I remember a little diner we used to frequent in Chicago when I was little. It was a long and skinny room with a counter running the full length of the place, and all the stools were covered with bright red glittery vinyl that made a squeaking noise when you rubbed against it. The stools also spun you around in dizzying circles if you tried hard enough. I don’t remember what I ordered, but I do remember that every meal ended with a scoop of ice cream in a little metal bowl. Oh, and the waitress kind of looked like my grandma, but with a tall beehive hairdo and a frilly pink apron.
So if you had asked me before my visit to Two Dog Diner what comes to mind when I hear the word “diner,” that’s the place I would have described. But now, after having lunch there, my answer would be a little different.
A diner typically has a long counter, with the cooks working in full view right behind it, and it commonly serves up American fare like huge platters of bacon and eggs served anytime, burgers and fries, Blue Plate Specials, and milkshakes. With these criteria in mind, yes, Two Dog Diner is a diner. But that’s where the similarities end.
In a way, Two Dog Diner is an upscale breakfast/lunch place that just happens to have the word “diner” in the name. The counter stools are padded, but they also have backs on them, and they don’t spin around. (Well, they might, but I was feeling too civilized to try it.) If you’re not in the counter-service mood, there are plenty of other booths and tables. And although the menu includes all the usual classic diner favorites, it also features several decidedly non-diner options, like a Grilled Prawn, Pesto and Goat Cheese Omelette ($12.95); a Grilled Salmon Sandwich ($12.95); and Chicken Piccata ($11.95) as one of the Blue Plate options.
And, unlike a “greasy spoon” diner, Two Dog offers healthier options, like egg whites and vegetarian sausage for breakfast. You can even get a gluten-free bun with your burger, something that they probably had never even heard of way back in that Chicago joint.
I had decided on Chicken and Waffles ($10.95), yet when the server came to take our order, I switched to the Monte Cristo Sandwich with fries ($11.95). The menu described it as “dipped in egg batter and grilled,” which confused me a bit since Monte Cristos are usually just deep-fried, but I didn’t ask for clarification. When it arrived, it seemed to have been cooked on the grill and also deep-fried. The platter was not very attractive; since the sandwich and the fries were the same color—light brown—and there were no garnishes of any kind, the whole thing looked pretty bland. But I was still anxious to dig in. After a few bites, I realized that I didn’t love it. It was okay, but not great. The turkey was almost tasteless and I couldn’t find much cranberry aioli. The fries were nice and golden brown, though, and very tasty, almost addicting.
One of my dining companions also changed his mind right as the server appeared, switching from the Prime Rib Cheese Steak Sandwich ($12.95) to the Fried Chicken Po’ Boy Sandwich ($10.95). He enjoyed his golden-brown fries as much as I did but, like me, he was underwhelmed a bit with his sandwich. The bun was perfectly toasty and golden, he said, and the slaw (just the right amount) was creamy and tasty, but he remarked that the fried chicken itself had no flavor.
Our other dining companion already knew what she wanted to order when she walked in the door; three different people had recommended the Two Dog Hot Dog ($8.50) to her, and she just knew she had to try it. The split-and-grilled hot dog was tasty, she said, but she was dismayed at the proportion of the gigantic bun to the non-gigantic hot dog. She eventually pulled the hot dog off the bun and ate it by itself. “Otherwise,” she said, “all I taste is bread.” Like the rest of the table, she loved her crispy brown fries.
As a treat, we all ordered malts ($5.25) to go with our meals. They came in a classic parfait glass topped with whipped cream and accompanied by a long-handled spoon, and in classic diner tradition, we all got the metal mixing container with the rest of the malt that wouldn’t fit in the glass. None of us had had a malt in ages, and we agreed that they were our favorite thing about the meal.
When we arrived around noon, the place wasn’t too busy. We had friendly and attentive service right up until our meals were served. After that, our server got busy with other tables and didn’t have a chance to check back with us until we were finished eating. If she had, she would (hopefully) have noticed an empty coffee cup (“I thought diners were known for endless coffee refills,” one companion remarked) and two empty water glasses.
On my personal scale of one to five forks, I, therefore, give the service a 4. You might think my comments on the service would lead me to give a lower rating, but she was so friendly during the first half of our visit that I kicked it up a notch. The atmosphere gets 5 forks because it simultaneously felt like a diner and didn’t feel like a diner; that’s hard to pull off. Plus, you can get breakfast all day (until they close at 2), and that surely deserves some credit.
I’m going to give the food just 3.5 forks, though, with that extra half-fork being for the delicious fries. That rating doesn’t sound positive at all, I know, but here’s the good news—despite the fact that not one of us left the place totally raving about our meal, we all decided that it was good enough to go back and try again. That sort of thing doesn’t happen often; if restaurant-goers are unhappy with a meal, they rarely return for another. But we definitely will, so stay tuned for a follow-up.
“Next time,” the Po’ Boy eater proclaimed as we were walking out, “I’ll be ordering that Prime Rib Sandwich for sure.”
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