Where everybody knows your name?

22 09 2009
Photo by daveg147. Taken from stock.xchng.

I’m a little bit of a romantic at heart, so there’s something that really tugs at me when I dine alone in a diner/family restaurant setting.

It’s not quite the same when you’re there with friends or significant other in tow, although I still love it; a particular favourite of the Boyfriend and I is Perkin’s (1130 St. Laurent Blvd.), where we know most of the waiters and I like to chat up Bruce, the manager (I found out that all of the all-you-can-eat specials have been adapted from his recipes). The Boyfriend’s high-school buddies have all been going to Perkin’s for more than a decade now, and have fond memories of playing poker at four in the morning while the same frizzy-haired blond waitress brings them endless pitchers of ice water.

I’m relatively new to Perkin’s myself, having only started going with the Boyfriend about three or four years ago, before we started dating, but we have lots of great memories ourselves. Perkin’s is where we discussed (and still do discuss) film until two in the morning over eggs-over-easy and bacon when we were just good buddies laughing about how overdramatic The Postman Always Rings Twice was or how my favourite movie — Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love — is still fresh and achingly beautiful after five or six watchings. It’s also where we argued over difficult points in our budding relationship, hashed out our expectations of each other, all the fun stuff. The food is nothing to write home about, in my opinion (the BF would probably disagree), but the homey atmosphere and the fact that the broccoli florets are always huge and fresh more than make up for the plainness of the fare. To be fair, I do love their grilled chicken and meatloaf, but you know people aren’t there for the food, and the way diners are portrayed in movies and the way people hang out there in real life indicate it’s really about the familiarity, the memories, the Cheers factor.

One of my favourite things about diners, though, is the regular. There’s something really great about being able to connect with people that you see every day or every week at the same spot, though you don’t know them very well – it makes me feel like humanity is connected, to use a cliché.

Anyway, a recent joy of mine was being able to muster the courage to approach this elderly couple we saw every time we were at Perkin’s, always pretty late, mind you, around 10 p.m. at the earliest. I always noticed her because she had jet-black hair that curled over her ear in a very distinctive manner. The BF didn’t, but once I started pointing them out to him, it started becoming another cool thing we shared. We enjoyed the quietness of the two as they sat eating their late-night meal, and we wondered how come they always showed up so late, since I always figured couples of their age (they look to be around their late 60s at the very least) went to bed at 9 p.m. and went for the early-bird special.

On my birthday, I figured it was finally time to stop speculating and staring and just go up and introduce ourselves already. The BF wasn’t too keen, figured it might be weird, but I invoked my special birthday rights and he finally came up with me. Anyway, they were lovely, and we found out their names and that they had been going to Perkin’s ever since it opened, and before that they had gone to the Place Next Door downtown for 25 years until it shut down. There was just something so nice about being able to chat with other regulars. In fact, we saw them again recently and went up to them to say hi, although I have no idea if they remembered who we were.

Back to the point of this post, though … There’s something really different about going to an unfamiliar place by yourself, where everyone else seems to know the drill. Call me sentimental, and I’m sure I’m romanticizing what for most people is a very mundane, regular ritual, but there’s something both delightful and sad about watching older people eating in a family restaurant while the friendly waitress teases and banters with these folks that she’s obviously served for a really long time.

That was the case at the Carlingwood Family Restaurant (G-17, 2121 Carling Ave.) where I dined a few weeks ago for the very first time. It’s a little bit of an oddity of a place – it doesn’t have its own entrance like you would normally expect for a family restaurant in a mall and so it’s kind of tucked away in a random dark corner, and the inside is a time capsule of sorts with its lonely-hearts music, elderly patrons and homey, plain décor. As expected, the menu is comprised of your usual club sandwiches and homestyle meatloaf and the like; I opted for the quarter-chicken dinner with fries and coleslaw.

I enjoyed the food, although I found the chicken a little dry and the coleslaw a little too zesty for my liking, but the best part about being there was listening to the one waitress chatting with the other diners and listening to the low thrum of conversation around me. Sample conversation:

Waitress: And I know you’re getting some dessert!
Elderly lady dining solo: (Something inaudible about already having had dessert before her entrée)
Waitress: Well, that’s the best part of being an adult, isn’t it?
Elderly lady: Darn right it is!

I also loved that the waitress told the table behind me that she hadn’t brought one of the ladies water because she knew she was going to get a beer that evening (she didn’t end up getting one, but it was still a fun exchange). And while the familiarity wasn’t there, of course, the waitress was just as much of a sassy sweetheart to me.

(As a side note: The BF loves waitresses like this woman, especially the ones who call you “dearie” and “sugar” like you’re an old friend. It’s something he misses from the days when we would get breakfast on Sunday mornings from the now-defunct Andy’s in Westboro before heading over to church, not to mention the fact that Andy’s made perfect eggs, toast and bacon.)

People like her make me believe it’s entirely possible to enjoy your job even if it’s something as simple as working in a restaurant for the past 30 years of your life. It makes me happy to think that customer service jobs aren’t the hellish experiences you would think they are from the stone-cold, sullen expressions of, say, flight attendants on North American airlines. Of course, I’m sure she has her bad days and being a waitress isn’t the most exciting career in the world, but it makes my heart sing to think about the connections she’s making with her regulars and perhaps the smile she’s bringing to their faces, even if they’re alone outside of this warm nook.

So here’s a toast to all the long-time diner waitresses out there – may you have many days of loving your job and regulars who love you. Keep doing the job you’re doing, honey =)

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