Friday, April 03, 2009

Letter from Manhattan: Shingle and Shimmy with a Shake

Our GSNW Man in Manhattan, Carlton native Mark Dundas Wood, pulls on his snap-brim hat and turns up the collar of his trench coat to reflect on his favorite dive diners.

In boom times and bum times alike, culinary familiarity—comfort food—does a body good. In New York, smart entrepreneurs harnessed that need 13 years ago with their Comfort Diner outlets. On Comfort Diner platters, there’s plenty of mashed-potato-and-pumpkin-pie assurance that God’s in His kitchen and all’s right with the world.

Comfort Diners are a bit like culinary theme parks, with a snazzy logo (above) and even an annual Great Grilled Cheese Meltdown. It’s a fun, moderately upscale dining experience. Sometimes, though, no-frills, down-and-dirty snack shacks strike the fancy better than high-concept lunch counters.

What is it about turn-of-the-mill diners, with their laminated menus running on for 6 or 8 pages? We love them, but grudgingly. Sometimes I think we want meals that remind us of the food we grew up with, even if we grew up with some pretty tacky eats. My favorite since I’ve been in New York is the Galaxy Diner on 46th Street and 9th Avenue. Other, trendier restaurants in the neighborhood—Thai, Chinese, Italian—come and go, but the Galaxy pulls in SRO crowds consistently, especially during weekend brunch hours.

Their fare is ordinary, really. If you look online for reviews, you’ll see a few raves, more than a few raspberries and a lot of noncommittal comments such as “pretty good omelets” or “I do like the fact that they don’t butter their toast.”

The Galaxy certainly strives to be “out of this world.” When I started going there in the 1990s, there were murals on the wall showing fleets of Martian spaceships invading Earth, and of Martian infantry swarming the corner of 46th and 9th. A couple years ago, the place went upscale—outdoor sidewalk seating was added, along with a far-out planetarium-style ceiling. (The little green men, meanwhile, were painted over.) The menu didn’t change much, but the prices went up.

The Galaxy is a cleaner, better-dressed cousin of some real dive diners from my youth—The Sincere Café (in San Francisco’s Mission District) and Quality Pie (on 23rd Avenue in Northwest Portland). Those are not places I would want to revisit nowadays. I remember once taking a friend to the Sincere, and being horrified when he discovered a dead housefly nestled in the hollow of his spoon.

These days—when Time magazine trumpets the “End of Excess,” people seem to tread carefully around haute cuisine, perhaps equating it with high finance. Diners, though, are above—or below—suspicion. Surely Bernie Madoff never sat at a lunch counter very often—although these days, he’d probably welcome a night out even at the Sincere or QP. A place like the Galaxy assures us that, even if the economy bottoms out entirely, we’ll still be able to participate in a communal dining experience once in a while.

Just hold the dead houseflies.

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