. “We’re really working to make it a greener environment, make the kitchen a healthier environment for everyone who’s working in there,” Petersan says. “So it doesn’t look like a diner kitchen, and I think that’s surprising to people.”
Petersan grew up going back and forth between Queens and a small town in the Hudson Valley. The diners she remembers served the classic greasy spoon fare, but they also often featured pastas and Greek and other Mediterranean dishes on their sprawling menus.
The size of the menu is another one of the biggest differences between what Petersan is doing at Fare Well and what she remembers of diners growing up. (Fare Well will have around eight entrees, five salads, and eight appetizers, plus bakery items.) In fact, all of D.C.’s new diners are foregoing the epic, multi-page menus that are a hallmark of many traditional diners.
Those endless menus make it difficult to control food costs and quality, Bucher says. They also require lots of kitchen space and staff. “It will bust the business plan before you even open, which is why the only folks who are really doing it like that today are the diners that have been around 100 years, because they either own their building or they’re in an old, old, old lease.”
Plus, Bucher says, “in today’s restaurant world, you cannot be all things to all people and survive.”
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