There’s a nook in Cleveland that claims a piece of my heart: Big Al’s, the most diner-y diner there ever was. It’s situated on the corner of two busy streets, with a wall of sunrise-facing windows that captures the morning light and warms the building from the inside out, especially during the brittle months of winter. The seating is as limited as the decor, with red booths atop checkerboard tiles and a row of swooping fans overhead that keep the air moving. “The service can be spotty and the seating arrangement is a stab in the dark, but you tend to forget all that once the food gets to the table,” one Google reviewer says. The food is good, for sure, but diner culture has never been about the food to me.
My hometown lacked many amenities, but it boasted a profusion of old-fashioned diners. Sketchy lighting, vinyl seats that stuck to your thighs, endless coffee in white ceramic cups. In my town, there’s a chain called Peach’s, where I’d go to tuck in hash browns and waffles that rose to three inches thick, dripping with candied fruit and nuts. I took my daughter there once and pointed out a plate of waffles skimming across her sightline, to which she responded with a dubious purse of the lips. Once in my senior year of high school, my friends and I skipped morning classes — the first and only time I did — to go to a diner on the beach where everything tasted like it came out of cans and freezer bags. But you forgot about all that when you stepped outside, breathing in the salt of the ocean.
Diners are transportive. Not only are they coated in old-fashioned nostalgia, but they exist in a liminal space where anything goes. Since many are open early — or even all day long — you might see students hunched across their notebooks, or octogenarians debating current events, or shy first dates where $10 gets you a feast of eggy bounty and hours of breathless conversation. Diners are as much ambiance and imagination as they are places to dine.
They became a haven during my most troubled times, like in college when I struggled to pay rent and a $4.50 early bird special became my saving grace. Or, later, during my first “real” job, when I was so miserable that I needed something to get me through the week. This is where Big Al’s came in. My husband — not quite as miserable as me, but not exactly brimming in joie de vivre himself — and I would drive to the diner on Wednesday mornings at 6:30 a.m., minutes after they opened. We’d always split the corned beef hash and a side of a muffin — plus lots and lots of coffee. I don’t remember our server’s name, but it was always the same one, with red hair swept into a bun and worn t-shirts with slightly stretched-out necklines. She rubbed her eyes and took our orders, never hinting that she recognized us, but always appearing with a fresh coffee pot the moment we drained our mugs. I’d go to work smelling of cooking oils and roasted coffee beans, but still soaring on the stolen time with my husband. When we moved from Cleveland to Austin, we never exactly found our diner groove again.
But now, we’ve moved back to the Midwest, and my daughter has established herself as an early bird — or, rather, an unpredictable bird. Some days, she sleeps in like a teenager. Other days, she shames the sun with her sprightly wake-ups. I used to bemoan those mornings, sending her back to her room with an audiobook, but lately, I’ve realized that there is nothing better for a sleepy, way-too-early morning than a diner. Luckily for us, there are several within minutes of our home. So we toss on our clothes and warm up the car. We drive forward on the promise of hot food in a quiet, dimly lit space where there are zero expectations of us.
When we go to the diner, I let my daughter order whatever she wants. It’s not the best parenting move, I’ll admit, but it’s the only one appropriate for the 6 a.m. hour. If the cooks are willing to fire up the fryer, she can order French fries. If all she wants is pounds of jelly slathered on toast? Okay, why not. Apple juice? Keep it coming. Her go-to, though, is usually a giant Buckeye pancake (peanut butter and chocolate chip, named after our state’s mascot). As an oatmeal-orderer, my corned beef days are over, though sometimes my husband will order some for nostalgia’s sake, bemoaning, “It’s not like Big Al’s.”
But still, the draw of the diner is as strong as ever. We are typically the only family there that early in the morning — the only people who aren’t retired, to be honest — but the quiet of a diner in the early hours is part of the appeal. My daughter typically props her sketchbook open in front of her, and my husband and I chatter in low voices about our upcoming day, the weekend plans. We drink cup after cup of coffee. The sleepy-eyed servers bring over extra crayons, sometimes a free muffin or a sample of a special they’re testing out (chorizo is an ever-popular ingredient in these breakfast experiments). We act like there’s absolutely nowhere we need to be. Like the living really can be as slow and melancholy as a Tom Waits song.
Eventually, we glance at the clock and realize that responsibilities await. We pack ourselves up; slide the thin receipt back over the counter at the entrance; leave a generous tip for our table rental. Then we drive back home as the sun starts glaring across the horizon. My daughter asks, hopefully, “Can we go back soon?” That’s the thing about a diner. It’s a place you pop into, like a dream, and like most fleeting pleasures, you can’t just linger forever. But happily, the diner will be waiting for us the next morning when sleep alludes, and the pinking sky lures us forth.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work has been published in Kitchn, Eater, Cubby, The Everymom, cupcakes and cashmere, and other publications. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in 2023 from HarperCollins.