Food Essay | Written by Nathan Mattise
You’d think “Syracuse diner enthusiasts” would be a small enough niche community. You can find all of the major players within two-minutes of a Google search, right?
I thought the same thing until last week. I was meeting with a group of colleagues because we’re embarking on a TBA comprehensive project on area diners. In walked an elderly man dressed in a collared shirt and a sweater. After he spoke to us for nearly a half hour, he walked out of the room as the most knowledgeable authority on diners in CNY.
Meet the Diner Docent.
He’s been a CNY resident for over 20 years and wishes to remain anonymous in the CNY diner community (so immediately he gets a Frank Bruni level of bad ass). He came to share some background history and interesting tidbits with us so our group could use them wisely going forth in our project. He went on extensively about how declining industries played a role in the current diner landscape and noted his personal diner list of over 72 locales in the area (compiled through his routine of eating at a diner daily).
Personally, two things really stood out for me from my Docent experience that converted me to an instant fan/believer. First, his list of tangible details that qualify an establishment as a diner:
If you didn’t catch that, the list reads:
1) Waitresses don’t wear uniforms (Sorry Denny’s)
2) Coffee is made in a large jug/basin
3) Onions in the homefries is the only option
4) There’s a “patina” on the grill (i.e. save that delicious breakfast grease magic and reuse it daily)
In person he added that 5) there should be counter top seating and 6) you bring your money to the register to encourage some interaction. Not only does his vocabulary have an admirable level of sophistication (I had to look up both patina and docent for this), but he still maintains a down-to-earth perception that captured the elements that make diners so homey.
In addition to his diner characteristics, the Docent excited me most when he was his sharing his first impressions on some of the more popular ‘Cuse diners. Mother’s Cupboard had the most impressive grill, Elm St. was flawless if it wasn’t counterless, service at the B’Ville is perfectly sassy and Miss Syracuse was a hidden gem in every sense of the word. I found myself agreeing with his points and, upon review, discovering we shared a lot of the same first impressions. Hearing it come from someone so experienced in what the area offers really personally validated my ability to understand a diner I visit.
The project the Docent came to help with is still nearly two months away from launching, so hopefully this won’t be the last time I cross paths with the guy. His humbled expertise and willingness to share it (genuinely because he loves diner culture) is inspiring to see. He’s a guy I’d aspire to be like when my adventuring days are done and I’ve found an area to settle in to. At the very least, I wish he was an uncle. It’d be a guaranteed way to get him to take me to his favorite greasy spoon some weekend.