The Inkblot Test

Century Diner: Charmingly retro-chic? Or just an artificial, synthetic imitation of real New York diners?
Troy Fields

There are eight customers in the Triple A Restaurant at 10:30 in the morning; all of them are men, and four sport comb-overs. The wood-grain Formica on the tables and the orange vinyl on the chairs are a little worn. There is a picture of a 1935 high school football team hanging on one wall. My waitress is named Betty; she grew up in the Heights and has been working at Triple A for 18 years.

I am interested in a menu item that occupies almost half the page: "Two Farm Fresh Eggs (Any Style) with…." The "with" options include a pork chop, a breakfast steak, chicken-fried steak with cream gravy and bacon or ham or choice of sausage. The sausage choices constitute another sublist. All of the above include grits or country-style potatoes and toast or biscuits. Betty describes the three kinds of sausage available: The homemade pan-style is a free-form patty that's been spiced up hot; the country sausage is a big link like kielbasa; and the little links are the regular kind. I order two eggs with chicken-fried steak and hash browns and biscuits. And I get a side order of that homemade sausage, just out of curiosity.

"How do you want your eggs?" Betty asks.

"Over easy and greasy," I smile.

"It's going to take a while," she says. "We batter the chicken-fried steak from scratch; it's not the frozen kind."

Neither are the crunchy potatoes; they are big pieces of fresh spuds fried crisp. The eggs are just right. The chicken-fried steak is piping hot with a wrinkly brown crust and a peppery tan cream gravy on the side. The biscuits are average. The biggest problem with Triple A's breakfast is the vehicle on which it is served: The oval platters are too small for the portions. I end up eating from three plates. I split my biscuits on the right-hand plate and pour a little cream gravy on them, while I eat the eggs, potatoes and chicken-fried steak from the middle plate. From the left, I sample the homemade sausage, which is extremely spicy and fried extra-brown.

Betty is gabbing with the other waitresses, and it takes a lot of gesturing to get my coffee refilled. But it's a sunny day outside, and from the window by my booth I can see the farmer's market next door. I also see an old black shoe-shine man working on Triple A's front porch. His customer is sitting against the wall, so I can't see his face, just his brown brogues. The shoe-shine man is spreading the polish with his fingers. I linger over my coffee until 11:20 and leave just as the lunch rush begins.

If the scene above were an inkblot test, how would you characterize it? Inviting? Depressing? Boring? Charming?

Before you answer, consider the following inkblot:

At 11 in the morning, almost all the tables are occupied at Century Diner on the corner of Main Street and Texas Avenue. There are some young, hip guys lingering over books and magazines, and a lot of downtown business folks in nice clothes eating lunch.

The vinyl booths by the window are two-tone, pastel green and off-white. The tables are covered with brand-new Formica in a bright pattern of circles and shapes, a design that was called "modern" 40 years ago. The waiters wear black-and-white bowling shirts with slogans such as "Something Superior for Your Interior" on the back. The menu is sprinkled with little nuggets about old diner lingo, such as the fact that "Adam and Eve on a raft" once meant ham and eggs on toast.

But ham and eggs on toast is not on the menu. Instead, the place offers a contemporary take on diner food, including "The Total New Yorker," a bagel with Nova Scotia salmon and cream cheese, and "The Health Kick," an egg-white omelet. Although two eggs with ham, bacon or sausage aren't offered, the menu does feature "Eggs N' Hash," two eggs with hash browns and New York-style corned-beef hash.

My waiter is a young guy with dyed black hair. He's too busy to chat, so I don't get his name. I order two eggs. They don't have hash browns at lunch, so I settle for french fries. The waiter doesn't know what the breakfast meats are, but he checks. I order the sausage and a side of biscuits and gravy.

"How do you want your eggs?" he asks.

"Over easy and greasy," I smile.

Coffee comes in a little stainless-steel Thermos, which is a nice touch. It reminds me of the little glass "hottle" you used to get at coffee shops in the 1960s. The eggs are just right. The french fries are excellent. The link sausage is just what you'd expect. The biscuits are huge, and the gravy has lots of bacon pieces in it. Unfortunately, it has been spooned over the top of unsplit biscuits. I try to break them up to soak up some of the gravy.  

At a table just across the divide from mine, two men and a woman in conservative business suits are gossiping about somebody's chances in some election. The conversation is spirited, and the woman's eyes sparkle as she laughs at one of the men's observations. I can't hear what he said, but it must have been pretty funny. I pour myself some more coffee and copy down this quote from the big shiny menu: " 'The character of a diner builds up the way grime does.' -- Douglas Yorke."

My own reactions to these diner-shaped inkblots are not hard to predict. Breakfast at Triple A puts me in a warm and wonderful mood. And the retro-chic at Century Diner feels phony. But I'm pretty much alone in this opinion.

One friend calls the breakfast at Triple A "a heart attack on a plate." Another finds the dark wood paneling, worn-out furniture and fat old guys with comb-overs "depressing." And she thinks the Century's decor and waiters' costumes are "precious."

What does the inkblot test tell you?

The same restaurant can feel entirely different to you and me. I can walk into a truck stop alone and feel right at home. But a beautiful young woman walking in by herself might feel differently. My mother is obsessive about cleanliness; she'd rather eat at McDonald's than at a place with character if there's the threat of grime. And then there are deeper prejudices.

When I moved to Austin from Connecticut to start school at UT, I was 17 years old, 2,000 miles away from my parents, and high on my newfound freedom. I drove my motorcycle all over town discovering funky places to eat. I loved little luncheonettes run by crazy old ladies, drugstore soda fountains and old urban institutions like the Southern Dinette on East 11th Street in the heart of the black east side.

Why did I love these places? It wasn't always about the food. I was also seeking a level of comfort. As a newcomer, I was fascinated by the characters in these old places and by the vestiges of a disappearing Texas. As a long-haired geek from the East, I was scared of the rednecks and fraternity boys who prowled the trendy campus hangouts. Maybe I ate in eccentric dives and places on the wrong side of the tracks because I felt like an outcast myself.

Sometimes friends who grew up in Texas, people who are concerned with healthy diets and whose families struggled with poverty in their childhood, don't find these funky joints nearly as endearing as I do. In another's eyes, these places are outdated, high-cholesterol slop houses, full not of colorful characters but of boring old farts. I understand these biases, and I want to be honest about my own.

It's still not always about the food with me. Sometimes I think a review needs to stick closely to the subject at hand. But in other cases, I'm more interested in food as a reflection of culture, and so it is with this case. There are some differences in the food at Triple A and Century Diner. But having breakfast at an old diner one morning and a new retro diner the next brings up intriguing questions.

Like, do you prefer sanitized imitations of old institutions to grimy old institutions themselves? And why does a retro-chic diner in the oldest part of Houston get its history lessons (and breakfast dishes) from New York? Does the architectural preservation downtown make any sense absent some cultural preservation?

Several letters to the editor lately have complained about my ramblings -- that my restaurant reviews are too personal and not focused enough on food like those of my predecessors. To this charge I proudly plead guilty. Alternative weeklies have been at the forefront of developing fresh approaches to food writing in America. Instead of the conventional "soufflé to die for" fluff, these reviews take readers on first-person excursions into the politics, sociology and anthropology of food. And I am delighted to champion this style in Space City.

When I began reviewing at the Austin Chronicle in 1991, fellow critic Ed Ward and I both were influenced by the very personal narratives of food writer John Thorne. It was Thorne who pointed out in print that Paula Wolfert's ridiculously complex recipes took authentic ethnic dishes out of their cultural contexts and turned them into gourmet status symbols. He also published a long series of pieces, all written from the counter of the same New England diner in his newsletter, Simple Cooking.  

Thorne's own inspiration was a restaurant reviewer for the Boston Phoenix named Mark Zanger, who reviewed under the pseudonym Robert Nadeau beginning in the late 1970s. "He was teaching himself eating and drinking and simultaneously wondering out loud what he should be making of it, gnawing away at all pat assumptions. He taught me -- that honesty means nothing if there's no real risk to it, no genuine self-examination," wrote Thorne.

Lofty aspirations for a restaurant reviewer, no doubt, but at least it's a worthy goal. In that spirit, I offer you this nonreview. And I invite you to visit Triple A and Century Diner and do some genuine self-examination of your own. Which one serves a better breakfast? Which one makes you more comfortable?

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