I was having lunch with one of my friends at a nearby diner here in Queens. Although I probably eat here once a week at the minimum, it’s not like I’m all that familiar with this particular menu. But I’ve grown up eating at diners, I worked at a diner all throughout high school and college, and so I’m super familiar with the New York diner menu in general. Sure, if you look closely enough, the brushstrokes might go in the occasionally different direction, but if you’re just browsing from a casual distance, it’s almost exactly the same anywhere you go.
“What are you getting?” my friend asked.
“The California burger,” I told him without even looking at the menu. I go to a diner, I don’t want to look at the menu. All it’s going to do is signal to the waitress that I don’t know what I’m doing, like I need a few minutes or something. I don’t need a few minutes.
“That sounds pretty good,” my friend said, “I think I’m going to get that too.”
The waitress came over, “Hey guys. Can I start you off with anything to drink?”
I don’t need you start me off with anything to drink. I’m ready to give you everything. Don’t worry about my friend still looking at the menu. He’s ready too. I’m not going to ask him, I’m just going to go ahead and let you know that, we’re both ready, we’ll give you the whole thing right now.
“I think we’re ready,” I told the waitress, “I’ll take the California burger, deluxe, I’ll have it medium, waffle fries, and can I get a Coke? Please? Thank you.”
“And for you?” She asked my friend.
“I’ll also have the California burger. Medium-rare …”
Big mistake. I’m not going to say anything, of course, I don’t want to come across as being too pushy, especially since I may have rushed the ordering process a little bit. But, and I get it here, I really do, usually medium-rare is the way to go. You’re eating at a steak place, medium-rare definitely. A specialty burger restaurant? Again, anything about medium-rare and you’re just wasting your money.
But at a diner, or diners in the tri-state area anyway, medium’s always your best bet. Chances are the burgers are frozen, which, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I actually like the taste of frozen beef patties, but I’d prefer to give the whole thing at least a little bit of time to come down in temperature.
Plus, and this is in no way trying to disrespect the staff, but think about the guy working the grill. Think about all of the other burgers he’s trying to cook at the same time. Everybody that goes to a diner, everybody orders medium. So he’s got a whole section of his grill dedicated to cooking medium burgers. He’s got it down to a science. But then a new ticket comes in the window. “Order in!” the waitress calls out, and instead of the standard “M” circled next to the order, it’s “MR.” The grill guy thinks, OK, I got this. Medium-rare. And he tries, he really tries. But he’s trying a little too hard. He’s out of his element.
Just … just trust me. You go to a diner, you order a burger medium. Anything under, you’re going to want to save a little bite to send out to a lab once you start getting sick later that day. Anything above, well, I hope you like eating hockey pucks.
“You want that deluxe?” the waitress was still here, it was apparent that my friend didn’t have this down to the science that I did.
“Yeah … regular fries please.”
Regular fries. Man, who goes to a diner and gets regular fries? There’s a reason that they charge you fifty cents extra for waffle fries. Because they’re fifty cents more delicious. Seriously, regular fries are just that, regular. They look like they’ll be pretty tasty, but once you take that first bite, it’s obvious that these things aren’t even a tenth as good as their identical looking cousins from McDonald’s. No, for whatever reason, despite all of the things diners do right, diner fries are never up to par. They’re not salty enough, they’re dry in the middle, you need at least a bottle and a half of ketchup to get through one order.
You’ve got to go with the waffle fries. Or onion rings. But onion rings are a distant second place. Waffle fries are what diners do right. You don’t even need ketchup. I mean, if you wanted to lightly coat the end of one waffle fry just to capture a little essence of tomato, go ahead, that couldn’t hurt. But it’s unnecessary. Diner waffle fries are fantastic, a treat in and of themselves. And for only fifty cents? Please, I’d gladly pay two, two-fifty extra for waffle fries.
“Here you go boys, enjoy,” the waitress said as she placed the burgers on the table. “I’ll be right back with another Coke for you,” she nailed it, I didn’t even have to ask.
For whatever reason, diner burgers are always served open face, and so it took me fifteen seconds or so to balance all of the toppings on top of the meat and close everything shut. I picked the whole thing up in my hands, studied from which angle I’d attack my lunch, and took a first bite. It was perfect. Juicy. Delicious. I wasn’t really surprised, that’s what I love most about diners, the consistency, their almost inability to screw up a burger and fries. But while I was lost in the flavor of meat and bread, my friend interrupted my feeding.
“Wasn’t there supposed to be avocado? Cheese?” he hadn’t even touched his food yet. He was kind of just looking around it, peering under the toppings, giving my burger sideways glances, trying to see if our meals were identical.
“Oh yeah,” I told him, “You’re thinking of a restaurant California burger. This is a diner California burger: lettuce, tomato, raw onion, and mayo.”
It didn’t even occur to me that he wouldn’t have known the difference, and yeah, when I heard him fumble with the medium-rare and the regular fries, I guess I should’ve known to give him a little heads up about what exactly constitutes a diner California burger. Because yes, he was right, kind of. If you to a restaurant, especially one of these cool artisanal craft burger spots, a California burger most always comes with avocado, some sort of jack cheese, a specialty sauce, like an aioli or a sriracha infused mayo. Yeah, now that I was really thinking about it, that’s what it’s like at the restaurant where I work, it’s the California burger, it’s topped with organic arugula or something like that.
But diner burgers are different than restaurant burgers. I’m not saying that it’s better or worse, but there’s a parallel menu system that defines what you’re going to get when you order at a diner. And this is especially true regarding the burger section. I don’t know how it happened or from where it originated, but all diners have pretty much the same exact burger section. Even though these operations are individually owned and managed, it’s like they must have had their menus inspired from the same source.
Like a Texan burger. Without being as familiar as I am with the diner menu, what sort of toppings and sauces come to your mind just from hearing the words Texan burger? Maybe some tangy barbeque sauce? Nope, that’s the barbeque burger. Smoked cheese? No, that’s a Vermont burger. Or maybe it’s topped with chili? Chili burger. Spicy peppers? Mexican burger.
A Texan burger is a regular burger with a fried egg on top. That’s it. Welcome to Texas. Yee-haw. Or the London burger, served on an English muffin with a slice of raw onion. I don’t really know any British people, but this is exactly how I imagine them to eat their hamburgers. My favorite is the Twin burger. No, it’s not a double burger, that is, one burger made with two patties, but it’s two individual hamburgers served on one plate. Why order two burgers when you can just order one twin burger? It’s genius.
Maybe none of this makes any sense, maybe you haven’t been to too many New York diners. But like I said, I’m intimately familiar with the thick-as-a-phonebook diner menu, I have a deep understanding of that whole page of burgers, there’s got to be at least fifty choices. And yeah, I don’t have an explanation as to what exactly is so California about a regular burger with lettuce, tomato, onions and mayo, but that’s what it is, that’s the California burger. If you wanted something with avocado and cheese, you probably should have ordered a Santa Fe burger without the sautéed peppers and onions.
As soon as I took my last bite, a busboy materialized out of thin air to take my plate away. The waitress was right behind with check in hand, “Anything else today?” as she dropped it on the table, not a question, a formality really, a nice way of saying, “Thank you, please leave.”
I looked at my friend’s plate. He was done, like he stopped eating, but there were a bunch of toppings that had spilled out of his burger, globs of mayo next to his half-eaten portion of regular French fries.
“That was great!” I said with a big smile to my friend as I counted out my money for the bill. Even though it was noticeable that he was a little underwhelmed with the whole diner experience, I wanted my enthusiasm to shine through, maybe he’d see it, how happy I was, that I wasn’t faking it, that I really love the diner, and maybe he wouldn’t give up hope that next time things might go better for him, that maybe he’d figure out how to order correctly.
Because that enthusiasm, the huge smile of satisfaction, it wasn’t forced, I wouldn’t have been able to stop smiling if I wanted to. Because I love diners. I could eat at a diner for every meal, every day, for the rest of my life. When I’m an old man someday and I retire, that’s all I want to do, sit in a booth, drink coffee, and order all my diner favorites. It’s like that’s where I feel most comfortable in life, at a diner. There’s seriously nothing better.