A three-part harmony, a good burger and a cold milkshake are part of what made America great. Not so common anymore, diners call us back to a time of bobby socks, a good jukebox and leather-topped stools where one could belly up for some grub.
My grandfather used to tell me that as a bachelor, he would go to a diner every Thanksgiving to get a turkey dinner. The image has had a Norman Rockwell-esque staying power in my mind since I was small.
That, along with a hangover, drew me to City Diner in Anchorage.
The shining chrome edifice is hard to miss on sunny days and its neon glow calls to the hungry in the darkness that are Alaska winters. From the black-and-white checkered floor to the crooning soundtrack playing on repeat, everything screams baby boom nostalgia.
Unlike the 24-hour establishments that were prefabricated and shipped across the nation to serve laborers and shift workers post-World War II, there’s no dinner at this diner. City Diner is only open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., serving both breakfast and lunch during that timeframe.
They also serve a strawberry milkshake ($5.95) that can blur the harsh pangs in your head and stomach the morning after. It comes served in a soda fountain glass with a straw and a metal cup with the extra. Thick, sweet and made with real fruit, this will get your head right.
City Diner serves beer and wine, if you need a something a little stronger, and it’s a fair deal for the price ($4.95 for a local seasonal microbrew). The diner doesn’t have a full liquor license however, so the Bloody Mary on the menu is made with sake. Dear friends, if you’re in that bad of shape — head elsewhere. The above-mentioned cocktail is one of the worst things I’ve ever drunk.
Nevermind that though, the food here more than makes up for it. The breakfast sliders ($10.50) are a family favorite — six miniature sandwiches with sausage patties, eggs, cheese, grilled onions and country gravy.
From our first visit to our latest venture, the diner redesigned their menu. Once monochromatic and narrow, the menu is now bigger, brighter and features a return to diner lingo like “on wheels” (to-go) and “with tears” (onions). On one trip, I ordered a Radio on a Raft (tuna salad on toast, $10.75) with chowder on the side.
Sadly, they’ve gotten rid of a few things: huevos rancheros, the breakfast burrito and their low country benedict. But they’ve added a few unique options: Spenardo loco moco ($10.95), which is their take on a contemporary Hawaiian breakfast meal, and Thai wings ($9.95).
Their menu features various burger iterations, including a listed Kobe beef option. The standard option — the Snowsburger ($10.75) — is a half-pound sirloin with the typical fixings. It comes with eater’s choice of fries, cole slaw, soup or potato salad. The burger itself earned a C-plus rating, not bad but nothing to write home about, same with the fries.
The cole slaw was a misstep in an otherwise markedly good showing for City Diner. It didn’t seem fresh or well thought out. The soups were usually better, though I had a few that were rather pasty. The entrees were all splendid but the hard work there seems to be absent from the side choices.
A diner just wouldn’t be a diner without seemingly endless mugs of steaming java ($2.50), and City Diner has a good one. Instead of the typical cup of sludge you’d get at a roadside dive, they serve up a custom brew from SteamDot Coffee Roasters.
City Diner takes the best of the past and updates it with the values of today: fresh quality ingredients and partnership with other local businesses.
Diners are a ubiquitous symbol of the 1950s and a time when America was wholesome and prosperous. That’s the appeal of these metro-retro establishments. But as shown in Edward Hopper’s famed painting, “Nighthawks,” they too had their faults. The diners of yore could be lonely late at night, they used processed ingredients and not everyone was welcome at the lunch counter.
While many people say the country’s going down the drain, I think we should take a cue from this Anchorage diner. There’s no reason the parts of our past that make us who we are can’t be meshed with the values we hold fastly to today. A great diner burger can be made with locally raised beef and real cheese served in a basket with checkered parchment paper and a cup of Joe.
America, we are great. Even better than strawberry milkshakes.
Published on KTVA.com on October 19, 2016.