I like a good diner, I do, and in the last two weeks I’ve managed to visit a few. It’s a tough gig.
Dr Jazz in Webster Grove is a terrible name for a sweet little old mom ‘n’ pop place that is more of a soda fountain than a real diner. But it has booths and stools at the counter and at the lunchtime we went they were doing a special, which was a cheeseburger with the cheese of our choice (I had pepper jack and Lucy, Swiss), fresh-cut fries and a proper milkshake, all for $6.99. The burger was juicy, the fries still had their skins on (delicious) and my shake (just vanilla ice cream wazzed with milk) was frothy and refreshing. I was very happy.
The City Diner is a twenty minute walk from our digs and has all the trappings of a 50s diner; formica tables, two-tone leatherette booths and a checkerboard floor. It’s not actually that old but it’s menu is authentic (meatloaf is its specialty) and at weekends it stays open 24 hours. We’ve been twice. The first time I tried a St Louis oddity – fried ravioli, which is as it sounds. Crispy, deep-fried ravioli are served with a marinara dipping sauce. It’s not bad. I wouldn’t order it again and I’ve yet to understand why tomato pasta sauce is called “marinara” as there’s not much that’s marine about it, but there you go. I also had a slice of rhubarb and strawberry pie “a la mode” (with a scoop of ice-cream) which was very, very good. The pastry was crisp and the filling not too sweet or gloopy.
The second time we went I had the blue plate special, a grilled chicken sandwich which was nothing to get excited about. The waiter, hearing my English accent, brought malt vinegar for me to slosh on my fries. But I didn’t use it. So there. Lucy’s tuna melt wasn’t very good at all. Not much melting going on for starters, so even though it’s a jolly enough place and the service is good, we won’t be in a rush to go back. It’s pricey for a diner too. $2.25 for diner coffee? Mm, no.
Now the Courtesy Diner, of which there are two branches, is more my speed. It’s the real deal, small, with the griddle just behind the counter in full view of the customers. Chilli ($3.95 for a small bowl) sits warming in a pot and comes served with oyster crackers and a pile of shredded cheese. It’s open 24 hours, though biscuits and gravy are available only between 11pm and 11am. Men with cowboy hats perch on the counter stools and the waitresses are perky, brisk but always polite. For a late breakfast yesterday I had a short stack of pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon, each item arriving simultaneously but on different plates. We had to wait for five minutes before we could get a seat but as soon as eleven o’clock struck, the place emptied. I’m not sure if that was because people had to get back to work or because the biscuits and gravy curfew had started. I’ll have to go back and figure it out over some steak and eggs.
Route 66 passes about one-and-a-half miles south of our digs and we drove along a few miles of the old road the other day. It’s not called 66 anymore. It shifts from 30 to 366 and then it disappears into the 44 freeway. But they still have signs telling you you’re on the old “mother road”. Even though most of the old businesses along the road have gone, I think you can still get a flavour of the old route just by the way it undulates like a gentle, tarmac roller-coaster. They wouldn’t build a new road like that anymore. There’s the odd, old bowling alley (“with Cocktail Lounge”) that I’m dying to explore, if nothing more than for a Big Lebowski moment: “a fine sarsaparilla for me and an oat soda for The Dude…”
We stopped at a St Louis landmark on Route 66: Ted Drewe’s Frozen Custard, which has been going for over 75 years. (Fellow Brits: frozen custard is what we call ice-cream, which is, er, usually frozen custard.) At a large roadside shack you can buy a mind-boggling array of flavoured “concretes” – their name for frozen custard blended with, say, M&Ms, chocolate chips, banana, Oreos… you name it. Concrete refers to the consistency. You’re not buying mush and your server briefly inverts the open cup to demonstrate its solid texture. You can also buy various sundaes including a banana split that looks quite incredible.
On a warm evening, such as when we dropped in for a large Heath bar concrete, the place is humming with families and groups of friends. They take their custards back to their pick-ups and cars, where they slurp and chat under the Ted Drewes neon sign while the traffic drifts by on America’s most famous road.