February 26, 2008

Forget the A-level, campus needs 24-hour diner

Everything goes better with bacon.

It’s a simple truth that has stood the tests of time and taste. The list of products it enhances is endless: cheeseburgers, salads, sirloin steaks—even sticks of butter. So last year, when the good folks at Bacon Salt premiered their groundbreaking new line of pork-flavored seasoning, it came as something of a shock to the culinary community.

With just a dash of the miracle powder, any remotely edible substance soon took on a whole new life. Be it fries, broccoli, or even a martini (Bacon-tini), it was as if a divine power had descended from the heavens to reconstruct the food pyramid. Bacon Salt, one imagines, is what the Pilgrims thought they’d find when they crashed into Plymouth Rock.

The lesson we can draw from the product is that when you have a win–win proposition, you’d be foolish not to go through with it. It’s a lesson that can be applied to Hyde Park. What Hyde Park needs, more than a European supermarket, a specialty store that sells Arugula and sliced cactus, or another place to buy a sandwich, is an all-night diner. As it stands, the only two 24-hour establishments near campus are Walgreens and Dunkin’ Donuts. Dunkin’ Donuts misses the cut because of its lack of either waitresses or pancakes, while Walgreens fails the test because it also sells rock salt and boxes of Tide. A good diner, far from simply being a place to get a burger or an omelet, requires a certain number of unique ingredients.

The first, and perhaps most important, is an eclectic collection of locals. The good old boys, many of whom never actually leave the restaurant except for holidays and shuffleboard tournaments (and thus necessitate 24-hour capability), sit toward the end of the counter, but always close enough to the door so that any patron entering must first make eye contact with all of them. At this point one of them will invariably grunt, shake his head, and continue to discuss the 14-foot bass he caught on his last fishing trip.

The waitresses bring a different quality. Just as that Luther Vandross and Cher draw many students to Bartlett, if you took away the food at a diner, people would still show up simply because it’s so refreshing to be called “hon.” The waitress, named Irene, or Jeanie, or possibly Frannie, must be perky, have just a little bit of dirt under her chipping fingernails, and, of course, carry a half-full pot of coffee at all timed, which will shake as she takes your order for the #2 or the #3 or maybe the house special, which comes with two pancakes and your choice of sausage, bacon, or ham and three types of eggs.

There are other requirements—dollar bills taped to the wall, a gumball machine, placemats with advertisements for local businesses on them—but with the proper personnel, all that will fall into place. I haven’t looked at the numbers here, and similar ideas have tried and failed in the past. But if done right, the Hyde Park diner could become a magnet not just for U of C students, but for the greater South Side and the city as a whole. At an institution where the re-opening of an all-night study space is grounds for celebration, a place nearby to get pancakes and coffee is a no-brainer.

And in the meantime, pass the Bacon Salt.

Tim Murphy, a Maroon Viewpoints Editor, is a third-year in the College majoring in history. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.