Lunch Is Just Life

Monday, May 26, 2008

Reben Luncheonette

Elusive singer Will Travis can be found at the counter of the Reben Luncheonette nearly every weekday.

This tiny and welcoming lunch counter, located at 229 Havemeyer Street, near Broadway and the Marcy Ave JMZ stop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, is a bustling Dominican place with inexpensive breakfast and lunch, and famous for the pale orange Morir Sonando drink, which Frankie Latina, who snapped the photo of the camera-shy Will Travis, noted, tasted like an Orange Julius. "You taste it, if you don't like it, don't pay" says an old, hand-painted sign advertising the drink, the name of which can be translated as: "To die dreaming." You won't find too many products that use death as a marketing tool. "Our mattress is so comfortable you'll die in your sleep!" "We deliver our subs so fast that you'll have a heart attack and drop dead!" Maybe this is why Will Travis likes the Reben Luncheonette so much. But then, he's been known to alter the course of a tour bus to hit a diary bar where they make that drink that is a mixture of orange slush and vanilla ice cream. (Though Travis actually prefers grape, and when available, blue raspberry.) At any rate, Morir Sonando can also be translated as: "To die in a dream" which avid Will Travis fanatics will recognize as a line from his considerable oeuvre. Some believe that if you die in a dream, you will actually die. While this may or may not be true, you must consider that all of what we think of as our existence is only a dream, and the brief visits we are able to make to what we think of as "life" are breakfasts and luncheons at places like the Reben Luncheonette.


** (two stars)

—Ray Speen

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Nuevo Leon

Corner of Graham Ave and Seigel Street, Brooklyn, NY

Nuevo Leon has a big sign over the door on the corner of a building, along with a lot of red neon, and looks very welcoming. Once you step inside you are sadly disappointed, as the interior has been remodeled in the fast food style, with hard booths and tables, boring colors, old details removed, and way too much space. But still it's a diner-- a diner with a Mexican name, run by Chinese guys, breakfast lunch and dinner, a Chinese restaurant place mat on the table, Red Devil hot sauce and ketchup.

The menu looked like a Chinese restaurant menu someone bought nostalgically on eBay-- hard red cover with printed pages inside-- it said something about the "Grand Golden Lion"-- yet, this was the menu. It was pretty much Chinese food along with Spanish and American food-- and everything was in both Spanish and English! They brought me a cup of coffee in a classic diner ceramic cup. I felt like I was in a Tom Waits song!

The menu had some interesting things like soupy rice, fried sliced king fish, and pounded fried plantain, as well as all the normal Chinese restaurant choices. It was breakfast-time, so I ordered a banana omelet. It was a tortilla style or Spanish omelette-- with bananas, and very good! It seemed kind of exotic. The whole experience felt kind of curious and exotic.

Oh, the best part of the whole experience was when I told the guy taking my order that I didn't want toast, that I couldn't eat wheat, and he practically yelled out, "What happened?!"--as if I had just described a tragic accident. And then I explained that it was hereditary, that I was allergic, and he said, "Oh, I know, me too! I can't eat wheat either!"


* (one star)

--Ray Speen

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Cheesecake Factory (Part Two)

It took me several weeks to recover from my experience eating at the Cheesecake Factory, as well as finishing the leftover "Grilled Chicken Tostada Salad" that was my choice-- seeming to be the only salad without a wheat element (though, to be fair, the menu said to please inform servers about food allergies, and there is a good chance they could have accommodated my request to leave out various glutinous ingredients, as I was in NO HURRY). Actually, I finished off my leftover salad the next day, nasty of course, as lettuce doesn't survive, and the whole mass was a sugary, unappetizing mess from the overly sweet dressing. Which kind of sucks, because the whole point of the Cheesecake Factory seems to be about overeating at the time of dining, then overeating again the next day, with your leftovers. (Which is meant to justify the high prices; my salad, a coke, and tip came to $20!) Well, the other point is spectacle—and in keeping with the whole philosophy of the place, when my salad arrived at my table, arranged on the giant oval plate in TWO heaping mounds, like silicone breast implants, it was somewhat jaw-dropping. Which was kind of fun, and also led to a conversation with the two suburban ladies sitting next to me, facilitated by the European style seating. Interaction with strangers is unusual in the Midwest, so that was unexpected and nice.

So-- I did have good time at the Cheesecake Factory, if just for the experience of looking around trying to figure out what in the HELL the design was, and reading the menu, which is a spiral bound BOOK, complete with ads (some for the CF itself, and some for other businesses, including Allison Lefcort’s pop art Warhol rip-off portraits)! My salad was enjoyable, as the greens were fresh, and you can't argue with lots of cilantro. I could really do without the drizzled on "avocado cream" and sour cream, however. I don't want my salad to look like some disgruntled chef had a little too much fun in the kitchen at my expense, if you know what I'm saying. Let's put an end to this "drizzling" bullshit RIGHT NOW!

I was trying to match design elements of the decor with menu items, but since they seem to be trying to cover just about all the popular cuisines of the world, maybe that's what the design is attempting. I was thinking, at first, perhaps Aztec or something, and hoping for some human sacrifice theme to appear suddenly, but I think it's more of a mixture of Europe in general, and “South of the Border,” all filtered through Disneyland, which, I guess, pretty much says: Las Vegas. I haven't been to Las Vegas since they tore everything down and rebuilt it, but I understand it is this kind of thing. Like you are traveling to some exotic and famous location, but a movie set version. I personally think they should go a whole lot further with it, like incorporating live entertainment and dinner theatre-- why not?

Besides the super high prices, a big difference between this place and your overblown family restaurant is that this is SUPPOSED to be an elegant dining experience, while remaining casual, and the large and prominent bar exemplifies this. It's a place where you can take the kids AND the grandparents AND have birthday parties AND have office functions AND go on first dates AND anniversaries AND go with drinking buddies. Looking at the drink menu part of the menu was most fascinating to me. I was happy to see some classic (now retro) drinks like the Gin Rickey and Mint Julep, but the rest of it is sweet, fruity drinks, with lots of Margaritas, of course. The worst thing is the "Specialty Martinis"-- not ONE with gin!-- and one is even a fruity rum drink! This got me to thinking, maybe it was THIS PLACE that started this unfortunate trend of changing the word “Martini” to mean cocktail. A Martini is a particular drink-- it contains gin and dry vermouth, that's it. But now you go to a restaurant and look at the "martini menu" and it contains various cocktails. These bastards have changed the language and eliminated the most classic cocktail of all time from existence! Why aren’t the GIN companies fighting back?! One of the "specialty martinis" is the Cosmopolitan, which is a separate cocktail in itself and has NOTHING to do with a Martini! It's like having a list of "hamburgers" and one of them is plate of spaghetti! This drives me crazy!

Sorry, that was quite a tangent, and really there is another time and place for that whole spiel. The menu at this place seems to be trying to cover every popular food anyone might order, and includes: Shepard’s pie, fish and chips, goulash, teriyaki, pasta, pizzas, and burgers of course, and Chinese, Mexican, breakfasts, brunches, and "health conscious" menus, and of course-- desserts-- several pages of them, featuring a variety of cheesecakes which go from $6.25 to $7.50. I eventually got down to trying to find what WASN'T on the menu-- thinking it would be fun to open an ANTI-Cheesecake Factory restaurant with just those items. Here it is: Ray Speen's Diner, serving ONLY chicken and waffles, and banana splits!

Probably the worst thing on the whole menu is the soft drink department. Soft drinks are $2.95, which includes free refills, if you really WANT to drink a quart of soda pop on top of everything else. Worse, water (sparkling, or spring water) is $3.95. And the very worst thing of all is: coffee-- a cup of coffee goes for $2.95! But worse than that, yet, is the DESCRIPTION of the coffee, no doubt meant to justify such a price. "Our blend of artesian batch roasted organic fair trade shade-grown coffee." I nearly fell out of my seat laughing when I read that. Thank you, Cheesecake Factory-- for laughter is good! If you can think of another descriptive element to trumpet their coffee, I'm sure the Cheesecake Factory will welcome your suggestion!


* (one star)

-- Ray Speen

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Cheesecake Factory (part one)

Bayshore Town Center
Milwaukee WI

Some days are like a nightmare you can't wake from. The office is filled with varnish fumes from the ad agency down below, so lunch, on my bicycle, riding north on the beautiful fall bike trail, where restaurants are few. I decided to try Solly's, a place famous for putting big slabs of butter on their hamburgers, which kind of strikes me as kind of insane, yet... I have a weakness for butter! Also, this place is a former diner, in an old house, which they then moved down the road. It kind of reminds me of that farmhouse in “Days of Heaven" but on an awful suburban service road rather than a wheatfield. When I enter, the sight of two U-shaped counters full of Pillsbury Dough People inhaling enormous amounts of fried food made feel like I'd gotten between the hogs and the trough at feeding time, so I fled!

Feeling kind of silly, then, I rode up Port Washington Road to Kopp's Frozen Custard where last time I ate the entirety of a $5 banana split that nearly did me in. I like Kopp's, and how people from all walks of life sit on either side of the place (no dining inside) around little seating areas that look like little theatres-in-the-round, or miniature Colosseums for gladiatorial bouts of overeating. People are only inches from their cars, which makes them happy, and I like that I can pull right up on my bike and not lock it. On this day, however, already in a weird mood, I couldn’t help but think of that TV show, COPS (Kopp’s/Cops), and I felt like I was being "caught on camera." I had to quickly change plans.

Further north, I came to the Bayshore Town Center, a new kind of mall, which is kind of like what a mall would be like if you were able to drive your car right inside of it. It’s like “a mall with carbon monoxide.” They just built this place, and I heard that there were actual apartments or condos built right in. That kind of made me perversely happy because I thought how funny it would be to have an apartment in an old-style, 1970s, “Dawn of the Dead” MALL. But sadly, at this place, in reality, it's not so charming, becaue they have actually tired to make this place seem like a small town. This is the ideal town without crime, lots of police, and everything you need within a five minute, 5 mph drive from your parking garage. That is if in a small town you had a sports bar instead of city hall, a Victoria's Secret instead of a hardware store, and a Barnes $ Noble instead of a public library. This is a very, extremely sad and depressing place, unless you can work yourself up into a state, as I tried to do, of feeling like you were taking a vacation in actual HELL.

So where does one eat in Hell? My inspired choice was an enormous, multi-story, cartoonish looking monstrosity called THE CHEESECAKE FACTORY. Stay tuned for part two of this exciting report!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Thai Lotus

3800 W. National
Milwaukee, Wisconsin


Milwaukee has been the worst town I've ever lived in for Thai restaurants (besides Iowa City-- there were none) but I finally found one to really love, even though it's all the way over thar in Silver City. I should move over to Silver City, actually, because that's where the best restaurants are, as well as this big factory that I'm fascinated with. Thai Lotus has Chinese, Laotian, Thai, and Vietnamese food, certainly a lot of the menu to experiment with, but on this day, I broke New Year's Resolution #6 (no more lunch buffets).

The lunch buffet is $6.95, so even if I was able to restrain myself it would be a good deal. And there were many items that didn't contain wheat flour or soy sauce (which contains wheat flour, believe it or else!) but I could barely move beyond the Tom yum soup, the Pad Thai, and the green curry, as pedestrian as that sounds. They were all really quite delicious, and though they might be a disappointment to you macho fire eaters, I didn't get the nickname "Mild Plus" for nothing. I overate. Then I went back for seconds and overate again. Buffet food is often kind of mushy and has been sitting around awhile, but Pad Thai actually gets better with that treatment. The curry was my favorite I've had in the last seven years.

Then the amazing thing happened. The waitress, who was so nice that she nearly made up for seven years of scowling, sour Midwestern attitudes, asked if I'd like to take some food to go. Are you crazy I asked? This is a buffet. That is just not done. It will just be thrown away, she said, so I agreed to this madness. She then filled a large Styrofoam shell with about five pounds of Pad Thai, which is an excellent refrigerated leftover dish. That evening I had cold Pad Thai for dinner. The next morning I had cold Pad Thai for breakfast, and it was getting even tastier, and more and more free. If I hadn't made a pig of myself, soon thereafter, I'd be eating cold Pad Thai right now while writing this.

But you know, don't expect to show up at the end of the lunch buffet and be offered a take-out container-- and for God's sake don't ever be crude and ask for such a thing. I'm sure this incident was an anomaly, and will never happen again. But still, the kindness and generosity of that woman was genuine, and I'm certain I will return there soon. I wish I could do something for her, but I guess a generous tip and three stars in one of the world's most respected restaurant review guides will have to do.


*** (three stars)

--Ray Speen

Friday, June 29, 2007

Sammie's Family Restaurant

Sammie’s Family Restaurant
9804 Red Arrow Hwy, Bridgman, MI

In early June I took a camping trip to Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan with “the boyfriend” Wm., and some friends of his. After the first tedious morning of cooking breakfast over a fire, Wm.’s friend Nick made the decision to head into town for our next breakfast. We visted Sammie’s Family Restaurant, a diner-type place in Bridgman.

The first thing I noticed was that restaurants in Michigan still apparently have smoking sections. I know I point out smoking sections a lot in my reviews. This is mainly because they were illegal in my home state by the time I was old enough to buy a pack, so their legality in Ohio always seemed like sort of a novelty to me. They’ve been outlawed in Ohio since December ‘06 now, and recently became illegal in Fort Wayne (where I often go to visit Wm.) Yes, I do smoke, but usually when I dine I’m with non-smokers and tend to stay away from the smoking section, which was the case on this occassion.

The non-smoking section was slightly elevated above the smoking section, with a chest-height wall between them. I took advantage of my lofty position by staring at some tattooed biker guy who was seated in smoking.

The menu featured typical diner breakfast food, plus “skillets.” I think it said something about these skillets being world-famous or something. I really don’t remember. I chose a farmer’s omelet, which was some type of omelet with vegetables and cheese in it. The waitress asked if I’d like a half-order, and being both low on funds and not a “big eater,” I said yes. The obvious question is: so, was it a 1.5 egg omelet? I’d say it seemed more like at least two eggs. With homefries and toast, it was quite enough of a meal for me. The most interesting part of the omelet was the constrasting slices of white (provolone?) and orange (doubtlessly american) cheese on top of the omelet. Inside the omelet, the side with white cheese on top had orange cheese inside, and vice versa. Classy!

Wm. ordered some kind of French toast combo, then ate nothing but the French toast. At a later date he revealed to me that this was because he “unleashed on the bathroom.” This says far less about the quality of Sammie’s food than the overactivity of my boyfriend’s bowels. The other three in our party had various dishes, but I can’t remember them in detail.

Also, I tried some super-hot habanero hot sauce. It was flavorless and not really that hot. Yawn.

Drinks, my $4 half-order, Wm.’s half eaten French toast combo, and tip came to just under $14. The omelet was a steal. I am not letting my boyfriend order anything “combo” on my tab again.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Expressway Diner

Expressway Diner
5109 Memphis Ave
Brooklyn, Ohio 44144

I was introduced to the Expressway Diner by an Internet friend on the first night we hung out in real life. Carla and I, discovering a mutual vegetarianism and disenchantment with humanity, decided to meet up at the local bar Manja, then visit a few bars downtown. After a few drinks, Carla said she was having a hankering for home cookin’, so we went to the Expressway Diner. She had the jojos, which seemed quite delicious, and I had a ultra-tasty vegetable quesedilla complete with salsa and sour cream, which was large enough to provide for ample leftovers.

I was impressed enough to visit again with my roommate Jeff at the next available opportunity. We both had the omelet, homefries, and toast breakfast, and were stunned by the large, fluffy, delicious omelets. I argue that the homefries at Expressway are the best that I have ever had and represent the platonic ideal of homefries — salty and flavorful, not greasy, or soggy, or burnt — but Jeff seems to prefer the homefries at the Clifton Diner. I was also impressed by a menu item with a name something along the lines of “Belgian Waffle Deluxe” — Expressway has a giant menu of breakfast, lunch, and dinner entrees — which was a waffle covered with strawberries, whipped cream, and the piece de resistance — a big scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle! On my next visit, I had the non-ice-cream topped version of this waffle, which was nicely crispy and light, with not-too-sweet strawberries and just enough whipped cream to give you a taste but not so much that you can feel your arteries clog.

Another benefit of the Expressway Diner is that they maintained a smoking section long after the Ohio smoking ban had gone into effect. Maybe that will disgust some people, but as a smoker, I appreciated it. I’m fairly sure now that there’s actually a penalty for violating the smoking ban, they’ve gone no-smoking.

The last time I ate at the Expressway was the Saturday on which the old Fulton Road bridge by the Cleveland Zoo was supposed to blow up. After my boyfriend, Jeff and I sat in the rain for around an hour to see a charge go off but not actually destroy anything, we decided that we were too wet and miserable to wait around for anything else to happen or not happen, which considering the bridge wasn’t fully razed until the next Tuesday was a good decision. Since the Expressway Diner is near the corner of Memphis and Fulton, we headed over there for a late breakfast. Jeff had another omelette, I’m fairly sure my boyfriend had regular French toast, and I decided to try the almond French Toast, which was essentially French toast with slivered almonds on it. Again, it was delicious, just like everything else I’ve had at the Expressway Diner.

Other benefits of this place are the chrome trim on the building, the fact that it’s open 24 hours, and has extremely reasonable prices (I think my French toast, without meat, was under $4.) The staff is also reliable and friendly, and they seem amenable to special orders along the lines of “no meat.” I hope to someday go back and try some of their lunch/dinner fare. I’d say that I’d post an updated review at that point, but it’ll probably be just as good as everything else I’ve had there, so why bother?

[A note from my next visit: the quesedilla "tortilla" is actually fillo dough!]


Friday, June 8, 2007

Michigan Street Diner

220 E. Michigan Street
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Several times I thought this place was closing (they had a fire at some point) which made me sad, yet I never go here, even though it's just about the only place to eat breakfast in all of downtown Milwaukee. So I returned after several years, wondering if the counter was still sticky, and the place was still generally annoying.

Very little has changed, which is sad. The coffee is bad, and served with Coffee-Mate, which is outrageous, here in the "Dairy State." There are okay hash browns, though they are mushy and wet. The menu says "farm fresh eggs" which I suspect is bullshit-- it's the kind of bullshit you can ususlaly get away with. No one is going to do an investigation to find out if those eggs come from SYSCO, because, really, who cares?

The black, red, white, Elvis, Marilyn decor is bad enough, but what is worse is the fake Fifties music that drove me out of the place as soon as I could finish my food. The Fifties "classics" were digital and remixed in some cases, but other songs seemed to have been recorded by studio musicians whose little guitar and piano flourishes sent me into a deep depression. My two "farm fresh" eggs, runny potatoes, and undrinkable coffee came to $4.81, and getting a dime, a nickel and FOUR PENNIES in change put me over the edge. I'm still happy, somehow, that this place still exists, but I won't be stopping in anytime soon.

--Ray Speen


(no stars)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Cindy's Diner

Cindy’s Diner
830 S Harrison St
Fort Wayne, IN, 46802

While looking up the address of this diner, I came across the following article about Fort Wayne being American’s Dumbest City. It’s tangental at best, but worth reading.

So anyway, I was paying my gentleman friend Don Piano a visit in Fort Wayne for a while, and on my last day, May 10th, we decided to head over to Cindy’s Diner for breakfast. I’d come across the out-of-place little prefab diner while he and I, bored out of our gourds, decided to wander around downtown Fort Wayne on a Sunday afternoon. There’s not much of note downtown — the diner and an amazing perpetually-growing mechanical loaf of bread on a billboard were the highlights for me, though there’s also a new library in a building resembling an airplane hangar, a Rally’s, and a Taco Bell.

Cindy’s is somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 seats, all at the counter. We were asked what we wanted to drink almost as soon as we sat down. I got diet Coke and Mr. Piano got regular Coke, as we both enjoy a good soda with our morning meal, especially if our morning meal is around 11AM. I ordered a two eggs, potato, toast, and meat item combo, gladly giving my companion my sausage patties, while Mr. Piano chose to sample the hotcakes and meat platter. In classic diner style, the food was cooked not more than a few feet away from us, and I was pleased to watch my two eggs being cracked and scrambled and Mr. Piano’s hotcakes being poured onto the grill. Also, the potato item, which I’m fairly sure the menu called “American fries,” were Midwest-style sliced homefries, which also pleased me. I have a devotion to determining the exact boundaries of the homefries region — it doesn’t seem to extend to New York City or Philadelphia, and I’ve only ventured as far as Fort Wayne and Milwaukee in the other direction.

In any case, our food was quickly served and consumed. The homefries qualify as definitive — not overcooked or overly greasy, slightly salty, and pleasantly flavorful. I would rank only the homefries offered by Cleveland’s Expressway Diner over these. The eggs were also surprisingly good — I usually need to eliminate any egg flavor with ketchup to make it tolerable outside of a cheese omelette, but these were light, fluffy, and very edible. The toast was also enjoyable, as toast should be. I have every indication that Don Piano also enjoyed his meal, but my recollection of his experience is blurred by the events which followed.

Not remembering that Cindy’s has a strict no-credit-card policy, Mr. Piano had to visit an ATM after his meal to acquire some cash, wisely leaving me in the restaurant as collateral. I sat quietly and absent-mindedly stared at the TV for what seemed like an awfully long time for a grown man to travel a city block and return, noticing a few cop cars rushing down the street outside in the meanwhile. A customer came in and asked if anyone knew what was going on down the street — apparently a large number of Fort Wayne’s finest and their automobiles had congregated outside the downtown branch of the Wells Fargo. Moments later, I noticed my gentleman friend returning to the diner, and the waitress said, “Well, we’ll ask this guy, he just got back from the bank!”

From what Mr. Piano could piece together, someone had attempted to rob the bank. He had driven to the ATM, and was pulled over by the police on the way, who also attempted to pull over a car in front of him. In a sequence of events I could at best misremember, Mr. Piano heard an officer behind him pump a shotgun and later saw the police putting a man in handcuffs in a police car. All of this was quite strange for Mr. Piano, but he managed to get his required funds and make it back to the diner in one piece. He was the star of the diner for a brief period, but we quickly paid and departed.

All in all, it was probably the most interesting event in downtown Fort Wayne this year, and I ate breakfast the day after my birthday a block away with the man who saw it.

Oh yeah, and Cindy’s has an old-fashioned donut machine, the product of which I hope to sample at a later date.

$ (dirty cheap just like the rest of Fort Wayne)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Crow's Nest a.k.a. The Hole In The Wall

Hi. I'm Jeff. I've known Ray Speen since we were both correspondents back in WWII, being plagiarized by that hack Hemingway. I still eat lunch sometimes, so Ray invited me to sling some hash here on his lunch counter blog. So I thought I'd start with this place that I get lunch from sometimes when I'm at my job in Downtown Cleveland, Ohio, where I now work as a corporate cryptanalyst.

The official name of this place is "The Crow's Nest," but actually, I usually refer to it as 'the hole in the wall,' because, really, that's exactly what it is. A hole in the wall.

Specifically, there is a little convenience store on the main floor of this great old building downtown that's made of old white ceramic tiles called the Standard Building, that is home to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, which I would give my eye teeth to be a member of, just because that sounds so cool. And in the back of this convenience store, there is a little hole in the wall, about one foot wide by about two feet tall. Behind this hole is the kitchen for a restaurant that's on the other side of the building where they actually have tables and a bar; for carry-out service, though, they opened up this HOLE.

To get your food, you walk up to the hole, wait for someone to walk by it and acknowledge you, and quickly tell them what you want before they lose interest and wander away. If you're smart, like me, you'll soon learn to order the exact same thing every time you go there, so that when they see you walking up, all the kitchen workers have to do is make eye contact, nod their head slightly to confirm that you want 'the usual', which they then shout out to the grill cooks while writing up your order on the styrofoam take-out box. A model of efficiency.

All of this would be simply quaint and taken for granted were such a thing not the rarity it is downtown these days. But the best part is, the food that comes through that hole in the wall is actually pretty good - and very reasonably priced as well.

Their menu is pretty extensive, actually, too, with plenty of choices, and lots of daily specials. Just about anything you want they could put together for you. They also have a pretty good number of vegetarian-friendly items on the menu, which is great for me, because, hey, I'm a vegetarian. What's it to ya? OK. Anyway, they have a big variety of hamburger variations, all of which they are happy to make with a gardenburger patty, and, I'm told, they do it pretty well too. I've never actually had one there though, because I found that they make probably the best grilled swiss on rye you're likely to find downtown - complete with fries and a big quarter pickle slice. It'll keep you tied over 'til well past dinnertime.

The atmosphere of the convenience store is kind of interesting too, and you imagine it hasn't changed much at all in probably at least 30 years. In fact about the only thing I ever see there that forces me to realize I'm standing there in 2007 is a clip-board hanging up next to the cashier which holds print-outs of email-forwarded internet jokes, which they change every few weeks or so..

Am I supposed to rate this place? If so, I'll give it 4 mustard packets out of 4. Or whatever our rating units are supposed to be.

Ok, that's all from me for now. Thanks.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Plaza Cafe

1007 N. Cass Street
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The official name of this restaurant is "Cafe at the Plaza" but I think that sounds dumb, so I call it the Plaza Cafe, or simply The Plaza. It's open every day for breakfast and lunch. It's the cafe in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, one of Milwaukee's few apartment/hotels, built in the Thirties, kept up pretty well, but not overly fancy. It's an inspiring place, which feels somewhat like it's from an earlier time. The apartments, hotel rooms, breakfasts, and lunches are all affordable, so you tend to have a fairly interesting clientele. A lot of theatre people seem to go there.

The heart of the place is a large room with a horseshoe shaped counter, a couple of small tables, food prep areas, and the grill. There is also a large dining room, connected to hallways and stairways leading off into the hotel. In warmer weather, you can eat outside in a really nice, enclosed courtyard that is situated between two wings of the hotel.

My favorite breakfast is the artichoke omelette, because it contains artichokes, or the ultimate omelette, because it has the name "ultimate." There are cheaper options, however, with daily breakfast specials. I have eaten a pretty good chef salad at lunch, though it's not inspiring. The menu contains average lunch fare. The coffee is always strong, but not great. At least it's not diner-weak, but it's so strong it's like kick-you-in-the-head strong, and coming from me, that can be problematic.

Sometimes the place can get crowded, particularly on weekend mornings, and at those times the atmosphere isn't as relaxing. Also, at some point they put a TV in the main room, which is always tragic, but at least the sound is never turned up. The food is generally a little overpriced-- not terribly, considering restaurants in general in Milwaukee are overpriced-- but enough to be a bit of a drawback, considering the food is fairly average, particularly the hash browns and "cafe" potatoes (a much better name than "American fries, at least) that come with breakfasts.

This was the first restaurant I ate at in Milwaukee, years ago, before moving here, and it hasn't changed all that much. It is consistent and durable. I like to imagine living in The Plaza, in an apartment, and then being able to come down to breakfast wearing slippers and a robe. That sounds like my idea of success.

One really nice thing about the Plaza Cafe is that to enter, you come through the lobby of the hotel. And the men's room is off the lobby. This small restrooms is, in my experience, the best restroom in a public space in Milwaukee. Though small, it is warm, old, and comfortable. There is one old porcelain sink, and a beautiful, old built-into-the-floor urinal. Then, the best part, there is one toilet stall, but it is its own separate room, with a full door, so there is complete privacy. You can sit there and relax and examine the old wallpaper, and the spectacular floor, which is a combination of ceramic tile and terrazzo. And there is a standing ashtray!-- not a fancy one, but still, a standing ashtray. It's almost enough to make me buy cigarettes for that occasion alone.


** (two stars)

--Ray Speen

Friday, March 23, 2007

Paul's Omega Family Restaurant

3473 S. 27th Street
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Open 24 hours, every day. Milwaukee's contribution to the culinary world is the FAMILY RESTAURANT, and Paul's Omega on S. 27th is the king of them all. It is always crowded (especially on Sundays and holidays) but the place is huge, and the service remarkably fast, so there is very little waiting. This is the place to overeat, if you're so inclined-- the dinners come with a salad that's large enough to be a meal, or soup, and potatoes, of course, and dessert, the options which include a passable rice pudding. The diners also include your choice of a draught beer or crappy wine, if you're so inclined. I'm not, but I always appreciate seeing the luminous glasses of sweet, pink rose’ wine on most tables, simply for their beauty. The entire place has a certain beauty in its extremes and excesses-- from the chairs on round wheels, to the tacky etched glass, the cruise ship lighting fixtures, to the casino carpets, it's like a good nightmare, visually, a memory of the lost Las Vegas you never experienced, and never will. Indeed, it's all an illusion, created by the incredible level of high energy infusing the entire establishment. The cooks, coffee fillers, bussers, waitresses, and hosts work together like a flawless counterfeit Rolex, and a routine trip to the restroom is like a journey through mythical restaurant-land, waitresses yelling "corner" as they round blind corners with enormous trays, creating magic for the incredible cross section of humanity who come to overeat, routinely taking for granted what very well may be their last meal.


*** (three stars)

--Ray Speen