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for the love of grub - EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD!

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June 15th, 2008


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11:36 am - for the love of grub
I met Lynn yesterday at Kelly's for an early-o breakfast, doing our part to beat the Ball Square weekend brunch rush. It was also because we both found ourselves awake at 7 and hungry.

"You wanna go now?" I asked over the phone.

"Sure," she replied. "I'm just sitting around the apartment watching spy documentaries on the History Channel. See you there." She was doing better than I was; at the time I was trying to explain to the cat that a food dish only gets refilled when there's a lack of food and not simply because the cat in question is a fussbudget.

Saturday morning, for those of you who missed it, was quite lovely. The weather was just right, the ambient temperature as perfect as it could be, and the entire neighborhood was peaceful and quiet at 7:30. Hall was peaceful, Liberty was peaceful, Kidder was peaceful. What a day, I thought to myself. What a place. What a wonderfully idyllic Somerville morning.

And then I approached Willow and heard the construction crew near the school using some kind of compressed air equipment to rattle everybody awake. Some streets have all the luck.

Those who know diners know that you've got two truly iconic styles which are above mere hole-in-the-wall (there's more than a few holes in the wall, though, mark my words.) One style is the railroad car diner, more often than not made by the Worcester Lunch Car Co. ("of aluminum, Bakelite and glass", quoth Martin Sexton) and featuring the name of the establishment painted on the front in those stylized Gothic letters.

The other kind is the shiny metal square variety which are often found in the wilds of Long Island, New Jersey or suburban Maryland. In some locales these diners are run by Greek families who bestow upon their establishment proper Hellenic names such as "Parthenon" or "The Athenian". Other places are just, y'know, a diner. And an increasing number have seen fit to capitalize on the whole 50s retro style. You'll know you're in one of those places, these shams, if you will, if they've got those creepy paintings on the walls which show James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart all sitting up in some cafe which I suppose is meant to be in Heaven (you get bonus creepy points if Jimi, Janis and Jim are hanging around too, cause that's the Dead Icon genre equivalent of a Double Word Score.)

If the memorabilia is authentic, however, and the Betty Boop statue has been around since time immemorial and the Consolette jukeboxes don't actually work anymore, then you're quite all right. So it is with Kelly's.

Somerville is actually blessed both kinds of diners. Kelly's in Ball Square is classic example of the Shiny Metal diner, a true original with glorious chrome and neon on the outside with stainless steel and patched naughahyde on the inside. Both the Rosebud in Davis Square and Buddy's Truck Stop outside Union Square are Worcester cars, though Buddy's dates from an earlier time and is not as streamlined as the photogenic Rosebud. And while the Rosebud has adopted a decidedly more upscale menu, both Buddy's and Kelly's know exactly what you're supposed to serve at a diner: grub. Good grub. Good greasy grub that sticks to your ribs and keeps you going all day, accompanied by no-nonsense coffee served in extra-thick ceramic mugs, the edges of which have been rounded by time and countless cycles in the Hobart. Oh, sure, Kelly's has cleverly snuck in some avant-garde in their menu from time to time, thus pleasing the Food Network enough to send a camera crew and the guy with the scary hair out to see the place, but they know that it's grub what keeps people coming back.

Put it this way: If at any time you find the word "aioli" on a diner menu and it's not some completely incomprehensible typographical error, do yourself a favor and find another place to eat. You are currently patronizing an impostor. Give me the Real Deal any day.

The Kelly's clientele in the early morning is nothing but regulars which is comforting in its own right. Here, the proper greeting is "Howaahyuh" and everybody's a Hon to the veteran waitstaff. Whatkin I getcha, hon? Y'want s'mah coffee? Free from the misery (for another two hours at least) of having to serve embittered on-the-up-and-upscales who only show up because they were sufficiently annoyed by the lines at Sound Bites and Not Sound Bites, the waitstaff is almost downright hospitable in their natural state. Relatively speaking, of course; those who expect kowtowing and an "let me drop the eighteen plates of food I'm carrying and hurry off to fulfill your spontaneous request that you hollered at me in passing" attitude should still stay far away. Here, it takes two to be hospitable. If you don't give the waitresses guff, they won't return it -- and they're very good at the guff-giving when needed.

It's all a matter of self-entitlement versus telling it like it is, really. If a waitress says she can't get you a refill because you're at Eileen's table, she's only telling you the truth (and if you don't get all see-you-next-tuesday-ish about it, chances are she'll let Eileen know in passing and your refill will magically appear in front of you.) If the waitress is curt when taking your order and you're not the only one in the place, chances are she's got more important things to worry about -- making sure everybody in her station gets their food on time, perhaps -- than engage in more banter than necessary. (You may think New England hospitality is an oxymoron, but we're really just taciturn for the most part. Trust me on this one.)

But honestly this is as it should be. More people ought to be good to others and give the service profession a little respect, or at least recognize that those waiting tables are just people, after all, and not personal serving wenches. There are plenty of high-end fancypants restaurants that pride themselves in providing impeccably attentive yet unobtrusive service. It is these places which you should go when you're in the mood for that. But when you want to go out for food cooked by real people for real people and served by real people, stop by Kelly's any time you wish. It is what it is.

The breakfast was good. Had french toast and fake syrup, had some coffee, had some eggs, had some protein in the form of tasty bacon. There's not much more one needs for a full day of sitting at home writing. And you know, I can't remember asking for my eggs to be scrambled, but they were, and just as I like them.

"Oh, look," Lynn said near the end of our morning meal. "The hipsters are beginning to show up and it's not even 9 yet. These must be early hipsters!"

"Will wonders ever cease," I mused, and we shared one of those lovely collective Ain't-We-Glad-We-Is-Who-We-Am moments.

Then we unironically went back to our discussion about iPods, John Waters, urban exploration and Rock Band.

Ah, well. You are what you is.

(12 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:xiphias
Date:June 15th, 2008 04:49 pm (UTC)
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Our diner is an entirely third type of diner.

It's the "oh, yeah, we've got a diner here" kind of diner.

It's called "Ernie's Lunch." Ernie hasn't owned the place since, like, 1960 or something. Pam bought it from the guy who bought it from the guy who bought it from Ernie, I think -- those two guys didn't stick around that long, and Pam's had the place for, oh, twenty, thirty years. I think most of the counter staff has been eating at Ernie's since they had to get their orange juice in sippy cups. (Well, in Paul's case, that was last Thursday, but, y'know.)

It is not a railroad car. It is not Greek.

It's just a tiny little storefront with a big long counter with stools and customers on one side, and a grill and counterstaff and the best food on the planet on the other side.

And people. People that you like. On both sides of that counter.
[User Picture]
From:jadasc
Date:June 15th, 2008 05:03 pm (UTC)
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See, I'd call that a luncheonette, or a lunch counter.
[User Picture]
From:pecosy
Date:June 15th, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC)
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Near my sister's house there's a 50s-style burger joint, Val's, which makes burgers and milkshakes that make you sad to eat burgers and milkshakes anywhere else. One day I thinking how nice it was that they didn't put in more kitschy crap inside like those novelty table-side jukebox controllers and the dead movie star posters you speak of. Then I realized this isn't a crappy replica of a 50s diner, it is a 50s diner, one that has managed to stay in business all these years without changing much beyond the prices. My mom, who grew up in the neighborhood my sister now lives in, was the one who told us we needed to try it. I assumed she had gone there as a adult, but nope, she'd gone as a boppy teen in the early sixties.

Sadly, the only reason Val's has remained the way it has is because it's in a crappy neighborhood in a run-down city. If it were in a nicer part of the Bay Area, it would be be gone even if it were still there.
[User Picture]
From:muffyjo
Date:June 15th, 2008 05:29 pm (UTC)
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I've idly wondered if it was really in business. I never see that place open. Maybe it's only a morning place? Could that be true?
[User Picture]
From:ron_newman
Date:June 15th, 2008 09:46 pm (UTC)
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Kelly's? Yes, closes at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, something like that.
[User Picture]
From:littlegirltoast
Date:June 15th, 2008 06:09 pm (UTC)
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I thought you are who you is... is you is or is you ain't?
[User Picture]
From:djsunkid
Date:June 15th, 2008 06:27 pm (UTC)
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You sir, are what we in the industry call "a good one." As in, "one of the."

A little bit of respect goes a LONG way. From a back of house perspective -- servers will often come and ask for something special from the kitchen, and if they tell you it is for a nice customer, it really does make a big difference to us. I hate entitled assholes, and wish they wouldn't go to restaurants.

Actually, that's not entirely true. There are several servers that I HATE, and all assholes please- find them. And make stupid requests! And demand instant service. And show up 5 minutes before close. Then take a long time to decide, and get huffy when he doesn't instantly determine via telepathy that you've chosen to order.

Yes, do all of those things to my least favourite server. That would make me very happy.

Oh my, how this comment has gone off the rails.
[User Picture]
From:reveritas
Date:June 15th, 2008 07:36 pm (UTC)
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pls deliver the lynnie to me. aioli optional.
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From:eeka13
Date:June 15th, 2008 08:21 pm (UTC)
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Excellent review on all counts.
[User Picture]
From:jotasbrane
Date:June 16th, 2008 02:14 am (UTC)
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If you're ever up in my neck of the woods, you should pay a visit to the Red Arrow.
[User Picture]
From:28bytes
Date:June 16th, 2008 02:51 am (UTC)
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There should be a special Circle of Hell for people who are mean to waitresses.

(Of course, the type of person who is mean to waitresses is probably also doing something to put them in one of the current nine anyway.)
[User Picture]
From:terras
Date:June 16th, 2008 10:56 pm (UTC)
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FWIW, Kelly's has applied for a sidewalk seating permit. Doesn't that make them a hipster hangout?

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