Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

Requiem for an All-Nighter

Sometimes change can be hard to swallow.



whe 3rd Street Diner has been closed for months, so I expected something wonderful — some shinier, newly improved version of what 3rd Street had been when it first opened 20-odd years ago. Who wouldn't?

In its first incarnation, the 3rd Street Diner was a just a little dive that sold a mean hamburger delivered to your table by surly career waitresses who had no patience with the slumming college students and punk-rockers who ventured in from time to time.

New owners took over in the mid-'80s, stripped it from top to bottom, hired cute young waitresses and created a coolly ironic, retro blast that was all chrome and turquoise and kitschy signs from the '50s. Lots and lots of other restaurants, such as the River City Diner and the Galaxy Diner, have followed suit (all over the country), so now, any irony that once shadowed at least the edges of that particular design intent has been gutted and shamelessly commercialized.

But back then it was the height of the rockabilly and new wave era, and even the hard-core guy who lived down the street could be seen pulling up a chair at 3 o'clock in the morning, complaining about the diner's lack of authenticity and putting away piles of hash browns, scrambled eggs and grilled doughnuts with ice cream.

It turned back into a dive fairly rapidly, but into the '90s, it continued to attract its original hipster crowd despite the grime and stragglers. There was still that mean hamburger any time of day or night, and you could gaze into the eyes of your future boyfriend or girlfriend (or soon-to-be ex) by the light of the multicolored jukebox while the rosy-fingered dawn stretched across the horizon.

Once again, the owners have torn out everything, but instead of an update or spiffy new refurbishment, they've replaced the chrome with cheap pine paneling. The Naugahyde is gone; beadboard booths with a quick coat of polyurethane and indeterminate laminate tabletops are there instead, dimly lighted by fake cast-iron fixtures. The whole place is beige on tan … on beige.

The kitchen, which once turned out biscuits and eggs behind a long counter running along the left wall, has been relocated to the back, and a new bar with exposed brown brick stands in its place.

It's a whole lot cleaner but a whole lot more depressing at the same time. The overall décor is "new dive" and not in a hip, knowing sense, but in the sense that this kind of décor could attract the sort of customer who will quickly burn holes all over the tables, leave hypodermics in the bathroom and transform it into an actual dive in no time flat.

The appalling food and agonizingly slow service only serve to reinforce predictions for its future. Burgers are made with the cheapest ground beef and barely smacked into patties so that they look like giant, oblong spiders with tiny legs. The fried fish fillets are out of the box and straight from the freezer, as are the onion rings, fries and hash browns. The pancakes are rubbery and undercooked, the grits are lukewarm and watery, the eggs overdone, and everything that isn't burned is barely warm, occasionally (as in the case of the hot dogs) at the same time.

Why spend the money it must have cost to renovate and remove any vestige of charm (real or imagined) the place once had? And why isn't the quality of the food even a consideration? Breakfast all day and all night is, in its small way, a comforting option to consider when dinner is too much of an effort, or you worked until an odd hour, or you forgot to go to the store and just don't feel like risking someone else's notion of what dinner should be. Why would a diner bother to open its doors if it can't even offer that?

If it were busy during my visits, I might have been more forgiving, but when it's slow, and a diner can't even manage to turn out a decent breakfast, it's time to pay the check and leave — forever. S

3rd Street Diner ($)
218 E. Main St.
Sunday-Thursday: 8 a.m.-2 a.m.
Friday-Saturday: 24 hours. S

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