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.

Though not exactly breakfast fare (though then again, why not?), the thin-sliced onion rings are exemplars of their kind. It's hard to find really good onion rings these days; too often, they're either thicker than they should be, or their batter is all but falling off, so that by the time you've finished there's a heaping pile of breading left on the plate. That, or a huge grease stain. Not with these: These sweet, golden-brown beauties hold onto every piece of the uneven batter, yet don't taste in the least bit greasy. They remain crunchy until the very end.

Simpson's blue-plate specials change daily, but tend to include favorites such as homemade meat loaf. A two-inch thick slice is covered with a sweetish tomato sauce; the encrusted top hints at what's inside -- a solid, hearty, all-meat doorstep with hardly a hint of fat, weighing at least eight ounces or more. Served with your choice of two of the daily vegetables, it makes for a sustaining meal. A large scoop of real mashed potatoes and another of the cornbread dressing put my carbohydrate requirement over the daily edge, but seemed worth every gram. The potatoes, thickly mashed and including pieces of the skin, are topped with a brown gravy that lends itself to the ritual of depressing the center of the mound to make a receptacle for the gravy, which is then pressed into the potatoes themselves with a fork. The ritual is repeated until the gravy can no longer be seen. Then you eat. Then you bliss out. The cornbread dressing, prepared with a hint of sage and onion, is covered with a cream gravy to help moisten the dry mass. Since everything is made daily, the flavors are vibrant and fresh. It's sure nice to know that such pleasures of home can still be found for less than six bucks.

One of the mainstay dishes revived from the original Simpson's menu is the steak sandwich. In case you're thinking about a sandwich for a light lunch, think again. A ten-inch French roll is doused with garlic butter then grilled; then that's covered with tender, thin, grilled slices of New York strip joined with mushrooms and onions in a marriage worth celebrating. The bread's exterior retains its crispness, while its interior, under the influence of the mixed juices, softly gives way. This is a sandwich in name only; eating it with your hands instead of a fork is foolish, if not impossible. Besides, a fork makes it easier to avoid letting anything go to waste.

Desserts and fountain drinks have long been a specialty of diners, something that -- thanks to a refrigerated, rotating display-stand filled with desserts that sits right next to the entrance -- you're reminded of if you have to wait for a table. (Actually, waiting for a table is a rarity; a sign outside notes that "if the lobby is full the wait is usually less than ten minutes," and it's correct.) The apple pie a la mode is a mountainous slice of pie with an abundant filling of sweet apple chunks bound together with a thick cinnamon sauce. It's unfortunate that only a tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream is served with such a behemoth; it could stand at least one or two more such scoops. And when I ordered it, my pie was served cool, straight out of the display-o-matic case, instead of being warmed up. But my server quickly remedied the situation, returning not only with a warmed slice but one accompanied by two buxom scoops of ice cream, something that more than made up for the initial error.

The carrot cake is another winner, a triple-decker beauty prepared with fresh carrots, crushed pineapple and lots of cream cheese, both in-between the layers and on top. It is the most moist carrot cake I've ever eaten, and at $2.29 it's an absolute steal, especially when compared to the offerings of restaurants that believe they should charge at least as much for a dessert as they do for an appetizer. The coconut cream pie, something that helps to define the concept of comfort food, is another bargain at $1.99. A thick pastry shell holds a yellow cream filling with dollops of cream and sprinkles of shredded coconut on top. The fountain drinks include fresh squeezed limeade or lemonade poured over crushed ice into a fountain glass. These are tart enough to make your lips pucker, which, judging by some of the teenagers that frequent Simpson's, may be the reason why these drinks were invented -- to teach you how to pucker at the appropriate moment.

There are worse ways to end a meal than with thoughts of a sweetly tentative kiss. And actually, such a smooch bears something in common with a fine diner. They're both, in this day and age, somewhat old-fashioned. And despite that, they're both something that memories are still made of.

Simpson's Diner, 8808 Westheimer, 952-1350.

Simpson's Diner: diced ham and eggs, $4.49; migas, $5.29; thin-sliced onion rings, $2.79; homemade meat loaf, $5.79; steak sandwich, $7.79; apple pie a la mode, $3.19; carrot cake, $2.29; coconut cream pie, $1.99; limeade/ lemonade, $1.59.

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