Diner: 24-Hour Food

Cheap eats, great seats

There's a certain stigma attached to 24-hour restaurants — Denny's, Lyon's, International House of Pancakes — you know, where breakfast is served 24/7, and no matter what time of day you go in, one of the wait-staff has just got on the shift and hasn't yet had to pick the tip out of a glass and therefore is fresh enough to be cheerful.

In spite of possessing such allurements, these establishments labor under a heavy burden of derision, for which I must claim some small share of responsibility. As someone who writes about food, I have never yet used my power to assert that sometimes organic, home-crafted, well-rounded meals are not the kind of food you need.

I'm saying it now, and I speak from experience: There are times when only 24-hour-chain restaurant food will do.

When driving through a remote part of the state, on your way to the Canadian border (never mind why), when it's past the far edge of dinnertime and well into good - thing - you're - not - sleeping - tonight - because - you'd - never - be - able - to - sleep - after - eating - this - late territory, you are not looking for a regular eatery, which all close, anyway, when the cows are in the barn.

No, you are looking for that brightly lit sign rotating 50 feet up over the freeway off-ramp.

When you go in, you can be secure in knowing the food you're gonna get is absolutely the same as that at any other all-night restaurant you've ever been to. The soup of the day is the same degree of salty goodness, the pancakes are all the same size and thickness, the hamburgers are all dripping the same grease, down to hue and flavor when licked off your fingers, the steaks ... well, the steaks you don't want to spend too much time on.

I mean, you have to respect the limitations of the medium.

The key is never to have a meal appropriate to the actual time you're eating.

At dinnertime, get a Grand Slam breakfast — two eggs, side of meat, short stack and the appropriate beverages. It's the cheapest dinner you can buy outside of a bag of microwave popcorn. A French dip sandwich, soggy with "au jus," is perfect for when the rest of the world's eating Wheaties. Of course, anything outside of standard meal hours (8 p.m.-5 a.m.) is a wild card. When any meal of the day is more than five hours away, your biochemistry is screwed anyway, so go ahead and get the steak.

But all-night restaurants are more than reliable sources of comfort food: They're vortexes of productivity and creative energy. I learned this at college when my roommates got too obnoxious, and I took to studying at the IHOP. It was paradise: The lighting was bright, the smoking section was big, and the pots of coffee were bottomless. Once I read Crime and Punishment there in a seven-hour, 30-cigarette marathon.

Over the course of several years, my friends and I came to know the people on the graveyard shift. They thought we were cute in a strung-out sort of way, and sometimes brought us sandwiches that had been made "by mistake," but mostly we went through the night on coffee and water and an order of fries split five ways. We were poor students, salvaging our pride by pretending for hours that we weren't ready to order yet.

We made up for it, though, at the beginning of the term, when shrunken pockets bulged with fresh installments of scholarship money. Giant plates covered the surface of the table and dripped gravy and syrup on our forgotten assignments. We ordered the overpriced glasses of orange juice and side orders of everything. If I was feeling particularly festive, I went for the corned beef hash, so intensely salty that it made my tongue curl. I ate it slowly, with many glasses of water, and scraped the plate clean.

Later in my adult life, after I started working at a high-stress, low-thrill job, a co-worker and I frequented a joint just down the street on Friday evenings. The warm starchy sandwiches and potatoes seemed to have a palliative effect. Or maybe it was simply that someone else would pick up the shrapnel of our despair.

Nowadays I have rediscovered the wisdom of my college years. Ensconced in the back corner booth at Lyon's for hours at a time, I write, sucking on coffee that cools too fast, staring glassy-eyed at the fabric plants. The vinyl cushions press back reassuringly against my world-weary body, as I tap my spoon and smile absently at the young woman who refills my cup without asking. In an hour or two, after I've finished the rough draft, maybe I'll get an order of fries (with a side of ranch) to celebrate. Crisply greasy, peppered and salted several times as I move through the pile, these fries are still enough to get me through the night. ©

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