Thursday, July 08, 2021

Among the Things We're Losing and That I Already Miss


We had a pretty bad experience at Steak'n'Shake last night. I'm not blaming anyone there. They were slammed, and almost certainly short-handed (like just about every food establishment these days), but I think it took about 45 minutes just standing there waiting to pick up food that had been ordered before going in, via smart phone app. And while Tamara was in there waiting, she noticed that they've started in with the electronic ordering "kiosks" even inside.

No, I've got nothing against the kiosks, and I understand that "fast food" isn't nearly as fast these days as it used to be. But that got me thinking about what Steak'n'Shake used to be like, and how it is an example of a dying way of dining out.

As recently as a couple of years ago, Tamara and I would occasionally dine in at Steak'n'Shake. They had service at your table, or at the counter "bar." The food was inexpensive, it was of reasonably good quality and competently prepared, and it came on real plates with real utensils, not in paper wrappers with sporks.

Steak'n'Shake used to be, in all but the "reclaimed train dining car" layout, a diner. I think the slide in that particular quality may have begun when they started offering drive-thru service. Over time they've become mostly just another "fast food" joint, albeit one that continues (so far as I know) to offer traditional dine-in service.

As for actual diners, I haven't seen one in ages. I see places that call themselves diners, but they're not small train-car-or-approximation-thereof joints offering cheap, rib-sticking food. They're moderately upscale "yuppie" establishments that offer some of the traditional foods (e.g. meatloaf, pork chops, open-faced roast beef sandwich), but probably also offer avocado toast with an arugula and goat cheese salad on the side. They don't look like diners, they don't feel like diners, and even if you can order two eggs over easy with bacon and grits, it just isn't going to have the same feel or weigh in on the same price range.

Another restaurant type I'm thinking of in this general class is the truck stop. As recently as maybe 30 years ago, the only "chain brand" associated with any particular truck stop was usually which brand of gasoline they sold. The restaurant was a greasy spoon affair where you could get the aforementioned eggs/bacon/grits with a bottomless cup of coffee and a slice of pie (probably baked there) to top it all off, and not break the bank. Then the brands started taking over, and today most "truck stops" are gas stations / convenience stores with fast food chain restaurant attached.

All is not lost, of course. There are still un-pretentious, not-pricey, laid-back local places. And on the chain side, there's still Waffle House. I hope those places don't die out completely. I've got nothing against fast food, or the slightly more upscale dine-in options. But this is one respect in which I miss "the good old days" that are slipping away.


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