A good road trip is rarely measured in miles.
The sum of the experience is, rather, those things you feel as you run your finger slowly across the landscape: the state lines, the little landmarks, the improbable strangers, and serendipitous sightings. I measure mine in time warp restaurants: those un-self-conscious, know-’em-when-you-see-’em old places that exist somewhere outside of progress. As a general rule they blend into their towns and cities as taken-for-granted institutions, quietly there since forever. And the thicker the grease, the more worn out the vinyl, the better the stories inside.
It’s no secret that the great majority of us find ourselves hopelessly stuck on a hamster wheel of contemporary life: warring bad news narratives, insufferable talking heads, FOMO. Lather up, rinse out, repeat existential dread. Even meditation is now facilitated by the devices most responsible for our constantly elevated cortisol. Long solo hikes into the most remote, greatest of outdoors are spent ensconced in a reassuring technological cocoon—when you’re strapped with beeping devices that constantly remind you of your blood oxygen level and altitude, your speed and location on Earth with pinpoint precision, is the escape really an escape? No, today’s Thoreau might paradoxically find their momentary solace behind buzzing neon, over chicken chow mein or pancakes, calorie count be damned, at a vinyl and veneer wood booth.
You’ll find gruff and gracious waitresses, surly kitchen staff, wayward travelers, jaded old timers, and a few of us looking for an alternate present. I drive from city to city, diner to diner, in search of the essence of places beyond their prepackaged, branded versions. I’ve had hours-long conversations with cyclists riding across the country headed directly toward a blizzard, newly paroled felons with impossibly optimistic outlooks, a man having his first meal after being diagnosed with a devastating terminal ailment—in his words, it was his “first last meal,” a steak and lobster “Beef & Reef” special, the most conspicuously expensive thing on a low-rent menu.
I’ve met families grieving loss, families celebrating milestones, and people without any family to speak of. Mostly though, I talk to the waitresses willing to talk. Sometimes their stories are nothing short of harrowing. Scratch just beneath the surface and you’ll hear about lost loves, future and former careers, displacements, divorces, dashed dreams, and dearly held hopes. It is no wonder these places remain an evocative trope in American storytelling: the diner is the great social hub of Twin Peaks, the sites of countless consequential conversations in Mad Men, the symbolic place to begin life anew in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and the starting off point for Arlo Guthrie’s subtle, subversive antiwar message in “Alice’s Restaurant.” Everyone is welcome, and the food is secondary to the place’s function as a meeting place, a crossroads, a community, a shelter.
Sometimes these places are anonymous and shabby, hiding in plain sight. Other times, they’re gems of fantastical old architecture, designs from more spacious and hopeful times when Americans fantasized about space exploration and utopian towns. Many of these places have been re-imagined and re-branded by clever entrepreneurs to meet modern expectations, but even when re-done well, they inevitably lose their patina, their grit, and some of their charm in the process. The unvarnished, unrepainted old places staffed with seasoned waitresses named Norma and Polly and Libby and Gloria that serve their coffee volcanically hot, not the rehashed places with clever cocktails and pretentiously “elevated” eggs, hold the real magic.
Keep your eyes peeled for these places when you’re out on the road—you’ll know ’em when you see ’em.
A version of this article originally appeared in Sixtysix Issue 07 with the headline “Tag Christof: Beef & Reef” Subscribe today.