The finest of dining establishments

By Gary Lloyd

A few months back, I wrote a column for this space that grilled — pun definitely intended — modern fast-food restaurant building designs.

I annihilated the analogous architecture and ignited the interior design with flammable words. I tried to use humor in places to soften my tone. I’m not sure it worked. I may have overcooked the whole thing. Last pun, I promise.

This column is also about dining establishments, one in particular, but my approach is as different as a renovated McDonald’s and a longtime family diner.

I recently had an hour to kill in the Birmingham area while our dog, Abby, nervously sat through a grooming appointment. I had asked on Twitter for lunch recommendations in the area, and the same diner continued to be the answer. So, I went, and I’m glad I did.

When I swung open the diner’s front door, Bob Seger was runnin’ against the wind, a coming-of-age ballad only drowned out by the buzz of college football discussion and sizzling meat. The place was small. I counted eight counter barstools and three booths. All three were filled with folks who seemed to come here often. I sat at a small square corner table a couple feet inside the front door.

Frayed and fading newspaper stories — those ancient pages that used to be printed seven days a week — were framed across the walls, featuring mostly Alabama and Auburn football players. Signs over the kitchen area recognized Mark Ingram’s 2009 Heisman Trophy win for Alabama and Cam Newton’s 2010 Heisman Trophy victory at Auburn. I tried my hardest not to notice the latter.

“Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne played next, followed by James Taylor’s “Carolina In My Mind.” I ordered a Philly cheesesteak that was so good that it made me want to slap, well, someone who has ever made a lesser cheesesteak. Former CBS late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson ate here once, and he said on “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson” that the experience “shook me to the core.”

A man and his wife came in about 15 minutes after I ordered and sat in the booth in front of me. The man used a Canon camera to photograph everything, as if he were simply sitting down to lunch at a museum’s cafeteria. I guess he was, in a way.

The diner owner, a man I read about in preparation for my lunch, was exactly as I had imagined from reading old news articles about the diner. He seemed to know everyone, and I got the impression I was the lone newbie in the place. He came over to my table, strongly patted me on the shoulder like an uncle would, and asked me if everything was good, and I could feel that he was inquiring about more than the food.

I had planned to stay a while and take it all in, to just observe, maybe to talk with the owner, but my phone buzzed, and the groomer let me know that Abby was already ready to go. My trip was cut shorter than expected. I’ll have to go back soon. I already feel like a regular.

Gary Lloyd is the author of six books and a contributing writer to the Cahaba Sun.

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