March 2, 2012

A diner inconvenience

Clarke’s fails to serve up the classic diner experience.

The new Clarke’s sucks. Not because it serves bad food or because the service has been a bit slow, but because it hasn’t offered what it promised us: a diner. Diners aren’t about food or atmosphere. In fact, with their grease-soaked menus and frozen-in-time décor, diners inherently oppose the idea of giving you a unique culinary experience. No, diners bring something entirely different to the less-than-clean chrome counter: a place for public privacy.

Public privacy, to me, is exactly what it sounds like. It’s all the intimacy and comfort of privacy nestled within the neutral distance of public space. Places that strike a balance between these poles are understandably hard to come by, but for me, real diners almost always do the trick.

There’s a delicate balance between crowded and quiet required to hold private conversations in public. The place needs to be sufficiently populated for your conversation to diffuse and mingle with the other chatter, but at the same time it can’t be too full. Too crowded a place is off-putting; it forces you to speak up and listen hard, killing any intimacy. When the place is packed, it ceases to be, well, private.

But you can’t expect a place to have just the right number of customers at any given time. That’s where the booth comes in. In proper diners, you always find those big, enclosed booths. They give you your own space. Even if they’re low booths, they’re generally either wound around dividing walls or relegated to the corners of the restaurant, preserving the effect.

The other staple of diner seating, the counter, manages privacy fairly well, too. You might be out in the open sitting at the counter, but you’re staring at the grill, and in a small way you’ve still got your space.

This is exactly where Clarke’s fails—it’s set up all wrong. The high ceilings and low-backed, tightly packed rows of booths simultaneously give the place a painful openness and subtle, optic claustrophobia. Look around and you’re instantly met with dozens of other gazes. Quiet down for a moment and the conversation at the next table starts to spill over. Granted, as time goes on and the novelty of the 24-hour “diner” fades, the thick crowds will likely fade as well, but the open air and cluttered seating will remain. It will stay altogether too “public.”

Not that a public feel is in itself a bad thing. After all, it’s half of “public privacy.” Whether it’s rooted in boredom or is really some illusory social pressure I just don’t understand, there’s a deep-seated need to “go out.” On any given weekend I can sit and talk to my roommate for hours, and no matter how good the conversation gets, there’s still a lingering feeling that I’m “wasting” an opportunity. Transplant this conversation to just about anywhere else, however, and suddenly we’ve made a night out of it. We have gone “out” and made something of our evening. When Monday rolls around and people ask, “What did you do this weekend?” I’ll still say, “Oh, just hung out with my roommate.” But inside, I know it was something more. I know I can proudly declare, “I went out! I go out! I participate in society!”

Sure, that’s melodramatic, but it’s a real feeling. Privacy is great, but a lot of the time we need to be in public. Diners have both of these covered. You get the feeling of social openness while still enjoying the comfort and intimacy of privacy. To put it in diner terms, you can have your shitty, watery milkshake and drink it too.

So, Clarke’s, you’re alright, but you’ve let me down. You promised me the diner I’ve always wanted, where I could wander in at 3 a.m., get a plate of disgusting, greasy fries and some weak coffee, and argue all night about whether bagels are to be eaten like sandwiches (they aren’t). I wanted Arnold’s! I wanted Monk’s Café! I wanted the place in Reservoir Dogs! Instead, you’ve given me another mildly overpriced eatery where I have to look at everybody.

Seriously though, $10 for a tuna melt? That’s not a diner.

Joe Cronin is a second-year in the College majoring in anthropology.