The romance of the diner is alive and well in Orlando, where the old-school eateries often serve as places for friends to gather.
‘This Is a Club’
It’s a bright Sunday morning at Christo’s Café in College Park, and the customers enjoying the weather at outside tables are an urban snapshot.
Four motorcycle cops in impressive boots, allowing a small, gleeful boy to sit on a chopper’s huge leather seat, have finished breakfast after their shift directing church traffic. A young woman with lyrics by indie rock band Modest Mouse tattooed across her back orders eggs Benedict. Two women shriek like long-lost friends at seeing each other, then exchange business cards. A torrent of Spanish, German and teenage slang runs in waves across the breakfasters.
“This is a club,” says owner and chef Vittorio Capasso. He can count 20 customers who are there every day, and claims “hundreds of regulars.” He’s proud of his food and I can say that he’s justified.
Terry Hill bought Christo’s nine years ago, then sold it to Capasso in 2001. She still waits tables there. Sitting at the counter inside the concrete block building, she tells me about one old-timer who claimed to have laid the foundation for the building 50 years ago. “He told me this was an Edsel dealership, but I don’t know if that’s true.”
“It is true,” a customer shouts from across the room. “I’ve lived here since I was two, and I remember the Edsels here.”
On its fourth owner since opening 27 years ago, Christo’s is a mini United Nations. Capasso is an Italian from Venezuela. Olga Kazakova, who’s waited tables there for four years, was born in Siberia. The cook is from Puerto Rico, while a dishwasher is from Cuba and a bread cook is from Guyana.
It’s an American story.
The Soul of Downtown
The original Johnson’s Diner at Parramore Avenue and West Robinson Street opened in 1963 and sat 20 people. It was a place for the African-American neighborhood to congregate under the caring eye of Lillie Johnson, their neighbor.
In 2006, when Johnson’s moved to its current, larger space on West Church Street—120 seats now—several regular patrons were at the door for breakfast before the new place opened.
Clarence Byron Taylor III is Lillie’s grandson and, along with his sister, Andrena Daniels, the public face of Johnson’s. “The people who come in here,” he says, “sometimes two times a day, they are the stars.” At 83, Mrs. Johnson doesn’t run the place anymore. She still lives in Parramore and visits on occasion, Taylor explains, “to tell us how it should be done.”
Politicians and sports stars show up sometimes, but Johnson’s is kept open by the community.“Look out in the parking lot,” Taylor says. “You’ll see Jaguars and Toyotas next to shopping carts.”
There’s a daily morning group of men who gather for eggs, grits and conversation, a retired school principal and an ex-corporate executive among them. The women of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority have a reservation for lunch on most Fridays. Fried chicken is the highlight of the Friday menu; the breakfast special that day is waffles and wings.
“Before I came here,” Tammy, our waitress, says, “I never had waffles and wings before. And I never tried wings with syrup—they’re good!” My companion orders a meat omelet with ham, sausage and bacon, and asks for “diced tomahtoes” in his English accent. She writes it down,
repeating “tomahh-toes,” with a throaty laugh.
When I order the wings and waffles, Tammy looks over her pad at me and says, “Mm hmm, I knew you would do it.” And she was right about something else—they are good.
Still Serving Attitude and Sweet Buns
Bob Kealing, a reporter for WESH-TV, aimed me toward Lake Ivanhoe. “Brian’s is the whole package,” he said. “Surly waitresses, down-home food.”
Brian’s has been in this location since 1977, and it shows; even its most diehard fans use the word “dive” when describing it. The sign out front says, “Best sweet buns in town,” and the smell of sugar, cinnamon and cooked dough hits you from the parking lot. Mostly sugar.
The famous sweet buns earned their reputation when their creator, Paul Homel, made them, and now they’re mostly a stiff vehicle for white sugar frosting. (Paul passed away in 2003; his widow, Sydele, now runs the place with her son, Brian Zipper.) The rest of the breakfast and lunch menu—eggs, sandwiches and other dinerisms—swings between barely acceptable and great depending on the day, or maybe the waves on the lake.
One veteran waitress sports a mass of pale blond hair and skin so tanned she could sunbathe professionally. Singing along to a Kenny Chesney country tune, she barely looks at us while pointing in the general direction of seats. Nine women in pastel sweats, looking like recent escapees from an exercise class, squeeze into two tables and debate at full volume the results of America’s Got Talent from the night before.
Near them, a group of six very well-fed men switch from a critique of the current administration to a discussion about cats. “Butch works at the zoo,” one says, leaning back precariously on a metal chair, “and he says the tiger leaves food in her bowl so she can catch grackles.” The resulting chuckle is overpowered by a howl of laughter from the women reacting to an off-color remark.
“That bunch is in here every morning,” our waitress says as she adds up the bill. “Too damn loud. I keep telling them I’ll kick their asses out.”
Kealing knows waitresses.
Mel’s Family Diner:
Home of the Colossal Mess
Dorothy sits at a back booth, wearing an immaculate fuchsia suit, her white hair lacquered high and smooth as a meringue. She doesn’t tell me her last name (“Everybody just calls me Dottie,” she says with a bright smile), but I am obviously one of the few people at Mel’s who doesn’t know her.
When Dottie walked in, she was greeted by the girl at the door and led to what was obviously “her” booth. “They keep my coffee the way I like it,” she says. “They treat me like family.” Nearby tables harbor a family staying at the Holiday Inn next door, a woman in black motorcycle leathers with the queen of all mullet haircuts and a group of tree trimmers smelling of fresh-cut oak.
“I used to come here with my husband,” Dottie says. “He passed away, and I’ve kept up the tradition. Eight years now, every day.”
In business since 1987, Mel’s is pure diner, sans chrome, and serves mass quantities of food. Take the Colossal Mess burger: more than a pound of patty, bacon, ham, cheese, onions, peppers and mushrooms. They take your picture and post it at the door for eating one. Pies are sweet, coffee is hot and ever-flowing, and there’s liver and onions on the menu.
I ask the waitress, Carla, if I can have a Rueben sandwich, but with turkey instead of corned beef. “That’s not a Reuben,” she says incredulously. A turkey Reuben, I reply. She pauses, as if I’d said I just returned from Mars, and writes it down.
“I’ll give it to the cook,” she says with a sidelong glance toward the kitchen, “but I don’t know what he’ll do.” When the grilled sandwich finally arrives, turkey layered with sauerkraut and cheese, Carla says, “First he said he couldn’t make it that way. But then he said, ‘What the hell.’
“It’s easier for him anyway,” she adds with a shrug, “because the corned beef is frozen and the turkey isn’t.”
Lesson for the day: Order the turkey.
5 and Diner:
It’s a Chain That Feels Real
The only shiny silver diner I saw blazing in the hot Florida sun sits on East Colonial Drive, east of Alafaya Trail and just a biscuit’s throw from the UCF campus.
The 5 and Diner chain, spread across Arizona and dotted into a few other states, mimics 1950s-style eateries. The only one in Florida has been here for 11 years. During the day it’s a quiet place for neighborhood folks who want a bowl of soup or a sandwich. At night, college students escaping the bar hustle fill the booths with gossip and the clink of coffee cups. (The place, which now closes at 10 p.m., was busier when it was open 24 hours.)
Two customers at a booth by the window ask if they can have slaw instead of fries and the waiter, Jacob, barks out, “No problem!” He recommends the clam po’ boy sandwich to me.
“When my grandma eats here, that’s what she gets,” he says. Foolishly, I order it. I think I can still taste the garlic salt, and that was months ago.
Panels of quilted chrome can be seen behind the grill, and the ceiling is limned with red neon. The leather seats and the walls filled with pictures of Marilyn Monroe and the Three Stooges are showing their age, physically and symbolically.
The place feels like a cross between corporate styling and the original, worn thing, and maybe that’s how “real” diners got the way we remember them: a little seedy, a bit broken in, just like when I was a kid.