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Risser’s Family Restaurant | Womelsdorf, PA

Risser’s Family Restaurant (Facebook)
4055 Conrad Wesier Parkway (map it!)
Womelsdorf, PA 10567
(610) 589-4570
Open Tues-Sat, 6:00 am – 7:30 pm; Sun, 6:00 am – 1:30 pm
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Sunday, November 7, 2010 at 9:00 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: The “family restaurant.” Now there’s a phrase packed with connotations! What does it bring to mind for you? For me, it recalls small one-off restaurants. Found in small towns around America. Usually close to highways. Definitely family-friendly. Often crowded with regulars. Serving one or two regional specialties but otherwise generally decent food. Family restaurants are close to diners, but bigger. Larger dining rooms. More room for big groups and buffet lines. Many of them, like Ernie Risser’s Family Restaurant, have a small diner side – if you want that type of experience – plus an extensive dining room if the whole family’s come to dine.

ATMOSPHERE: When it comes to the definition of family restaurants, Risser’s is all of the above. Some of my wife’s family is from eastern Pennsylvania, and they discovered it on a visit, parked along Highway 422 between the small towns of Womelsdorf and Myerstown. (Can we say German influences?)

On our visit, we opted for the diner side of things. Truly a tight squeeze. Small stools at the counter, snug little booths. Shiny chrome here and there. Sassy servers.

But the dining room offers more open seating and room for big families. (We returned on a later trip with a group of 15; they easily tucked us into the dining room.)

FOOD: Risser’s gives you all the family restaurant breakfast favorites: eggs, home fries, omelets, French toast, sausage gravy and biscuits. Plus a few not-as-common things: pancakes (called “hotcakes”) loaded with all sorts of fruit. Not just blueberries, but apples and cherries, too. Or there’s the dried chipped beef on toast (aka, an SOS). But no scrapple on the menu.

As we were visiting in the fall, they had a couple seasonal favorites on their specials menu. These include the apple hotcakes, which have apples and cinnamon in them, and the pumpkin pancakes, which are what you’d expect. Or you can go all harvest-crazy and do the autumn hotcakes: apples and cinnamon in… wait for it… pumpkin pancakes.

Good diner coffee. I like the big blue mugs.

We tried the sausage gravy casserole: two eggs, cheddar cheese, home fries, coated in gravy. Sure, it was good. Chunky potatoes. Mostly flavorful gravy. Nothing to write home about, but if you’re a fan of the little-bit-of-everything dishes, this your guy.

Here’s the creamed dried beef on toast. Pretty rich gravy drowning the toast. Nice meaty chunks. But nothing amazing.

A plain old blueberry pancake for my son. Big blueberries. A small lake of melted butter.

And of course, we had to have the autumn hotcakes. Not the greatest pancakes ever, but there’s really nothing to dislike here. I mean, come on… tasty pumpkin pancakes, chunks of apples baked into them, generous dusting of cinnamon sugar, plus a melted pad of butter. Oh, and you pour syrup on it. They’re fitting for the season: warm, sweet, and filling.

SERVICE: Our server was great. The right amount of sass, tempered by quick coffee refills and fast turnaround on our order.

Oh, and this is another mainstay of the family restaurant: the paper place mat with local advertisers.

OVERALL: If you’re traveling down Route 422 in rural eastern Pennsylvania, find a way to stop at Risser’s. It’s good road food – like the Kumm Esse Diner down the road – that offers you a few specialties in the midst of an otherwise ordinary, but solid, breakfast.

Risser's Family Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Time To Eat Diner | Bridgewater, NJ

Time To Eat Diner
270 Route 202/206 North (map it!)
Bridgewater, NJ 08807
(908) 704-9221
Open Mon-Fri, 5 am – 3 am; Sat & Sun open 24 hours
Accepts cash and credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Friday, November 5, 2010 at 9:30 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: In northern New Jersey for a family wedding, we needed some sustenance. One part of being the resident food blogger in the group is that everyone will turn to you when looking for breakfast, even if you’ve never been to the city before. Fortunately, my wife and I triangulated reviews between Yelp, Urbanspoon, and Google and came up with the Time To Eat Diner.

Time To Eat is like many of those roadside diners that capture some sense of the small diner, while still being built out enough to accommodate large groups. It’s the diner + the dining room. You can have your sit-at-the-counter, flashy-chrome diner experience, or you can have the plusher big family dining room experience.

ATMOSPHERE: Kudos to the Time to Eat crew for being able to accommodate such a large group. They stacked together a bunch of tables in the back of the dining room and gave us a harried server.

The atmosphere is just what you would expect. Small booths, kitschy 50′s memorabilia, and that just-off-the-highway feeling. It makes me think of the Broadway Diner in Baltimore.

Plenty of Elvis.

And Elvis guitars and Elvis clocks.

FOOD: I get a little nervous when I see menus like Time To Eat’s. They’re like a short novel. Pages and pages of items. It gets hard to sift through, even if breakfast only takes up three of those pages. I think of this as the Cheesecake Factory syndrome, in which the menu is so huge that you know there’s no way all that food didn’t just come out of a freezer. Because we had a big group, we ordered a big variety of things. Some hit and miss.

First off, coffee. Very good. A step up from the standard diner coffee. I liked the big mugs, and the individual serving plates with spoon and creamer. Also scoring points for the diner: colorful dishware. I like seeing that.

I tried the Sampler: two eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage, pork roll, toast. Eggs were fine. The hash browns were okay, a little on the mushy side. Bacon, fine. Sausage, very good. Reminded me of English sausage: a little more plump. I ordered this dish partially out of curiosity over the pork roll. I’ve never encountered that on a menu before, nor have I seen taylor ham (also on the menu). I asked our server to clarify, and she said they are basically the same thing, and that they’re both essentially country ham. So: pork roll = taylor ham = country ham = salted ham.

My wife ordered the Eggs Benedict Florentine. It came with a side of hash browns. It was okay, but there was definitely a funny taste to the spinach and the hash browns. Almost metallic. A little off-putting.

Everyone’s toast came together in a basket. I find this charming because it reminds me of toast racks typical of an English breakfast. But it also confuses me, because I didn’t know whose toast was whose.

Also ordered a side of Potato Pancakes with sour cream. These were pretty good: crispy outside, warm inside.

Er… an omelet. I forget which one. Like I said, a lot of dishes…

The Toasted Bagel with Lox. This was a definite hit.

Breakfast burrito with all the accoutrement.

Country Fried Steak & Two Eggs. I had a taste of this, and it was quite good. I wish I had ordered this instead of the Sampler. I loves me some country fried steak.

Crepes! Sweet and tasty. Canned fruit filling.

Pancakes! Sausage! Eggs!

A veggie omelet!

Corned Beef Hash, with eggs and potatoes.

Lots of combos! French toast, eggs, sausage…

…or pancakes…

…or bacon!

SERVICE: Our server did a very good job, considering she had such a large group all to herself. She seemed pretty harried, but all told, the food came quickly and she got all of the orders exactly right.

OVERALL: I don’t know when I’ll next be in Northern Jersey. If I am, I don’t know if I’d stop at Time To Eat again. I think it’s worth at least one visit: the location is interesting (although a little hard to get to if you don’t know the local highways), the service is great, and I guess there’s enough variety on the menu that you’re bound to find something you’ll like. But I think the so-so dishes, especially the eggs benedict florentine, left me feeling like one visit is enough for me.

Time To Eat Diner on Urbanspoon

Daybreak Diner | Columbus, OH

Daybreak Diner (Facebook / @daybreakdiner)
1168 E. Weber Rd. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43211
(614) 261-4560
Open Mon-Fri, 7 am – 12 pm; Sat & Sun, 8 am – 2 pm
Accepts cash and credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? Y/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Monday, January 17, 2011 at 9:30 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: In my opinion, Columbus can always use another diner, especially to serve a neighborhood that doesn’t have one yet. So we were pleasantly surprised when we glimpsed the tiny store front of the Daybreak Diner down Weber Road. My brother-in-law and I are always on the lookout for more diner breakfasts, so we headed there on a free Monday morning.

ATMOSPHERE: The diner was pretty quiet – only one other customer – when we first arrived, although the tables slowly filled up. Daybreak Diner is very diner-y. It’s like the owner had a checklist of The Things You Need In A Diner that he checked off one by one as he opened the restaurant. (P.S. that’s not a bad thing.)

Counter with stools? Check. Big open grill? Check. Brown coffee mugs? Check. Pastries under glass? Check. 1950′s memorabilia? Check. Daily specials written on a chalkboard? Check.

It’s all there. The only thing I didn’t like about the atmosphere were the TVs tuned to Jerry Springer or Maury Povich. I have nothing against TVs in restaurants; in fact, most of my favorite places will have a TV running a local/national news station or the Weather Channel. More and more I find daytime television off-putting, and while these TVs weren’t loud (that would be an entirely different issue), I just found it at odds with the laid-back diner atmosphere to have half-bleeped arguments and Maury repeating, “You ARE the father” in the background while I eat.

FOOD: Daybreak’s menu surprised me with a few new things for breakfast. Aside from the diner mainstays of egg combos, omelets, French toast, and pancakes, there are more unique offerings like a Cheeseburger Omelet, Breakfast Fried Rice, and Captain Crunch French toast.

Coffee was served in those beautiful brown diner mugs. Check! The coffee itself was so-so diner coffee.

See that? That, to me, is a good diner breakfast: a big plate full of food. This is the Three Eggs platter. Toast and sausage were good, scrambled eggs done just right, not dry at all, and the hash browns were some of the best I’ve had in Columbus. Browned evenly without being burned, nice mix of seasoning on it. I saw the owner make a huge batch on the flattop, pouring them from a bag. I assumed they were frozen, but he said on Twitter they were not, so I’m guessing they were pre-made in the back? Maybe they’re not the greatest hash browns ever, but more places in Columbus serve home fries, so hash browns are always welcome. They’re my preferred preparation of breakfast potatoes.

Out of curiosity, we had to order the Captain’s French toast. Mind you, we’ve had a superb version at the Blue Moon Cafe in Baltimore (and one featured on the Food Network, at that), so our standards are pretty high. Our expectations were dashed a bit when we saw that the Captain Crunch was sprinkled on top of the toast, rather than being part of the batter. I prefer it grilled to the bread itself, so that the sugary cereal gets caramelized and crusty. This was simply good French toast with a dusting of crushed cereal.

SERVICE: Our server was very nice. Took care of us just like you would expect. Very friendly. Kept our coffee refilled, helped accommodate my 2.5-year-old son, and the food came out quickly.

OVERALL: A mix of reactions, but overall very positive. The food blends nicely with the diner atmosphere and the service. Most dishes were maybe a $1 more than their equivalent at other diners around town, but nothing beyond-the-budget. And there’s some more interesting stuff on the menu that will make me return. At the very least, I want to have more of those hash browns.

OTHER LINKS:

Daybreak Diner on Urbanspoon

Buckeye Donuts | Columbus, OH

Buckeye Donuts (Facebook)
1998 N. High St. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43201
(614) 291-3923
Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
Accepts cash and credit cards
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? N/N/N

Date of Visit: Tuesday, October 5, 2010 at 9:00 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: I’m a terrible member of the Ohio State University community. Why? Because after 8+ years of teaching and studying at the University, I’ve never once been to Buckeye Donuts. I’m surprised they gave me my degree. Buckeye Donuts has been maintaining tradition for a scant 42 years, and it was my duty as an Ohio State student and Columbus resident to patronize the establishment.

Fortunately, I have remedied my misdeeds and paid them the first of hopefully many visits. Buckeye Donuts is located, as you would expect, right across from Ohio State’s campus on the main drag of High Street.

It’s a small family business that’s been running since 1969. Jimmy Barouxis followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps, and took over the business in 2001.

Aside from their pastries, Buckeye Donuts has a small menu of sandwiches, French toast, and the standard sides. Note two things in the picture above: the spelling of “Breakfast Spesial,” and tater tots on the menu.

Buckeye Donuts is a good stop on any Columbus diner tour as well. Check out the curving counter and the tiny red stools.

FOOD: But of course, the real stars are the donuts. Students past, present, and future visit Buckeye Donuts for a taste of their apple fritters, Bismarks, Buckeyes (choc + peanut butter), longjohns, sprinkled, cake, glazed, and more. A donut is a cheap snack; perfect for the college student budget.

I ordered a mixed half dozen. Each one of these donuts was delicious. My personal favorites were the longjohns. These always bring back memories of getting donuts from a local grocery store growing up. To this day, whenever someone mentions getting donuts, this is the first thing that comes to mind. Always custard-filled.

They generally make two big batches each day. One early in the morning around 5:00 a.m., and a second smaller one roundabouts 7:00 or 8:00 p.m.

SERVICE: Service is very quick and friendly. They can pack up donuts to go for you, or you can have a seat and enjoy a pastry or a hot breakfast. While I visited, Jimmy let me poke around in the back, too.

Two guys were running the small kitchen, making egg sandwiches and French toast on the flattop.

Jimmy asked this gentleman – in Greek – how long he’s been making donuts there. The reply, in Greek: 34 years.

He was working on a batch of cinnamon rolls.

Lots of donuts ready to go…

…ready for some glazing!

The best way to become someone’s hero is to show up with a box of donuts. Buckeye Donuts can help you achieve that.

OVERALL: As I said, I think Buckeye Donuts is a must-stop for donuts in Columbus. They aren’t my top favorite, and they certainly keep mostly to traditional styles. But it’s got a unique Columbus flair to it, it’s part of a long tradition at Ohio State, and it’s always good to support a family business!

NOTE: There is another Buckeye Donuts on Columbus’ south side, but it is only loosely connected with this one. This store is the original; the south side location is run by another part of the family.

OTHER LINKS:
-> my (614) Magazine write-up on donuts (including Buckeye Donuts)

Buckeye Donuts on Urbanspoon

Photos: donuts at DK Diner

On the path of Columbus’ best locally-made donuts for my November 2010 (614) Magazine column, I had the opportunity to revisit the DK Diner in Grandview.

We picked up a box of a mixed dozen ($6.90) in order to properly sample their fare. Aw, poor us.

DK is owned by the Teny family; I chatted with Anthony, general manager and son of the owner. Anthony says the diner – originally just called the Donut Kitchen – has been in their family for 19 years. At first they just served donuts, but over the years they added lunch, and finally breakfast.

Their donuts are made in small batches every morning starting around 3:30 to 4:30 a.m.

Friday and Saturday are clearly the best-selling days for donuts. Once in a while they sell out by 8 a.m.

They make only about 15 types of donuts (another case of doing something but small reaaaaally well).

And they cover all the standards: cake, glazed, blueberry, chocolate, apple fritters…

…longjohns, Bismarcks.

The clear stand-out, and winner of the Best Donut in Columbus, in my opinion, are the glazed sour cream donuts. They’re misshapen, moist and cakey on the inside, with a thin, crackly glazed shell.

If you’ve never been to the DK Diner, seek it out. Their food is great and the atmosphere is super casual. You seat yourself. You get your own drinks: you pick one of the mismatched mugs from the shelf and help yourself to the small fridge for cream in your coffee). When you go to pay at the register, you tell the waitstaff what you had. The walls are plastered with a mish-mash of Grandview gear. Five TVs blare various sports. And you’ll have to fight all the families for a shot at the donuts.

My wife and I just HAD to have breakfast while I did my research. I revisited the DK All the Way: eggs, ham, and sausage gravy on biscuits and home fries. Yup.

(Side note: the phrase “Double Rainbow All the Way” has become popular because of this viral YouTube video. You’ll see people on Twitter declare something is really cool by typing “DRATW.” One thought, Columbusites: could we get “DK All the Way” to be our phrase of superlative praise? Think about it… DKATW.)

My wife gave their Mess a try: it’s corned beef hash with two eggs, onions & peppers, and a side of bread; she chose a biscuit. Also good and plenty filling.

If you want these donuts and/or their breakfast:
DK Diner
1715 West Third Ave.
Columbus, OH
Open Mon-Fri 6:30 am – 2 pm
Sat 7:30 am – 1 pm
Sun 8:30 am – 1 pm
Get there early!

Fitzy’s Old Fashioned Diner | Columbus, OH

Fitzy’s Old Fashioned Diner
1487 Schrock Rd. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43229
(614) 846-1004
Open 24 hours a day
Accepts cash and credit cards
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? N/N/N

Date of Visit: Thursday, August 5, 2010 at 9:15 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: If diners were people, Fitzy’s Old Fashioned Diner would be the bad-ass older brother you look up to: he’s a little gruff, he’s got posters of girls on his walls, he likes cars, he never goes to bed, and he eats a lot. Parked up on Schrock Road near the big Budweiser plant, Fitzy’s is a classic-looking diner with a little sass and a lot of character. It’s rough around the edges, hung posters of Marilyn Monroe and classic cars, and caters to any crowd, whether you’re stumbling in from a local bar at 2:00 a.m., or settling in for a pleasant 10:00 a.m. meetup with friends.

Owner Mike Lott just celebrated ten years of doing breakfast and more at Fitzy’s. He opened the place in July of 2000, serving his first customer Phil at 5:30 am and closing up shop at 3:00 pm. (P.S. Phil still comes in at 5:30 every morning.) After noticing the trends in crowds, he opened up during third shift to serve the bar customers, and eventually added second shift, too. Quite the unusual order – 1st, 3rd, then 2nd shift – but the result is that rarity of a good Columbus breakfast spot that’s open twenty-four hours a day.

Mike is big and brash, and a lot of fun to talk to. He proudly defends his place, and will fight for his customers. He’s also perfectly honest about his food and his clientele: “We’re selling pork and we’re selling pork fat,” he says. “That’s what America loves. It’s called a greasy spoon for a reason.” In addition to running the great American Diner, Mike occasionally hosts classic car shows with Marilyn Monroe look-alikes.

ATMOSPHERE: I visited Fitzy’s on a relatively quiet Thursday morning, with my occasional breakfast partner Jason. A few other tables were full, but otherwise the crowd was sparse. The nice thing about Fitzy’s round-the-clock availability is that you can visit whenever it best suits your mood. Up for a rowdy atmosphere? Visit at midnight on a weekend. Mike says he has to hire a cop to keep things under control (ask him about the velvet Marilyn Monroe poster that got destroyed). Or if you’re up for something quieter, stop by during second shift – still their slowest period, Mike says.

Have a look around Fitzy’s, and you’ll see all the standard American diner decor. Checkered floor. Counter with swivelly stools. Pictures of Elvis and JFK. Old-timey register. Brown coffee mugs.

FOOD: The breakfast menu is one page long and covers all the basics, but there are a couple items I haven’t seen that often, like the Steak Omelet and the Bologna & Eggs.

No matter you what order, or what time of day it is, prepare yourself to be served a crap-ton (actual unit of measurement) of food. Fitzy’s is up there with some of the largest portions I’ve seen.

Here’s our food when it arrived. Mike made special mention of their home-fried potatoes. He said his loyal customers clamor for them, and he’d probably lose half his clientele if he ever changed the recipe. All the potatoes are hand-washed, peeled, boiled, and sliced before browning on the flattop. Mike says they go through a ton of potatoes every month.

Jason ordered the Steak Omelet with pepperjack cheese. Came with a side of the home fries. The steak is cooked to order. Your choice of cheese. Jason said it was quite good, and huge by any standards.

He ordered a side of the corned beef hash, too. It had a very generous crust, and was slightly sweet.

I was too curious about the Sausage Steak & Gravy not to order it, so I did. Not just sausage gravy and biscuits, mind you. But a gigantic sausage patty with gravy.

Oh, and a massive side of eggs and potatoes.

Oh, and they’ll let you substitute your toast with a pancake or french toast.

Birds-eye view of our breakfast. Can you count the plates?

They also serve Ronz Original Hot Sauce, made here in Columbus.

Overall, I’d judge the food to be, well, good diner food. Mike has reason to be proud of it. The eggs and pancakes were done well, the sausage patty tasted great (although I doubt it was made in-house). The gravy had a good peppery kick to it, and the potatoes – not the best I’ve ever had – but they tasted fresh and were nice and crispy. Nothing really to rave about, but certainly nothing to complain about, either.

SERVICE: Our service was very fast and very friendly, although we clearly got the royal treatment after our talk with the boss-man. But our server gave us the appropriate amount of sass to make us feel at home in a diner.

OVERALL: Mike’s got a good thing going at Fitzy’s. His restaurant started small, originally only the left side of the restaurant, with a counter and four 2-tops. Over the years, he’s expanded to take up a larger space, including knocking out an efficiency apartment in the back and expanding his bathrooms into it. Mike has created an institution, complete with semi-famous regulars and servers. Fitzy’s is the rough-and-rowdy diner, which means you’ve got to be in the mood for it, but the next time you need a good breakfast, and at any time of day, skip those late-night chains and give Fitzy’s a try.

OTHER LINKS:
-> my (614) Magazine write-up on Columbus diners (article is offline)

Fitzy's Old Fashioned Diner on Urbanspoon

Dan’s Drive-In | Columbus, OH

Dan’s Drive-In
1881 S. High St.
Columbus, OH 43207
(614) 444-7590
Open Mon – Sat, 7 am – 9 pm; Sun 7 am – 3 pm
Accepts cash and credit cards

Date of Visit: Wednesday, August 4, 2010 at 9:00 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: Dan’s has long been on my to-visit list of Columbus diners. I remember doing a double-take years ago when I drove past it on South High Street. “Wait, there’s a diner there?” I said as I blazed by. But a little “research” for a certain article in (614) Magazine led me to this South Side mainstay.

ATMOSPHERE: Walking into Dan’s is taking a step back into a history that’s been carefully recreated in gleaming chrome and shiny red pleather. The “classic American diner” that’s boasted on the signs is indeed alive and kicking, although maybe in a little too neat-and-polished type of way.

A quick look around shows you that Dan’s clearly has its regulars, thus it fulfills part of the criteria for being an old-school diner. When my bro-in-law and I visited, we found the regular group of old guys all crowded around a table shootin’ the, well, you know.


A plaque near the front door gives you some context for the history of Dan’s. The lowdown is: Dan’s claims to be Columbus’ oldest drive-in, started downtown by Dan Manes in 1952. Later that decade, he moved it to the current location, and it’s changed hands several times over the years, including a few years ownership under Nick Bergados, chef of the now-gone Taverna Opa. Nick apparently headed up the revamp of the space.

To be honest, the redesign looks beautiful. It’s sparkling clean and colorful. Everything matches. The ceiling fans have sets of blades that turn opposite each other…

…a big display behind the counter showcases model cars, neon signs, flags, and brand name kitsch…

…and the walls and shelves are lined with little knick-knacks.

BUT… the end result is a beautiful diner that feels a little sterile. Yes, the building retains the old school shape and layout, but the decor is a little too placed, and you lose the charm of similar diners like Jack’s Sandwich Shop. Maybe there’s a lot of original pieces left from the 1950′s, but they get lost amongst all the shine.

FOOD: As with the decor, Dan’s gives you all the diner standards, in a pretty unassuming and straightforward manner. But there are no frills, aside from a couple of Greek specialties.

I ordered the Traditional Breakfast, which breaks the bank at $4.79. All told, this includes two eggs, bacon, home fries or grits, and toast. Eggs were good, bacon and potatoes crispy, toast buttery. It all needed some salt and pepper to punch it up, otherwise it was just another not-bad breakfast. Washed this down with some decent diner brown coffee.

My brother-in-law ordered the Meat Lovers Omelet. He had actually ordered the skillet version of this, but the server misheard him. Still, he liked it, but said it was nothing to write home about.

Unrelated side note: Dan’s serves Frostop Root Beer on tap. Points!

SERVICE: I got to chat a little bit with current owner Lucky Sahota, and he seems very proud of the work they do at Dan’s. Lucky has owned a handful of restaurants around the world, most recently in New Zealand, and he has big ideas for the diner here. He plans, in the next year or so, to expand the true drive-in experience, and bring back car service, complete with girls on roller skates bringing you burgers and shakes. It would be great to see him really embrace the history of Dan’s and focus on bringing out even more of its original character.

OVERALL: Dan’s is a good stop to observe a bit of Columbus culinary history and have a decent breakfast. You can easily join the ranks of their regulars, and if diner culture is your thing, it’s worth at least one visit.

OTHER LINKS:

Dan's Drive in on Urbanspoon

Jack’s Sandwich Shop | Columbus, OH

Jack’s Sandwich Shop (Facebook)
52 E. Lynn St. (map it!)
Columbus, OH 43215
(614) 224-3655
Open Mon-Fri, 7 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Accepts cash & credit/debit
Vegetarian/vegan/gluten free? N/N/N
Kid-friendly? Y

Date of Visit: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 at 9:30 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: Tucked down one of the back alleys of downtown Columbus, a stone’s-throw from the Statehouse, is a little diner out to prove that, yes, they do make them like they used to. Jack’s Sandwich shop has been around as an institution since 1942, with this particular location serving the downtown crowds since 1974.

ATMOSPHERE: The decor and atmosphere reveal that not much has changed since the 70′s. We visited on a quiet Tuesday morning, sandwiched (ha!) between the breakfast and lunch crowds.

Like most diners, Jack’s consists of just one, long room. On one side is a row of 8 booths; on the other is a counter with 13 stools.

Owners Chris and Kathy Kowalski keep the place humming. They’ve owned the business since late 2003. Pictured here is Chris busy at the grill.

Chris was super nice to chat with, and excited to talk about his restaurant. If you’re in, say hi to him. On a side note… I asked if there ever was a Jack who gave the place his name. Indeed there was, said Chris. Jack was the previous owner’s father. He started three restaurants downtown after serving in World War II, and the current diner is the only one left.

The entire experience echoes of yesteryear, like a celebration of the diner heritage. Jack’s has got it all: the old menu sign, the Coca-Cola paraphernalia, the black and white photos of old drive-ins, the old wallpaper and neon lights, and that shelf. You know the one I’m talking about. The long shelf, high up on the wall, above all the booths, packed with train cars and retro signage. It’s a diner thing.

The old school kitschiness is matched by some of Chris’ own, like the mirror ball that, yes, is lit and spinning. Or the strings of Christmas lights draped from the ceiling. Chris said he’s known for decorating up the place for major holidays like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, etc. Although I’ve definitely heard some question whether the decor is really all that seasonal.

The counter is much lower than I’m accustomed to seeing, but it offers everyone a straight view of the grill, and opens up the space better.

One of my favorite details: the checkered floor. The colors are just off enough that you notice them, but not so tacky that you don’t see anything else.

FOOD: Jack’s serves a simple diner menu, with only a handful of somewhat helpful categories: Eggs & More, Hotcakes, Breakfast Specials, Breakfast Meats, and Potatoes & Grits. I say somewhat helpful because you’ll find French toast under Eggs & More, oatmeal under Hotcakes, and waffles under both Eggs & More and Breakfast Specials.

I opted for an actual special: the steak and eggs. Nice plate of crispy potatoes, plus scrambled eggs. Eggs were good, potatoes thinly sliced and crispy, but they needed some seasoning. That prompted me to ask over Twitter: should your food be salted before it comes out, or left to the diner’s preference? The general consensus – which I agree with – was that food should be seasoned according to the chef’s desire. Unfortunately, these needed a punch up.

Close-up on the steak! It was quite good. I ordered it medium, but should have ordered medium rare. Small steaks like this can be tough to manage, and this one was a little too done. But it had a good sear and nice flavor, although it could have used an extra punch of spice, too.

My wife ordered the two eggs any style. Came with the potatoes, toast, and a side of corned beef hash. We liked that you could order the corned beef hash as your side of meat. First time I’ve seen that. But we both loved it: nice crisp, good flavor and texture.

Her two eggs – nicely poached.

SERVICE: Chris and Kathy clearly know their regulars, and treat them well. And it doesn’t take much to be welcomed as a regular right away. The feeling is mutual. Check this out: pictured above is Mr. John Petro. He’s one of about a dozen men who met regularly at Jack’s from 1968 until this past spring. So regularly, in fact, that they HAVE A PLAQUE above their table!

Look at the dates! They met from 1968 until May 13, 2010. Mr. Petro, who gave me permission to take his picture, said that Lynn Alley Irregulars were attorneys, businessmen, and the like who worked downtown. They made Jack’s Sandwich Shop their home-away-from-the-office for over four decades, and had only two rules: you couldn’t talk about work – politics, sports, anything but work – and you weren’t allowed to read the newspaper if someone else was there. You had to talk.

OVERALL: Jack’s makes my short list of really worthy diners around Columbus. Their longevity, as testified by the Lynn Alley Irregulars, and the tucked-away, side alley location add to the charm. Their breakfast definitely needs some more spice, with no surprises and super stand-outs, but it fits the atmosphere, is dirt cheap, and clearly has been a downtown favorite for decades.

OTHER LINKS:

Jack's Sandwich Shop on Urbanspoon

Island Perks Diner | Buxton, NC

NOTE: Island Perks Diner is now CLOSED.

Island Perks Diner
46618 Highway 12 (map it!)
Buxton, NC 27595
(252) 986-1111
Open daily 6:30 a.m. – 9 pm (bfast served till 11:30 a.m.)
Accepts cash and credit cards

Date of Visit: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 at 9:00 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: For all of you vacationers on the Outer Banks who fretted over the lack of a breakfast diner (okay, maybe it was just me), you can fret no more. You can add Island Perks Diner to the worthy list of breakfasts on the OBX.

How do we know for sure Island Perks is a diner? Because the word is plastered all over. Island Perks is located at the northern end of Buxton, just as Highway 12 curves westward. If you’re going too fast, you could easily miss it.

ATMOSPHERE: Island Perks may be missing the surly waitresses, the old-timey counter, and the sticky menus, but it mixes the comfort of a diner with the softness (sorry, that’s the only word I can think of) of a new coffee shop. So, it doesn’t go full diner.

The entryway drops you in front of the counter. Order here and they’ll bring your food out to you.

Help yourself to coffee (four different blends – nice!) or tea behind you. The coffee was above-average – a very pleasant surprise. Putting the “perks” in Island Perks.

You can sit indoors down one long room decorated with all sorts of oceany knick-knacks.

Or seat yourself on the just-as-oceany enclosed deck, although you may have to sit with the bathroom doors behind you. This type of weathered wooden siding embodies the look of the Outer Banks. Anyone who’s traveled here recognizes the rows of wood-sided houses and businesses stretching down Highway 12.

FOOD: Island Perks offers what you would expect from a diner: decent food, but no real stand-outs. What sets theirs slightly apart is that they’re not afraid of a little seasoning. We started out with a cinnamon roll. Nice and warm. Good layers to it.

Their menu is separated into four categories: The Basics (two eggs, et al.), Breakfast Wraps (all named using OBX terms like The Cape, the Ocracoker, etc), Egg Scrambles, and Breakfast Sandwiches. Pictured above is the Number One: two eggs, bacon, biscuit, and home fries. I added a pancake and some sausage gravy for the biscuit. Pretty much everything was that basic “I will chow down on this for breakfast” but forget about it a couple days later.

Another Number One, but with eggs over-easy. The home fries were good and browned.

One of our party ordered The Kinnakeeter, a breakfast wrap with eggs, bacon, sausage, and cheese.

Yet another combo plate. The one thing I really appreciate: they’re not afraid to freakin’ season their food! At the very least, I think diners should be willing to toss some salt and pepper on those eggs and potatoes. I’m constantly surprised at the bland potatoes that a served. It’s dangerous to over-do the salt, yes, but don’t just send me a plate as if to say, “Here, you deal with it.”

SERVICE: Very friendly. One of those places where they actually took interest in the fact that I was taking pictures and writing about their restaurant, so they made an extra effort to show us around. Overall, things moved quickly. It felt like we hadn’t been sitting long at our table before our food showed up.

OVERALL: Not my top pick for breakfast on the Outer Banks, but they give you something fairly close to the diner experience, with simple food that’s decently seasoned and covers all the basics. One of the cheaper breakfasts on the island, too! I should note that they’re also a full-service bakery; later in our vacation we ordered a cake from them – we actually got to speak directly with the baker about what we wanted – and that the cake was pretty good.

OTHER LINKS:

Island Perks Cafe on Urbanspoon

Paxton’s Family Restaurant | Greenville, PA

Paxton’s Family Restaurant
143 Main St. (map it!)
Greenville, PA 16125
(724) 588-2424
Open 24 hours a day (special bfast menu served 5:30-11 a.m.)
Accepts cash and credit cards

Date of Visit: Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 9:30 a.m.

IMPRESSIONS: My wife said she’s spent many-a high school 3 a.m. at Paxton’s Family Restaurant in downtown Greenville, Pennsylvania. Downtown Greenville is about as quintessentially small town America as you can get, especially the modern small town America: long-standing businesses (Hurlbert’s Hardware, The Hub, News Depot, Majestic’s) interspersed with a few new kids on the block (including the really cool Fresh Grounds Coffeehouse), and a handful of empty spaces put out of business by Walmart.

Paxton’s is one of those holders-on, quietly serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner since 19XX. Not much has changed, from the dusty decorations, the carpeted walls, and the dim lighting. If my pictures appear a little too yellow, blame the lights above our table.

ATMOSPHERE: The carpeted walls hush the sounds of locals in conversation and the kitchen clattering. Paxton’s long, thin space is divided in lengthwise by another wall, so the impression is of several inter-connected rooms stretching back into the building. If you want more light, sit in a booth towards the front of the place, next to the big plate glass windows looking out on Main Street (yes, an actual Main Street, America). If you want more quiet, particularly if you’re visiting in the middle of the night, then huddle in the back at some of the smaller tables.

You can also sit at the counter with the classic swiveling stools…

…and try to sneak a peek in the kitchen. Unlike other diners, you don’t get to sit right across from the kitchen. Bummer on that.


FOOD: “If you’re awake, we’re open,” says the menu. Get your breakfast twenty-four hours a day. (Side note: the punctuation in that sentence makes it a good candidate for The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.)

The iconic brown diner mug. Typical okay coffee. Caffeinated and forgettable.

We started with Homemade Grilled Cinnamon Buns. The top one featured the maple glaze; the bottom is the white. Both were decent. Interesting that they’re grilled – it gives them crispy edges – but that glaze is a pure sugary punch – make your teeth chatter.

The flattest and widest cinnamon buns I’ve seen. Proudly homemade. Not exceptional, but they went quickly.

I went with the old Two Eggs +: two eggs, potatoes, bacon, toast. With your coffee, it costs a whopping $4.15. If you wanted a simpler breakfast, you can get two eggs, toast, and coffee for $2.25. Bacon was thick and crispy. The potatoes were fresh and chunked, but oh my goodness, please season your potatoes! Also, there were some eyes in them – yikes! Not good. When all else fails, I can always just put my scrambled eggs on my fake-buttered toast. Thank goodness for that. Overall, it was all just okay, but nothing to write a blog about. Oh, wait…

My wife ordered the same, but with eggs over easy. These types of breakfasts are the ones you eat while in conversation. It’s like muzak: it fills the background with some white noise that you can easily ignore. Here, you chow down on breakfast while chatting with everyone. You don’t stop to point out how good such-and-such item is, you just eat it.

We ordered a side of french toast. Again, white noise. Doesn’t taste bad (especially with the soft butter and fake syrup), but you just eat it and move on.

The one “special” menu item that caught my eye was the Deep Fried Mush. I ordered this out of curiosity, but was pretty disappointed that these were basically frozen corn meal/polenta patties you can buy in the store. And it absorbed too much of the cooking oil. More like vegetable oil patties.

And my brother-in-law ordered the Breakfast Hoagie, essentially the eggs, meat, and veggies on a hoagie bun. Don’t know if I’ve seen a breakfast sandwich before. Plenty of burritos, no sandwiches. But he said it was good.

SERVICE: Typical diner service. I almost don’t know what to say. A middle-aged server – not on the surly side, however – but nice, knows here Knowing the how old the restaurant is, I wonder how long the server has been there.

OVERALL: Places like Paxton’s keep going for a reason. They’re familiar, they have longevity, and a dedicated clientele. Returning customers like that will overlook average food, simple service, and even an out-dated location. There’s certainly no reason to make a special trip to visit, but I hope places like Paxton’s never disappear.

OTHER LINKS:

Paxton's Family Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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