TCS Daily

All Night

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - September 15, 2004 12:00 AM

I have always liked middle-of-the-night eateries -- little islands of light and warmth and coffee where insomniacs and travelers and those who work the "graveyard shift" can find a temporary home.
One of the ornaments of civilization is an all-night diner.

The one and only reservation I have had about moving from a major urban area (Washington, D.C.) back home to the little town of Ligonier, Pa., is that there is no longer an all-night eatery here.

There used to be a great one down at the west end of town called the Blue Ridge Restaurant. It never closed. Cigarette smoke hung thick in the air, but back then nobody noticed. There was coffee in thick white cups with a green pinstripe around the rims. There were hamburgers, grilled pork chops and omelets and what was then considered (at least locally) one of the basic food groups -- French fries with gravy.

If you were coming home in the middle of the night, or heading out really early on a trip, or to work, you knew Blue Ridge was always there. At 3 a.m. on a long winter night you could sit in a warm booth and sip a hot coffee while the snow swirled down through the white light bathing the gas pumps outside. Sooner or later someone would put a few nickels (no kidding; nickels!) into the juke box to provide a little background to the chatter of the waitresses and the scattered patrons.

When we lived in Bethesda, Md., there was always the Tastee-Diner, classic all-nighter. Unfortunately it would be rediscovered every year or so by some newspaper feature writer. The subsequent stories would bring out the yuppies like flies, with an inevitable erosive effect on the place's original ambience. But even though it had gotten a little toney and faintly upscale in the daytime, the Tastee managed to regain its mug-o'-joe earthiness after 12 p.m.

It was great to sit at the counter there in the dead of night and wait for the newspaper trucks to stop out front and stock the racks. Then you could pop out front, get that fresh paper and rifle through the headlines while nursing your pie and coffee.

Now, at three in the morning, my only choice is to drive about 10 miles down the Lincoln Highway to Latrobe, where there's an Eat'n Park that stays open 24 hours. Food's good, but somehow it lacks the proper gritty atmosphere.

I got to thinking about this when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal recently about the growing trend of fast-food outlets, like McDonald's, staying open past midnight and even around the clock. Close to 1500 of the nation's 13,000 McDonald's are now open 24 hours. Over 90 percent of Wendy's almost 6000 restaurants are now open until midnight or later, the Journal reports.

This article, headlined, "Midnight Snack: Fast-Food Spots Serve All Night," treated the whole thing as rather a revelation. Taco Bell supposedly started this trend four years ago by emphasizing extra late hours for its stores. And now, even Starbucks has opened 41 all-night units. (At least one of them is on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, for which I am truly grateful.)

There was a time when even the smallest towns had some all night restaurant. It was the place where guys went after the bars closed. Night watchmen snuck in for a quick cup before returning to their duties. The local undertaker, who had been called out in the middle of the night, dropped by after completing his task. Nightshift policemen stopped, too, and newspaper pressmen on the way home after the night's printing run was through.

These eateries had a melancholy cheerfulness about them and a peculiar solitary atmosphere stemming from the simple fact that everything around them was closed, dark, asleep, lifeless.

That "lonely feel" is missing from most all-night places now, because they are usually located near the off-on ramps of the Interstate highways; as such they are usually one among several well-lit 24-hour spots -- three or four gas stations and convenience stores and a brace of motels.

It's simple economics. Interstate intersections are where the most predictable all-night traffic is. These places are apt to have a steadier customer flow through the night, and the crowd is apt to be different from that found in a town or city diner -- more anonymous, folks just passing through on the way from somewhere to somewhere else.

Okay. An all-night McDonald's may prove a convenience to me when I'm driving in the wee hours and have a hankering for coffee and one of those crisp, tasty hot apple pies. But it's not a place where I'm apt to hang out and absorb the middle-of-the-night ambience. There's too much latent Happy Meal in the atmosphere. And Starbucks? I love the coffee, but...

The place I've found that comes closest to the proper atmosphere along the Interstate is Waffle House. When you're tired and you really need to get another hundred miles or so under your belt, that yellow Waffle House sign glowing in the distance is a welcome sight. They are clean but not too clean. They are delightfully unpretentious and the chow is all-American basic. It has the right specific gravity. And Waffle Houses seem to attract a regular coterie of late- night locals or over-the-road regulars.

But (sigh) there's just something about an old-fashioned diner. The classic layout -- everything oriented lengthwise and parallel to the street out front -- allows you to scan the place as you pull up, lets you get a "read" on it. And inside, waiters, cooks and patrons can keep an easy eye on the passing panoply of the street or highway.

The off-beat, gritty romance of such places is well established in song and story. It's the stuff of old movies and paperback murder mysteries. The atmosphere of the daytime diner changes late at night, and changes even more in the middle of the night. Time slows in the hum of the fluorescent lights, the f-f-ft, f-f-ft of the ceiling fans, the clink of crockery in the kitchen and the vague voices down at the end of the counter.

The weary bass player in his tux stirs a cup and reads the sports page after a late gig. A couple of EMTs gulp eggs and home fries with their ears cocked to the radiophones on the counter beside them. The cook puts a slice of cheese on a sizzling burger and ritually scrapes the grill. The minute hand on the wall clock gives that funny little nervous jitter just before it moves to the next dot.

Outside, in the darkness, the world is in neutral, but in this little space, smelling of bacon and coffee, the cosmic motor runs at a slow idle waiting for the morning rev-up. It is perhaps in the natural order of things for human beings to sleep at night. But if they won't, or can't, or mustn't, then they need diners. They must have diners.


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