The state of Lunch Counter and Diner Culture, 2009
With the collapse of the Brady Street Café (formerly Pharmacy) and the late 2007 demise of Goldmann’s on Mitchell Street, I’ve been wondering if diner culture is near collapse in Milwaukee. Turns out I was misaligned on this notion, in a sense.
While at first I believed that only a handful of them survived in a city once known for this low culture venue — let’s discount the George Webb’s chain from the aggregate number for a moment — there are actually about a dozen, once you include locations that call themselves “family restaurants” and as you travel farther from downtown. Heck, just about every outlying community has a version of one.
If I was in a more whimpering mode, I very well could have written this article about the state of soul food in Milwaukee. Grant’s is long closed, QF&H Diner recently boarded up, and driving past Mr. Perkins on Friday made me wonder if they were even open. But let’s broaden the topic. Are we in danger of losing our vital ability to communicate, empathize, and nourish without bankruptcy?
I spent the week dining at lunch counters wherever there was one within a 15-mile radius of the Michigan Street Diner in the heart of downtown Milwaukee. I wanted to bring back the same feeling I used to get working at the Oriental Pharmacy and Diner, famously gone now from the corner of Farwell and North Ave. on the east side. That place had verve — and the patronage of intelligentsia and low-brow alike, talking on adjacent stools. Every day was like a Samuel Beckett play. It was also a place where everybody knew your name and how you take your coffee, and whittling away the minutes while munching on a piece of toast was welcome.
My mission was not to seek a simulacrum of that place and emotional affectation, but I was curious if what remains in 2009 had any of the same elements. A traditional diner, if I were to be a snob about it, needs to have a counter to sit solo or meet new people. It needs to offer a hearty meal available for less than $8, with tip. It needs crabby or over-friendly waitresses in uncomfortable uniforms. It needs simple menu fare, long hours and the potential to re-create Edward Hopper’s The Nighthawks. To that end, having a large picture window to stare out of helps.
Ask this of your diner or family restaurant, and you eliminate all but a few. Even the Michigan St. Diner gets cut on four counts. A few winners: the newly re-opened Midwest Diner “South” in Bay View (the original on Wisconsin Ave. is only open until 7 p.m. most nights) and Michael’s Family Restaurant near Marquette. Ma Fischer’s near UWM squeaks by, but you wouldn’t leave a good tip under the price ceiling. Landmark Family Restaurant near St. Francis is only open until 8 p.m. Ted’s Ice Cream and Restaurant in Wauwatosa is perfect in so many ways — but again, no late hours.
On the subject now of George Webb’s: This simple diner chain with simple diner fare has been a standard of college kids and senior citizens alike for over five decades in eastern Wisconsin. It has stayed afloat despite similar establishments (like Heinemann’s Restaurants) shuttering. A visit to the downtown location on Old World 3rd St. appears to achieve everything on the checklist for the lunch counter/diner experience, except any real camaraderie. I just felt like discounting George Webb’s because of its overly simplistic, fast-food-esque nature, which inspires sort of a null culture rather than low or high.
It feels somewhat similar to walk into a Greek-owned family restaurant in which all of the furniture and menus have been ordered from the same catalogue, right down to the plastic ivy and faux-brass rail separators. This was an amusing point of Michael’s Family Restaurant, where the apparently Latino-staffed kitchen inspires a second specialty menu with Mexican food items — although everything is served in standard ceramic ware from a starched-blue-uniformed waitress. Extra points also go to Michael’s for the overheard counter conversation between the off-duty mailman and waitress about her cysts and his ex-wife’s cysts.
So should theme and flavor inspire comfort in a diner? At Ted’s, the theme is mild Americana, but I was accepting of it because this theme was developed over 60 years in business. The counter is perfectly serpentine, the food quick and simple, the milkshakes keep coming, and the guy in overalls in the front corner window looks like a fixture. It appears to be a place in which to hang, but the patrons seem as tenuous as the neighborhood around the quaint eatery.
At Michigan Street Diner, a giant Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe sculpture crowd the front window. The fare was slightly above average, but not worth the prices charged for food in a basket with chips. It was nice to see the familiar exchange between a jean-and-T-shirt-clad waitress and an older gentleman in a suit that walked in. The décor looks well-worn but maintained. But overall it underwhelmed me. People that work and congregate downtown tend to clique themselves off, and the older folk were guarded. One homeless person peered through the window, but I understood why he wouldn’t come in. Eating at Michigan St. felt more like a tourist version of a Milwaukee diner.
I could go on: kudos to Lulu Café for spirit, but points off for prices and the upscale nature of next-door bar extension. Kudos to Miss Katie’s for the fair prices and late hours; points off for no lunch counter (bar doesn’t count) and frequent politicians making whistle stops. Kudos to Mel’s Diner on … oh, that’s right. You were razed and made into a Chipotle.
It may be too much to ask to reach back into the past for a sense of coffee klatch and intellectual stimulation over bacon and eggs. It’s not the internet’s fault. We’ve been staying at home lonely over take-out food for longer than 1992. However, somewhere along the way we did become segmented and private. As our personal property space shrunk and communication became more prevalent, there isn’t so much as an urge or desire to get the daily news and trade histories with others as much as a sense of focusing on the people that we do know and sharing what we know specifically with them.
Are there more locations that I didn’t find in my mission to feel something? Sure. So many places fly under the radar of research in a vastly underrated part of the city. So tell me about them. I have a feeling that somewhere out there I can get that feeling back again.
The diner culture and spirit is not dying. It can be witnessed at any early morning McDonald’s and many late-night Taco Bells. So, what loss has there been of the qualitative nature of conversations and nourishment in out modern culture? Soon, the only Milwaukee Diner may be the so-named bistro in Varedo MI, Italy.