On the Menu

Diner Hell
They only stopped for a bite to eat....

by Craig Constantine

It was 9:30 p.m. Saturday night, and we were looking for a place to eat. My favorite diner (to remain nameless) was miles behind us in the other direction. We decided to stop for a bite to eat and some coffee at the Bethlehem Diner (Airport and Catasauqua roads, next to Denny's, for all you Lehigh Valley locals). My companion suggested this particular diner based on some comments she had heard to the effect of "cheap, but good," posted on a local news group. I dropped her at the door, parked and darted across the lot through the torrential rain. In the lobby she was grinning and pointing at the large, nicely priced selection of "Dinner specials." So far so good.

Java Spots & Coffee Stains As I entered the diner, though, I began to have that annoying feeling that I'd been there before. Sure enough, as I stood at the "Please wait to be seated" sign, wondering who I had to wait for since there were five other people in the entire place, I recalled several wonderful memories of eating in this particular building. Of course the last time I was there it had been a steak house, replete with wood paneling, steak and shrimp, good service and an appropriate ambiance. In its new diner form, the place was alarmingly misdecorated. It had been painted snot green and mauve. Practically every line in the architecture had been accentuated with quarter-inch wide strips of gold-colored reflective tape. The mauve paint had been slapped haphazardly onto the walls, and the painter must never have heard of the concept of edging. The hostess demonstrated a total lack of concern for our existence. She finally decided that the customers were more important than the newspaper and got up to seat us. As she led us to our booth, I noticed her stockings had a nasty run up the left calf (right over her mean-looking tattoo).

I hate booths. Specifically, I hate booths where the table is 5 feet from the edge of the seat so you have to lean all the way forward to eat. This booth was the kind I hate. And as a bonus, the stuffing in the seat cushions had long since gone flat. The tables were wood, topped with posters that had been laid under the clear epoxy poured over the table tops. It looked like something I'd expect to see in a bar in Philadelphia, but the posters were pretty nice.

We eyed up the soup-and-salad bar; we decided to select dinner specials. The waitress soon arrived, and I'm not certain, but I think I'd seen her once before in a Twilight Zone episode. She had a look as if to say, "Please help me," and "I know what's gonna happen to you," all at the same time. She put on a pleasant face, though, as she asked us what we wanted to drink.

"Two coffees and some water, please," I replied. She shuffled off, and returned shortly. The water was Allentown city water, and that says it all. The coffee was weak. It was drinkable (as opposed to burnt, tasteless or metallic) but weak. Let me be more specific. It was weak. As in: "I could see the bottom of the coffee cup" weak. The creamers were warm. They weren't cold, cool or even cool-at-one-time; they were warm. We avoided them.

Our waitress asked if we were ready to order. Looking back on what we ordered, I feel as if I were watching a classic horror movie -- the kind where the lead character is going into the basement, and the audience already knows the monster is down there. "No, don't do that!" you want to scream. "How can you be that stupid!" I ordered the chicken gyro platter and my companion ordered chicken marsala.

As I headed for the salad bar, I had flashbacks to walking toward the same salad bar island as a child of 12, following my father. I realized, as I ladled my soup, that this was the exact same salad bar: the same soup tubs, the same sneeze guard and everything. My father used to complain that there wasn't enough room under the guard to lift the soup ladle, I recalled, as my arm hit the sneeze guard. The fancy glass salad plates were probably the same plates. They were practically translucent from countless trips through the dishwasher. As I stirred the soup to dredge up the rice at the bottom of the chicken and rice soup, I concluded that this could even be the same pot of soup. Each piece of rice was a mushy mass. I contemplated the other pot of soup but decided New England clam chowder could be a last meal in this diner.

I sat down and leaned all the way forward to start on my soup. In the interim our waitress had deposited rolls on the table. Generally, whoever fills the basket should drape a napkin over it so that the rolls only touch the clean napkin. Instead, there was one ice-cream-store-sized napkin lying in the bottom of the plastic basket with three rolls tossed on top. The rolls were poppy seed potato rolls. (A potato roll is a Pennsylvania Dutch invention that has a light yellow color, tastes sweeter than a plain dinner roll and stays fresh longer.)

Normally, I like potato rolls. I immediately became suspicious, however, because they cost more. My companion broke a roll (I think I heard it crack), tasted it, and gasped, in a voice that seemed to be dying of thirst, "Woah! Dry... Avoid at all costs..." I concluded that those three rolls had probably made the round trip from the kitchen several times. As a safety measure I pushed my thumb into the other two to put them out of their misery.

As I finished up my soup and salad, I began to notice other things about the diner. For example, no two of the stained-plastic lamps over the tables were alike, and several wicker ones had been mixed in for good measure. The huge mural of hot air balloons somewhere over Germany was repeated twice, side by side, creating an unintentional, low-budget carnival effect. I could tell the hanging plants were real because no one's ever killed a plastic plant. The dessert display, which we happened to be seated next to, was spinning entirely too fast. Round and round and round spun the desserts; the cheese cake was showing a slight list from the G-force. The center pole of the display case was covered in tiny mirrors to catch your attention. They did, except I was noticing that each mirror was cracked or chipped or had its corners worn down. How that happened I don't care to know....

Looking up, I was startled to discover that the space we were sitting under was actually intended by the original architect to be a two story cathedral. The current tenant had installed a drop-ceiling made of ceiling tiles that let light through, but only straight down. I got this eerie feeling of vertigo, because the room was visibly much higher directly over my head. The space above the ceiling was lit by four paltry fluorescent tubes, mounted on the original ceiling and casting a pale light down onto the drop-ceiling tiles. I waited nervously for the tiles to open up and for Dr. Frankenstein's lab equipment to descend from the gloom.

As I stared up through the ceiling tiles, our waitress returned, looked at me and then at the ceiling. I could hear her thinking, "He knows. Now we have to kill them, too..."

The gyros were the first thing I'd encountered since the front door that looked normal. There was real feta cheese, delicious black olives and tasty gyro sauce on the side. I wasn't really expecting to build my own gyro, but I'm flexible. The lettuce and tomato were passable. The pita bread was delicious: fresh and hot, with just a bit of oil. But it was cut into quarters. I was stymied. How can you make a gyro from one piece of gyro bread, when its been cut into quarters? When I examined the chicken things started going down hill. Actually it was chicken loaf. What part of the chicken is "chicken loaf"? Its not meat; that's for sure. If the gyro had included real chicken it would have been at least a seven on a scale of 10. For calibration, have a gyro at Alexandria's on Thayer Street in Providence, R.I. Their gyros are an 11 on a scale of 10. But the gyros didn't include real chicken, and so I cursed the diner the rest of the night, every time I burped -- which was, regrettably, quite often.

The chicken marsala was unrecognizable. First, the sauce was thick and orange. It looked like Chinese duck sauce and was nearly as sweet. There were bits of fungus mixed in (intentionally?) to help carry on the charade of chicken marsala. The chicken was thickly breaded, and tasted like a McDonald's chicken McNugget. (That is not a compliment.) Have you ever removed the batter from a McNugget? Don't.

We ate some of our respective entrees and declared ourselves finished for safety reasons. When our waitress returned to leave us our check, we told her that our eyes had been bigger than our stomachs. To be fair, we tipped her well; the food quality wasn't her fault. We paid, and started to put our coats on. Another couple, who had arrived after we did, left their check and some cash on the table and went straight past us for the door, laughing and making gagging noises. We tried to be more subtle as we dashed for the lobby.

As for the waitress... well, I hope she made it out of there all right. I wouldn't bet on it, though.

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