Posted on August 22nd, 2016
I grew up in the Northeast, where twenty-four hour Greek diners were a natural part of the eatery landscape. They have names like ‘The Acropolis’, ‘Athenian’ or ‘Parthenon’ – possibly followed by a Roman numeral. It’s the type of establishment frequented by families for breakfast on the weekends; by senior citizens for the ‘early bird special’ – which is at least one page unto itself on the menu – and by teenagers and young adults spending their time in the wee hours of the morning working to stay just on this side of trouble.
The menu is as thick as a newspaper and includes everything from Eggs and French Toast to burgers and club sandwiches to spaghetti with meatballs or veal parmigiana to ‘Jewish Dishes’ and finally ‘Greek Specialities.’ All of these items are available twenty-four hours a day. If you are suspicious that any establishment could execute that wide a variety of items at any given time, you are wise. I recommend breakfast items, since it’s hard to prepare eggs over-easy any length of time before they are ordered. They do very few things particularly well; but they do enough things well enough. They consistently satisfy crowds at any given time of day…or night.
Instead of a neon OPEN sign, theirs is painted on the window – confirming they are indeed open twenty-four hours a day. Beneath this is the phrase ‘Bakery on Premises’. I always noticed it as a child because try as I might I couldn’t puzzle out its meaning. I mean, sure – they had a ton of baked goods: cinnamon rolls, elephant ears, muffins near the counter and usually a tall glass case with rotating shelves filled with heavy-looking cakes. Somewhere no doubt there was another case filled with pies and cookies as well. But – with a menu that has literally everything on it – why does one subset need its own declaration? As I exited my formative years I learned boring and reasonable things like requirements from local and state governments for a separate license for bakeries versus restaurants. I do not believe any include an edict, ‘To be displayed in script on the window.’ While I always found the phrase confounding, many seemed to relish the idea that theirs was a ‘Bakery on Premises’ and all the breakfast pastries and desserts were made right there! Well folks, they make everything else on the menu too, and how much of it is noteworthy? And so it is with the bakery items. The primary feature of the cakes is that they are weighty and they are thick with slick frosting. The pies are indistinguishable from those at bake sales, born of frozen pie dough and canned filling. The cookies, though, are unique. Despite extensive training as a professional baker I have not unearthed their secret. They have figured out a way to make chocolate chip cookies the consistency of compressed wet sand – the kind that holds its shape if you scrunch it in your fist (or make a sand castle out of it) but collapses into tiny coarse particles that spread to all the places you have never wanted them immediately upon exerting any sort of pressure…like, taking a bite. This sand-cookie technique is still artfully practiced; someone recently brought one to my two year old, who tracked it pretty much everywhere. Thank goodness for robot vacuums.
I’d like to say here that I am in no way trying to put the diner down – in fact, I wish that they weren’t a dying breed. Even beyond the nostalgia I hold for them; from times spent with family while I was young to the hours I spent in them as a teenager; the diner has value. They are consistent; they are always there – that is to say, open. And they each do some things extraordinarily well…My local diner makes excellent challah French toast (if you smuggle in your own syrup) and wonderful Spanikopita; but not necessarily better than other places that specialize in breakfast, or in Mediterranean food, respectively. Fine selections, to be sure, but in my experience each Athenian Parthenon Acropolis III has at least one item amid their sea of endless menu possibilities that they do better than any place else. And I truly mean better than ANY place else. The trick is finding what those items are. I happened to find out what my local diner’s secret perfection is fifteen years ago as teenager during a late night visit with friends; no doubt attempting to drown our angst with coffee, lots of coffee and…cheesecake. Diner cheesecake was a choice made in that moment that I probably would not make now and so I say that finding any diner’s sacrament is really based on sheer dumb luck.
As with all, my local twenty-four hour diner makes a plethora of items…satisfactorily. But what they do make to unparalleled perfection is cheesecake. They make cheesecake that occupies the perfect space in the fluffy-to-dense continuum and is so rich and creamy that I dream about it. It is about 14” in diameter and over 4” high. It has no crust at all. Sometimes it’s a hair over-baked and the top half just a little too firm or a hair under-baked and the bottom isn’t quite set…but even when the unevenness of what is likely a very old convection oven skews the consistency in one direction or the other it is still better than any cheesecake I have ever tasted. It tastes like cheese cake, with the flavors and consistency of simple ingredients. It still tastes like the soft cheese it is made from instead of just sweet or overwhelmingly vanilla or any other flavors someone has decided to doll it up with. This diner does not make any ‘flavors’ of cheesecake. It doesn’t have the gummy homogenized mouthfeel that is so frequently accompanied by cheesecake made to survive the zombie apocalypse with stabilizers and preservatives. It is unequivocally the best cheesecake I have ever had and unlike anything you can get at places where the window doesn’t say…‘Bakery on Premises.’