Restaurant Reviews

Let's Do Diner

Ever since they first appeared in 1872 as horse-drawn wagons selling nickel sandwiches at night after other restaurants had closed, diners have earned a deserved place in American culinary history. So successful did these wagons become that the horses were retired and the wagons set up as permanent, 24-hour eateries. But it wasn't until the '40s and '50s that the diner as we know it today really became popular. Though they existed across America, they were most often found up and down the East Coast, which is where most of the diner manufacturers were located. The authentic diner was built on an assembly line in a factory and shipped to its site replete with all the furniture and equipment it needed, even down to the pots and pans.

History of this sort is one of the things that makes Simpson's Diner out on Westheimer so fascinating. Unlike other places in town that call themselves diners, Simpson's (or at least the core of the current Simpson's) is the real, factory-approved thing, one that has a history dating back to the Houston of the 1940s. The name derives from Emmett A. Simpson, a onetime steward on the Missouri and Pacific Railroad who opened his first diner in Kilgore in 1930. In 1933, in search of more business, he moved his diner to the corner of Main and Bell streets in downtown Houston. That diner was replaced in 1940 with a larger one, and in 1947 yet a newer model took over the location. It is this last diner, manufactured by Jerry O'Mahoney Inc. in Elizabeth, New Jersey, that finds itself reborn 50 years later in the city that first gave it life.

The story's been told more than a few times, but it's one of those tales that deserve an occasional repeating: Emmett Simpson died in 1973, but his diner continued to be operated by Simpson's partner, Bill Wilson. Until, that is, Christmas Day 1976, when a parking lot company outbid Wilson for the lease on the space that the diner had occupied for decades. So two decades ago, the diner was moved to Madisonville, Texas, where it was tracked down by Coy and Bambi Lynn Ramsey, its present owners. Coy Ramsey is no newcomer to the diner scene. After gaining his restaurant experience at Steak and Ale and Chili's, he opened Pappy's in the early 1980s, then in 1985 started the 59 Diner. Since 1990, he's also owned the Avalon Diner. But in the mid-'90s, he decided he wanted a diner of the most traditional sort.

He and his wife almost purchased an out-of-state diner with the idea of transplanting it to Texas; but then, through a chance meeting with Emmett Simpson's daughter, Bonnie, they discovered that the last of the Simpson's Diners hadn't yet been torn down for scrap. They then tracked down Bill Wilson, and the following day the Ramseys discovered their prize, all boarded up, on Highway 75 in Madisonville, 100 miles north of Houston.

After being moved to far Westheimer in December 1995 and having a "modern dining room" added, Simpson's was officially reopened on Valentine's Day 1996. Almost a year later to the day, the Ramseys have managed to create an authentic diner dining experience complete with stainless steel and chrome, bright neon, pink Formica, maroon and turquoise Naugahyde, jukeboxes -- Seeburg Wall-o-matics, no less -- at each booth playing vintage music, a genuinely friendly staff wearing bobby socks, a host of regular customers, fast, efficient counter service and, best of all, honest food. What more could anyone want in a diner?

Well, to be picky, a seating plan in which the best seats in the house -- in the original section, on the left as you walk in -- aren't all in the smoking section. But that's a small glitch in a generally wonderful resurrection. In any good diner, most of the menu items were developed well before the concepts of fat grams, cholesterol and triglycerides had become entrenched in the national psyche. Consequently, what you have in Simpson's Diner is real food. Here, the cooks make no attempt to cater to the heart healthy crowd. Instead, you have large portions of meat where the vegetables are an afterthought; burgers and fries, the latter with gravy or, better yet, chili and cheese; voluptuous, full-fat milk shakes; rich, thick malts that include the whipped cream; and mammoth desserts. And while a variety of salads are available, they all come with thick homemade dressings; low-fat versions are nowhere to be seen.

Since diners should be open virtually around the clock -- and Simpson's accommodates by being open from 6 a.m. till midnight Sunday through Wednesday, and 6 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. Thursday through Saturday -- it's normal to expect them to serve a decent breakfast all day long. And Simpson's does -- though the best selection comes before 11 a.m. on weekdays and 1 p.m. on weekends. At those times the breakfast offerings are so extensive that they get their own menu. The newspaper-clutching Sunday breakfast crowd enjoys a leisurely repast as the place bristles with activity. In addition to preparing eggs from Bambi Ramsey's father's egg farm any way you like them, Simpson's offers a pair of breakfast dishes worth special mention: the diced ham and eggs, where large chunks of ham are tossed with scrambled eggs, green onions and melted Cheddar cheese, and the migas, lightly scrambled eggs mixed with jalapenos, green chiles, onions, sauteed tomatoes, tortilla chips and Monterey jack cheese. All of the breakfasts are served with real hash browns -- the loose kind of shredded potatoes, not the hand-held, eat-in-your-car kind served at other, faster establishments -- cooked to order. A large, fluffy biscuit complements the meal, except in the case of the migas, where flour tortillas are the order of the day. The jalapenos in those migas are enough to awaken your taste buds on any day of the week, and the tortilla chips add an unexpected crunch.

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Paul Galvani