Date of Visit: Friday, February 26, 2010 at 10:00 a.m.
IMPRESSIONS: In recent months I’ve been getting a series of increasingly aggressive e-mails from readers asking (nay, demanding) why I haven’t been to Starliner Diner yet. Why, they ask, amongst all the breakfasts to be had in Columbus, haven’t you trekked out west to Hilliard to experience one of the best breakfasts in town? I really couldn’t offer an answer, aside from saying that I just hadn’t made the effort. Pitiful, I know. But… excuses, excuses. So when my wife asked me were I’d like to go for breakfast on my birthday, I knew I had to make good and get us out to Starliner. Oh, boy, am I glad we did.
Starliner Diner is located out in Hilliard, on the western side of Columbus. To get there, you need to find Cemetery Road (I found it off the I-270 loop) and head west, so you’re going away from Columbus. You’ll find Starliner just past a set of train tracks, hidden by a small hill. I kinda like this setup – you can’t quite see it from the street (although there’s a sign), so you have to be in-the-know to find it.
ATMOSPHERE: Starliner’s decor reminds me a bit of the fun and funky Aretha Frankenstein’s in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Just like Aretha’s, Starliner is a surprising find, especially given the location, and sports a colorful and eclectic menu and design. The walls are covered with bright paintings and crazy knick-knacks.
The entryway sets the tone right away. I knew, the moment I stepped out of the car, that I would like Starliner because of the smells outside, and then in the entryway. Hard to describe, but I’m sure you all recognize it – it’s the smell of good cooking happening somewhere nearby. Like smelling a grill sizzling somewhere in your neighborhood during the summer.
Little prep area in the entryway.
A newer addition to the restaurant. That morning – a snowy February one – was fairly quiet in the restaurant, although some great ambient rock music kept up the fun atmosphere.
FOOD: The breakfast is fairly simple, broken down into your standards (2 eggs, toast, pancakes, etc), Breakfast Tradicionales (Cuban favorites like huevos rancheros, etc), Omelettes, and Sides. The overall focus is Cuban classics + diner food, and they mix very well. For some reason, I knew I was going to order the huevos rancheros before we even left for Starliner. I think perhaps because trusted fellow food bloggers like Hungrywoolf and CMH Gourmand have mentioned the huevos to me. Truth is, I can’t ever remember having huevos rancheros, and I’m not sure why. The dish is easy to like, with 2 eggs, jack cheese, cilantro, ranchero sauce, salsa, and black beans on top of corn tortillas. It’s a big, tasty mess – the fun is letting everything run together and then savoring cornucopia of flavors.
My wife ordered chiliquiles, featuring scrambled eggs, peppers, onions, corn, zucchini, chile cream sauce, cheese, cilantro, black beans, with chorizo added, surrounded by corn tortillas. Another dish that packs a flavorful wallop, although we both agreed that there were a few too many tortillas in it, and it could have used a dollop of sour cream. Still: it’s very good.
One reader recommended the Cuban toast French toast. It wasn’t on the menu, but our server gladly offered it anyway. Nice little cubes of Cuban bread, all fried up and crispy around the edges, then dusted with powdered sugar. You almost don’t need the syrup! We ordered a side of it, which turned out to be the perfect shape and amount for our son, who happily chowed down on the fruit and tiny cubes of French toast.
SERVICE: Service was great, too. Our server was relatively new – she said she had only been working there for a week or two – but she had backup from a seasoned veteran, and despite being a little unsure of herself, she did very well.
On our way out we got to meet owner Molly Davis. She told us Starliner takes its name from her 1960 Ford Starliner, which I believe is parked nearby, or in her garage. She said it makes appearances from time to time. Molly said the menu at Starliner was inspired originally by a restaurant out in California (I forget the name), and that they try to feature a lot of Cuban favorites alongside the classica you’d come to expect with an American diner. Overall, the mix works very, very well, and given the loyal (and vocal!) clientele, Molly and co. are on the right track.
OVERALL: I’ll rush to admit that, oh yes, I’ve been missing out. Oh, yes. The distance out to Hilliard is a bit prohibitive, but Starliner is worth the drive. We sampled just a couple dishes from the breakfast menu, and I know we barely scratched the surface, so return visits are in order. This place may keep busy enough outside the I-270 loop, and I imagine it would be positively swamped if it were located in Clintonville, Short North, or anywhere in or around downtown Columbus. Still, I’d put Starliner up there with some of Columbus’ best breakfasts, so any fan of the morning meal needs to check it out!
P. S. The Starliner website is cute, but needs a little re-design in my opinion. And I’m not a huge fan of the MIDI music on every page.
-> Starliner Diner on CMH Gourmand