Review | Written and photographed by Nathan Mattise
It’s not as flashy or as large as other geographic conflicts, but there is a lot of history between Onondaga Nation and Syracuse, N.Y. It largely stems from the land rights complaint (as outlined on the Nation’s official web site) by the Nation against NY State. My personal, visual representation of it has been the giant graffiti’d anti-government billboard that welcomes you to Nation territory while driving on I-81. Needless to say, I’ve been told numerous times not to wander around off exit 16.
This sign pictured above is what should be the visual representation of the area. For locals, if you can get past whatever incorrect perceptions of the Nation you may have, you’ll get treated to a diner experience that’ll have you planning a return trip. The famous “diner” visually advertised off I-81 is actually called the Firekeepers Diner (their official sign is a bit smaller, out on the road that leads to it). It’s a non-24 hour roadside diner that I learned doesn’t serve breakfast after 2 p.m. (which is a shame because the “Meat lovers’ breakfast skillet” was very intriguing). They also only accept cash, but live with those two realizations and get inside.
Inside the diner is huge with a natural cabin aesthetic. There are a lot of windows providing natural light, the walls are wood-like and signs you’d see in your grandmother’s kitchen adorn various spots in the place. There’s a good sized counter-top seating area with some cooler Native American motifed wood works hanging. Last but certainly not least, there are two gems of restaurant culture past still in effect here. At the Firekeepers Diner, you have the option of smoking or non-smoking and each booth has an individual pay phone next to it for weary travelers.
The service here was the real gem. Waitstaff knew the answers to questions before we even asked (unfortunately including “Can we still get breakfast?”) and were great about keeping a consistent but not intrusive presence at the table throughout our meal. Our waitress didn’t hesitate at all when we asked for food recommendations either – straightforward advice like that is hard to find amongst a sea of typically “everything is good,” responses.
Without the breakfast option, I opted for what was suggested. I tried Mac & Cheese Bites with Tiger Sauces and then the Bacon Bison Cheeseburger (a mere $6.50 for the burger). The bites were brilliant; oozing with mac and complimented surprisingly well by the Tiger Sauce (think a more polished version of the Burger King Zesty Sauce). The burger was also very solid, a lot more tender than normal beef and hearty enough to satisfy me even after I knew the meat skillet existed.
My trip to the Firekeepers Diner was nothing I expected…and that’s nearly entirely a good thing. Despite limited breakfast hours and the cash only option (with no ATM nearby), this culinary experience on the outskirts of Onondaga Nation is enough to get you to ignore the negative message out there. Any place with top notch service, nostaglic features and solid food is a place worth visiting no matter what land it’s on.
The Final Tab
Pros: Good atmosphere, great service, unique menu items
Cons: Cash only, breakfast only served until 2 p.m., possibility of smoking during your meal experience.
Three Out Of Five (Basic combo | It’s OK – try it.)