Remember those ebullient years when you’d be walking through any number of U.S. cities and suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a giant cow statue, decked out in some ridiculous punning paint job? I do. Without question the best one, the memory of which still causes me to squee with joy, was the cow that lived inside New York’s Penn Station. On its flattened back was a formica table, topped with plates and mugs and surrounded by a few stools. Over it all a neon sign: Moo Jersey Diner.
Growing up in New Jersey, I know a thing or two about diners, such as:
- they should be open 24 hours;
- they’re probably run by a Greek family and, therefore, serve gargantuan Greek salads, with blocks of feta cheese the size of a child’s head;
- at any one table with more than 2 people, there should be a headspinning combination of entrees–gravy fries; pancakes; French onion soup; and, scattered like roadkill around the edges, little dishes of coleslaw; and,
- the waitress should be only grudgingly friendly and look like if she doesn’t get a cigarette in a minute she might quit.
Imagine my surprise, then, when my companion and I stopped at the Down Home Diner for breakfast one morning. I’d had a rough weekend, that began with a bout of food poisoning, so after two days of near fasting I was ready for something ribsticking. Good choice to come to the recently renovated Down Home Diner, which is going for country farmhouse vibe rather than urban greasy spoon. While waiting, we perused the menu, which features locally sourced ingredients and promises that everything is made to order. We were seated quickly and, even more quickly, two steaming thick white porcelain mugs of coffee appeared on the table. The menu makes up in depth in what it lacks in expansiveness. Breakfast options range from the sweet (blueberry corncakes) to the savory (scrapple), and from the usual (egg sandwich) to the trendy (breakfast burrito).
We chose complementary dishes, he an order of multigrain flapjacks with strawberries and pear salsa and me, a heartclogging sawmill gravy. When our order arrived, the server who brought them (not the one we ordered from) set them down exactly backwards, assuming that the man must want the meat dish. Honey, no. I was looking forward to my sawmill gravy, which was composed of a dense buttermilk biscuit slathered with a milky sausage-laden country gravy, topped with a sausage patty and accompanied by poached apple slices. It was divine and a perfect breakfast for someone who was about to toil in the fields for hours (sadly, my toiling was only intellectual for the rest of the day). The sausage was a subtly spiced breakfast style patty and layering a bite of sausage on top of a piece of biscuit and then dowsing all of it in gravy was mouthwatering.
Don’t get me wrong, my companion’s flapjacks were excellent, too. Tasting of the nuttiness of buckwheat, they were dark and chewy. The fruit topping added just enough sweetness, giving the dish balance. It hardly needed syrup, even, an accomplishment for pancakes. Our side of cheesy grits, however, was unremarkable. I’ve never understood the appeal of grits, which seem like ungussied baby food to me, but I thought that it was possible that the Down Home Diner could show me what I was missing. Sadly, no, but that hardly hurt our experience.
We finished up and quickly made our exit, allowing the next group to take our table. The waitresses didn’t look sad to see us go, their only homage, perhaps to the diners of my youth. Their shirts, which said things like “I heart Bacon” next to a picture of a smiling pig with its arm around a farmer, offered a whimsical goodbye instead. Turns out, Philly can teach a Jersey girl something about diners after all.