The Melrose Diner
Most people do the things they do because they have to do them.
The diner on Sunday morning.
Jeez-oh-man, if you let me in a booth, I could stretch out forty feet.
People talk about manspreading - what do you call it when you sprawl solo: legal pad; book you’re fake reading; laptop; coffee; two eggs & hash browns; rusted ass ball cap - in a booth made for four?
In New York, I feel like there’s a diner every few blocks - but Philly’s diner scene is few and far between. Strange to say the least in a town in which you’d fix to be drowning in triple D’s. I have to drive to go to anywhere other than Cafe Lift by my house - which is not a diner. Their celebratory Yelp reviews also miss the boat on what a breakfast sandwich I’d call mediocre at best, but I digress.
In my time in Philly I’ve fallen in love with two diners in particular: The Melrose on Passyunk and Sulimay’s Restaurant in Fishtown.
Neither place will let me sit in a booth as a single. Sometimes I’ll say I’m meeting a friend just so I get my twenty minutes of stretching in before I say “they’re not gonna make it” and migrate to the counter.
While the booth becomes an oasis, the counter - well, a seat at the counter’s like a stool at the bar. Up close and personal. Refills without asking. Conversations spilling over onto my plate like I’m at Sea World. In the diner-scape of America, I am a Shamoo-fanatic. Get me into the splash zone.
I want to get wet.
Last time at Sulimay’s, two women working behind the counter both wearing 80’s metal graphic tees (which I genuinely believed they listened to - these didn’t seem like Hot Topic BOGO’s) wavered back and forth between their love-hate relationship with the very establishment I’d been admiring. I pulled from that conversation what I could and slabbed it on the back of a nearby napkin.
Not bad right?
I don’t really write a ton of poetry anymore but when I do I think it’s mostly stream of consciousness/in the moment stuff. The people at Sulimay’s were pretty animated - you should’ve heard the way this lady said the word “Fortniters” and “Roblox.”
What I enjoy most about a diner, specifically, and in particular order: Simplicity; Service; Sound; Shit on the Wall.
I want a really tight menu with defined sections. I want to see BREAKFAST and SANDWICHES and LUNCH SPECIALS and maybe even OMELETTES in font at least 5x bigger than the item names and descriptions. No pictures - save that for Denny’s. Three pages, tops. I like it when the front page has a kitschy-ass animated picture and “Est. 1957” or “Good eats in the neighborhood since 1983” - anything, so long as it’s corny, splayed across the front.
When I say service, I mean three things: quick refills on coffee and water, hot plates on time and, often overlooked, just the right amount of conversation. Sometimes wait staff will pry you open like a tuna can, and I’m not really here for that. If I wanna get open I’ll be open. That’s a part of the sound, too. I’d rather be a passive observer of old-fashioned-behind-the-counter banter than be a participant. But even more - I love the clank of ceramic plates, the pop-machine’s fizz, the cook’s “Order Up!” and the hard earned, hammered out “Ding!” The low drone of a kitchen radio or CNN on volume 1. And of course, casual conversations.
If you know me, you know I love-love shit on the wall. If there was an Applebees within walking distance of my house I’d be there once a week.
“I come here for the ambiance and the decor - I spend a lot of time trying to figure out which one I like more - the ambiance or the decor.”
For me, The Melrose Diner checks all these boxes. Simple seat yourself. Quick plates and quicker refills. Nice and loud. And while they don’t have shit on the wall, they do have an awesome sign, above eye level, among a collage of mid-century Philadelphia.
What I love most about diners like The Melrose is that you can tell that it’s family owned. There’s a wide age range within the people working there. You get the feeling that they’ve worked there for a long time - and that they know each other. Not that it matters - but the hierarchy is impossible to decipher - who’s really in charge here? The head chef or the 80 year old ringing you up - neither of which speak the King’s English, if any at all. Or is it their grandson, who seems to be captaining the ship in some ways - at least, he’s the man checking in between the counter and the kitchen.
This all might be a tad bit invasive - but it really made me think about what it meant to truly be in a family business. The one that works because of buy in - but also the kind of business in which you’d have a hard time getting out. The pressure - the static - the notion that this is something passed down, that you’re lucky to have given to you. These people need to be here - they need the diner.
And so do I.
I need it to be simple. I need it to be there.
Maybe that’s what I appreciate most about the diner: it’s a nexus of folks entirely dependent upon the services done there. It’s a utility. Essential.
What I mean by this is - at any given time, there are a lot of people in a diner working paycheck to paycheck - the people behind the counter and the clientele combined.
I don’t work at the diner but I’d say I have the privilege to both admire and imagine a world of folks totally tied to their respective toils - family business or not - all of whom can be found in the diner - one of the few places left within which they converge into a concert of the working class.
All classes, maybe. But the tones that mean the most and the pitch that I pick out - is that of the people there out of necessity - who have no choice but to engage in that arena - as if this is the only place to work, eat and drink.