American Pie

Diners are a hybrid of two distinct American eating concepts, one born in luxury, the other in relative poverty. The former notion was realized in the late 1860s when the Union Pacific Railroad premiered the Delmonico, the first dining car to feature fine linens, Turkish carpets, plush velvet chairs, and a professional chef onboard preparing up to 35 main courses and 25 desserts. At about the same time, on the other side of the tracks so to speak, electric trolleys supplanted the horse-drawn variety, which were converted into stationary lunch wagons. These dank, drafty, and unsanitary eateries, located mostly in the Northeast, attracted such undesirable characters that they were banned from Atlantic City and Buffalo. It was P.J. "Pop" Tierney, a manufacturer from New Rochelle, New York, who in 1868 came up with the idea of smartening the trolley's downtrodden image by bringing to it elements of the railroad car. Tierney's company produced well-lighted, fully equipped, streamlined wagons replete with booths, exhaust fans, and toilet facilities, called them "diners," and gave them names such as "Fenway Flyer" to reinforce their association with the railroads. Although these diners never rivaled the railway cars' refined decor or cuisine, they did, for the most part, serve decent, affordable home-style fare. Tierney, incidentally, died a millionaire in 1917. Cause of death: acute indigestion.

By the 1930s and 1940s, dozens of manufacturers were producing gleaming stainless-steel Art Deco diners; more than 6700 of them fed one million Americans each day. The arrival of fast-food chains in the 1960s and 1970s brought a swift end to the golden age of the diner, but in recent years there has been a nostalgia-fueled renaissance of sorts. This renewed appreciation for what food writer John Mariani calls "the lost era of glamour and populist elegance" propelled Ray Schnitzer and Jerry Iwasiutyn in 1992 to disassemble a 1948 Paramount dining car and move it from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Washington Avenue, smack dab (and fittingly) in the heart of South Beach's Art Deco District. The classic 11th Street Diner boasts a long counter that seats sixteen, red-and-white booths, funky Formica tabletops, and an old Coca-Cola clock that hangs over the swinging doors that lead into the kitchen. It also features a full bar (located in an adjoining room with six dining booths and a jukebox), outdoor seating for a few dozen, and 24-hour food service. The clientele changes according to the hour: Late nights produce the most ebullient crowds, weekend brunches the most reserved. Generally speaking, customers here run the gamut from street to elite.

The large menu winks at modern diets and tastes, offering a veggie burger, Evian water, and an omelet of six egg whites and three fillings called the "body builder's special." It also strays into questionable territory: I got nervous just thinking about what a short-order cook might concoct in the name of "oriental specialties." Most of the food selections, though, are tried and true diner favorites that the kitchen prepares surprisingly well.

For starters, eight Buffalo wings ($4.50) arrived steamy, spicy, and moist, accompanied by the obligatory blue cheese dressing; the same number of "fresh made" onion rings ($4.25) were served hot, crisp, and greaseless. The chicken vegetable soup ($2.95) was good, too -- tasty chicken broth melded with the flavors of onions, celery, carrots, peas, and corn.

Entrees were also cranked out skillfully: Southern fried chicken ($7.95) -- a breast with wing attached, drumstick, and thigh -- was crisp, well-seasoned, and juicy; an open-face turkey sandwich ($6.95), all white meat, was bathed in soothing light-brown gravy; Sunday's blue plate special, pot roast ($8.95), was so soft as to break into meaty flakes at the touch of a fork. Even the hamburger ($4.50), a typical frozen patty, had a gratifying grilled flavor. It was served on a soft bun, cooked medium-rare as ordered. This may not sound overly impressive, but my experience leads me to conclude that three out of four restaurant burgers are cooked to a level of doneness other than that requested. As the cabbie said to the passenger who asked how to get to the Culinary Hall of Fame: basics, basics, basics.

Among the main courses, the lone loser was meat loaf: dark, dense, disturbingly salty, and hardly helped by a potent deep-brown gravy. All dinners came with a choice of two sides, so if you opt for the mashed potatoes, you may want to request the "lighter" gravy (the one that graces the turkey); it's smoother and less cloying. The potatoes do cry out for some sort of saucing: They're the rustic type, with skins mashed in and without much in the way of butter or cream. Other sides include home fries (taste great in the morning, old at dinnertime), French fries, a vegetable of the day, and cole slaw (the sweet and vinegary variety that is best enjoyed when eaten from one of those thimble-size paper cups).

Cakes and pies are not made on the premises, but they're nonetheless satisfying, particularly the rich chocolate cake ($3.95). The brownie hot fudge sundae ($3.95) is also a treat, though a gooey one. Prices at the 11th Street Diner are very reasonable, if inconsistent. Meat loaf dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, bread and butter: $7.25. Iced cappuccino and carrot cake: $7.20.

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