They're everywhere, but they generate little buzz. Diners are an icon of American culture — throughout the Northeast and Midwest you'll typically find at least one in every town — yet they're relatively inconspicuous. Steadfastly riding out fads and trends, a home-away-from-home for many, they often serve as social backbones in their communities.
Richard Gutman, possibly America's foremost authority on diners, describes them in "A Life Devoted to the American Diner" as "a friendly place, usually mom-and-pop with a sole proprietor, that serves basic, home-cooked, fresh food, for good value." In an essay Gutman penned for the "What It Means to Be American" project — a national, multi-platform, multi-media conversation hosted by The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and Arizona State University — he argues: "Over their long history, diners have been a subtle part of our built environment and also our inner landscapes. They are as familiar as the language we speak and the comfort food we eat. Everyone loves diners."
Although familiar and beloved, diners tend to fly under the radar in terms of media coverage and public consciousness. Starting with this issue, CITY will begin to explore local diners that have established themselves as institutions. In doing so, we'll show how such places cultivate ongoing loyalty and endure the ebb and flow of changing American tastes to remain viable in the volatile restaurant industry.
According to the Smithsonian article, the evolution of diners began in the latter part of the 19th century as "lunch wagons." Drawn by horses, pulling up to industrial workplaces, "coming out at dusk, the lunch wagons would pick up business after restaurants closed, serving late-shift workers, newspapermen, theatergoers, and anyone out and about after dark and hungry for an inexpensive hot meal. A fellow would get his food from the wagon's window and eat sitting on the curb," Gutman writes. Sounds much like today's food trucks.
Serving breakfast and lunch, Busy Bee Restaurant (124 West Main Street; 232-4991) has moved around some over the course of its history, but has never been pulled by draft animals. It opened on Central Avenue in 1958, but has operated near Rochester's Four Corners for about 18 years, consistently owned and operated by three generations of the Hassos family.
Stepping into the Busy Bee catapults you back in time. According to co-owner Steve Hassos, the building dates to 1890. Once inside, you're greeted by an empty mid-20th-century cigarette vending machine with pull handles. On the right is a long golden-yellow counter with orange stools, booths are on the left, and lavender stucco walls — with cornices of sculpted heads — surrounds the space. Behind the counter sits an anachronistic keg-shaped vessel that servers use to dispense cream into coffee.
Busy Bee's prices (note: it's cash-only here) are also reminiscent of a bygone era. Consider the all-day, everyday breakfast special: two eggs, home fries, and toast for $2.78; or an egg-and-cheese English muffin for $0.92. I ate breakfast like royalty for under $6.
Starting with hot, slightly grayish coffee (a bottomless cup for $1.15) in a hefty mug, I followed with a breakfast sandwich ($3) of a fried egg, a copious amount of thinly-shaved ham, and melty cheese on hard roll. It came out hot and pleasantly salty with a side of home fries ($1.45) — small dices of potato with some coveted blackened crust (though not as crispy as I'd asked for, and in need of seasoning). My friend Kent ordered French toast (three slices for $3.25). On the upside, plenty of egg batter was used, but the dish was a bit undercooked and mushy.
We returned another day to indulge in Busy Bee's lunch menu, disappointed that no homemade soups were available, but on Fridays Busy Bee offers a haddock fish fry (with cole slaw, French fries, and bread for $7.75; or a fish sandwich for $5.50) instead of soup. Kent enjoyed a buttery, golden-brown grilled turkey (generously portioned) and cheese sandwich ($4.25), while I acted on our brusque server's recommendation, ordering a hot beef sandwich with French fries ($5.25) — an easy sell, as one of my bellwethers for diners is the quality of their hot (turkey, roast beef, or meatloaf) sandwiches with gravy.
Served on white bread, the roast beef was freshly sliced and plentiful, and importantly, the gravy was abundant, with plenty for the fries, but too salty for me. Still hungry, I also put down a cheeseburger ($2.70), foregoing the homemade hot sauce and opting for grilled onions. This was a standard, thin, flat-top-grilled, greasy diner burger — something I appreciate — though it was a tad bland, and I was disappointed that no pickles existed for my burger.
Busy Bee survives and thrives, according to Steve Hassos, because of his and his brother Paul's commitment to low prices (the highest-priced item on the breakfast menu is $6), homemade food, and their drive as owners to work hard and do some of everything necessary: sweeping, mopping, washing, and of course, cooking. Each time I was there, I noticed a steady stream of regulars — the lifeblood for this type of restaurant — many whom the server knew by name and order. Many people also seem to make the Busy Bee a regular stop for their morning take-out coffee.
Despite a relative consistency in approach, when digging beneath the surface, successful diners like Busy Bee offer more than cheap eats and long counters. They provide value, menus catered to local populations (note the Busy Bee's homage to the Garbage Plate, the Turletava Plate — a term loosely translated from Albanian and Turkish meaning a mixture of things cooking together), and an appealing individuality and sense of camaraderie that you'll never find at rigidly-standardized chain or franchise restaurants.