Reviewer Donna Linn has worked as a writer, educator and professional interviewer for over 25 years.Â Â She has extensive writing experience in print, public relations, broadcast and corporate communications, and is the Founder and CEO of http://Showmetalkradio.com.Â As the host of the Uncommon Story, Donna interviews the non famous to celebrity, including authors, experts and business leaders, with significant coverage given to the arts and entertainment.Â She has degrees in Print and Broadcast Journalism and a Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) in Communication Arts.Â Donna has taught writing and communications at the prestigious Washington University in St. Louis, and is the recipient of the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Department of Education at Webster University.
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Author: Robert Rubright
Publisher: RO Press, St. Louis, MO.
In an era of pop food culture where trendy restaurants come and go, it was delightful reading Breakfast, Lunch and Diner by humorist and cultural historian, Robert Rubright. Packed with humor and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, Breakfast, Lunch and Diner is a premier guidebook to 84 distinctive or otherwise undiscovered St. Louis and out-of-state breakfast joints, lunch spots and a handful of diners. Instead of the traditional book on culinary fare, Rubright concentrates instead on lore and stories that encase a restaurant and shape its unique persona.
Rubright is a trained journalist and former public relations executive, who is also a walker and current chairman of the Board of the American Hiking Association in Washington, D.C. and longtime president of the Open Space Council for the St. Louis region. He’s authored four previous books, two of which are on walking, including Walks and Rambles in and Around St. Louis and Weekend Walks in St. Louis and Beyond. His walking books generated a long-running television series on KETC, the St. Louis PBS outlet.
Through the author’s personal observations and interviews with over 300 proprietors, customers, suppliers and waitstaff, the reader gets an in depth look at the “life” occurring inside the restaurant. The book focuses on numerous themes such as what customers say, what they order, relationships between the owner, waitstaff and the customer, restaurant policy (such as customer banning), customer rituals, unique food items, how customers are served, (tray service vs. arm service), and what constitutes a regular customer.
One of the predominant themes in Breakfast, Lunch and Diner is the significant role the regular customer plays, and one that I found most engaging. Since I don’t consider myself a regular at any particular eatery (unless, of course, you want to consider my daily ritual of going to Starbucks for a Caramel Latte) I was fascinated by the daily goings on and the amount of folks who eat at the same place every day, order the same food, share intimate conversations, along with exchanging birthday and holiday presents with other patrons and waitstaff.
A perfect example of southern ambiance catering to the regular customer, is Myrtle’s Place, (Backalley BBQ) known as an institution in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Myrtle’s is one of those homespun breakfast joints where everybody knows your name and breakfast served all day, packs the place. There’s no such thing as a stranger at Myrtle’s and customers are often surrounded by family: the owner’s family. When the current owner purchased the restaurant from Myrtle in 1996 she brought aboard numerous family members, including her daughter, sister, daughter-in-law and mother who’s known as “granny.” One regular who sits at Myrtle’s most every day with his soup and the Wall Street Journal, found out just how accommodating Myrtle’s can be. If the soup appears too hot arriving from the kitchen, the owner herself, or one of her family members will come over and personally fan the soup until it’s cool enough to slurp!
At Hy Ho, a 24-hour eatery in Belleville, Illinois, many of the breakfast regulars are called “family,” but there are a handful that come in three or four times a week who won’t open up or show any friendliness. Rubright informs us that a “regular customer becomes one when they want to become one.” When a customer comes in a lot, opens up and shares stories with the waitstaff and other customers that’s when they’re known as regulars. But even regulars can get banned from their favorite morning place and that’s exactly what happened to one six-foot-eight regular who crossed the line after arguing with the clerk about his bill. He proceeded to the men’s room, removed the lid from the toilet seat and stuck it up inside the acoustic ceiling tiles. For that indiscretion he got six months.
Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, nationally recognized
by Bon Appetit as one of the ten best desert places, sits
directly on the nostalgic Old Route 66 in St. Louis. Since Ted Drewes
doesn’t qualify as either a breakfast joint or a diner, Rubright
was reluctant about its inclusion until he was advised by the owner
that folks often skip lunch just so they can nosh on the
gravity-defying extra thick shake known as a “concrete.” Rubright
describes "the concrete is a shake so thick that you can turn it
upside down without losing one dollop."
After eating this highly-caloric desert, it’s customary to make the one mile trek around Francis Park in nearby St. Louis Hills. I’ve had the pleasure of eating the scrumptious “concrete” myself, and can attest to both the stamina of this super duper desert and the trek around the park.
Another amusing bit of lore comes from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in South St. Louis, a long-time establishment that continues to draw hordes of customers on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Rubright makes note “that there are two ways to serve customers: arm service and tray service.” The latter is not allowed at Uncle Bill’s, so waitresses must learn to balance a fixed number of plates on their left arms, walk from the kitchen unscathed, then reach the target table with no spills. Orders like ham and eggs are usually the bottom plates, while the chocolate Alaskan Waffle or pancakes and whip cream orders are on the upper level of the arm, creating a colorful layered look. This strategy showcases the food to other hungry patrons who might heartily say, I’ll have what she’s having!
Rubright is an entertaining and masterful storyteller, who immediately captures the reader with his down home humor and comfort food for the soul kind of feeling. Each chapter is peppered with just the right amount of anecdotes, and the well researched back story paints a very clear picture of what you can expect should you decide to patronize a particular eatery.
While it’s tempting to read this lighthearted page-turner in one sitting, it’s not something I advise. Like a bottle of fine wine, it should be savored. Breakfast, Lunch and Diner, is a one-of-a kind book you’ll want read time and again, passing it down to the next generation of lore and culinary enthusiasts.