A kind friend drove to Madison yesterday to help me with some graphic design work for my company’s website. To thank her, I told her to pick a nice place for brunch this morning. She invited my sister to join us and chose a diner I’d never heard of.
I quickly realized as we pulled in, however, that I’d driven past the place countless times on my way to school. The diner probably looked new in the 1970s, but hasn’t been updated since. A saggy drop ceiling, chipped tile floors, dirty mirrors, and a low counter completes the look.
Prominent signs everywhere say: NO CHECKS ACCEPTED.
We shuffled in and looked around awkwardly. Apparently it was seat yourself because no one told us otherwise. A couple sat at one side of the counter and an older, larger man in neon green with a wild beard sat at the other end. The couple had just received their bill. They were not pleased.
“$14! For an omelette!” the woman said angrily.
The waiter—scrawny, at least 60, and prominently wearing a t-shirt for another restaurant—responded: “You got three omelettes.”
She shook her head and they stormed out.
“You eat like a king and you got to pay for it,” said the waiter to no one in particular.
Or perhaps it was to the gentleman at the counter because he responded, “Did they at least leave a tip?”
“Nope,” said the waiter sorrowfully, then repeated, “If you eat like a king…”
They both shook their heads.
“Eggs and steak going up I hear,” said the man at the counter.
“They already did!” said the waiter.
More head shaking.
Now, we’d been sitting there for about five minutes without any recognition but the waiter finally nodded at us and said he’d be right over. He eventually did walk over and pulled out his pad,
“What can I get you ladies?”
Hesitantly, I suggested we might like to see a menu. He looked surprised.
“That will cost extra,” said the man at the counter.
We finally got our menus. I was surprised by how cheap everything was after the earlier couple’s grumbling: pancake for $4, steak and eggs for $8, bacon and eggs and fries for $9. You could also get french toast and omelettes, but otherwise that was basically the extent of the menu.
My sister ordered a pancake with strawberries. The guy at the counter informed us that is also what he ordered. I ordered the steak and eggs. The waiter looked surprised by this choice and had me repeat it three times.
The waiter also dropped off three forks, three knives, and two spoons. (Intentional or not? We couldn’t decide.)
Then they went back to ignoring us.
“So,” said the man at the counter to the waiter. “I hear you had a heart attack.”
“Yep,” said the waiter. “Three days ago.”
The man at the counter shook his hand, “Man, and to think your ex-wife said you didn’t have a heart.”
The waiter nodded, “I showed her.”
He shuffled into the back. (Possibly to cook our meal? Not much evidence of anyone else working.)
The man at the counter asked if the owner of the diner was feeling the pinch from the lock-down. The waiter shuffled back out and shrugged.
“It don’t seem like it today, but you never know about tomorrow. He doesn’t work Mondays anyway.” (For the record it is Tuesday so I’m not sure if that was a reference to the boss’s absence or his lack of panic yesterday.)
We got our food and it was as good as you would expect from such a place, which is to say, actually really good.
Another couple walked in. The man carried what looked like jumper cables connected to a battery. He wanted to charge it.
The waiter looked solemn and informed him the last time someone tried to charge something like that, they flipped a breaker and had to bring the electrical company in to fix it, but he was welcome to try. So the guy plugged it in and we all waited with baited breath to see if anything would happen. (It didn’t.)
The guy then ordered a meal to go, which he promptly sat and ate in the diner. However, some small dispute arose—I didn’t catch what—and the waiter began to indignantly repeat, “I don’t make the rules. I don’t make the rules. I don’t make the rules.”
At this point, we’d wrapped up our meal so I pulled out my card and tried to hand it them.
“He only takes cash,” the waiter said, exasperated, “I don’t make the rules!”
I glanced around to see if I missed a sign about this being a cash-only establishment but saw nothing except the warning against checks.
I don’t carry cash so I told him I would need to run to an ATM. He looked resigned. I told my guest and sister I’d be right back and drove to the nearest ATM.
Problematically, my debit card has recently refused to run as a debit so after trying and failing to pull out cash, I drove all the way back to my apartment. And couldn’t find my wallet. So then I had to find my emergency cash stash. And then I drove back and found all 5 parking spots full. So I spent more time trying to locate a parking spot two blocks over. (Because despite the strangely hick feel of the place, the diner is located in the middle of a major city.)
Exasperated, slightly embarrassed, extremely self-conscious I hurry in to pay. The waiter looked at me in surprise.
“Are you guys done already?”