Seating prospects at the lunch spot we had just entered didn't look good. I suggested we leave and eat somewhere else, though admittedly I was more put off by a sign on the window reading Gourmet Sandwiches than at having to wait for a table (I distrust any place that isn't truly gourmet using that term, and this joint was downright dinky). As we headed back out to the strip-mall parking lot off the intersection of Red and Bird roads, a red-and-white placard over the rear door to Allen's drugstore serendipitously caught my eye: 1950's-style Diner. We went in, passed by some aisles of pills, and found ourselves in a retro luncheonette that, to our delight, appeared to be serving honest-to-goodness home-cooked food.
The name of the restaurant, which would have been obvious had we come in from the front, is Picnics at Allen's. The drugstore has housed an eatery of some sort since 1948, the current incarnation beginning thirteen years ago, when it was bought by Marie and Jerry Burg. One change they instituted was to rename the place Picnics. Another was to turn upstairs office space into a 35-seat dining section with a bird's-eye view of the 45-seat room below. The faded décor, with worn black-and white-checkered linoleum floor tiles, tired white walls with red trim, and framed prints of dead 1950s icons (Elvis, James Dean -- need I go on?) does lend itself to the look of an old-time American luncheonette, but the place could use a good polishing just the same. Tabletops, on the other hand, are cheerily clad in clean, folksy plastic coverings that get routinely wiped down by veteran waitresses; like most coffee-shop servers, they perform their tasks with near-transcendental efficiency.
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Drugstore luncheon counters were popular in the 1920s and 1930s, and there's a counter here, too -- one that runs across the room and serves as a spine from which hearty helpings of homespun fare get hustled to the tables. Bowls filled with spicy chili and thick split-pea soup. Platters of battered onion rings, fat half-pound burgers, tuna melts, and BLTs. Blue-plate specials such as crabcakes, meat loaf, and fried chicken -- at lunch with choice of two sides (mashed potatoes, coleslaw, collard greens, and so on), at dinner with soup or salad and two vegetables. The product is consistently fresh and tasty, the prices fantastic. The most expensive item on the menu, a ten-ounce T-bone, costs $6.50 during the day, $7.99 at night. There also are daily Eat All You Can dinners, such as the Wednesday roast turkey with all the fixin's, for $7.50.
Back at the counter, waitresses busily build banana splits the size of Dagwood's dreams, plate blueberry and apple pies à la mode, and jerk soda fountain treats like milkshakes, egg creams, and ice-cream sodas. All desserts are homemade and undeniably delectable but none better than banana pudding in a parfait glass with slices of fresh banana and tall meringue topping.
The restaurant opens at 6:00 a.m., a time when birds sing, the counter slings, and the restaurant rings with a ceramic clanging of breakfast plates: Hot heaping servings of the usual pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries and toast combos, along with Southern grits and biscuits with sausage gravy, and surprisingly health-conscious selections like egg-white omelets and buckwheat cakes. So pick your time for Picnics: Breakfast, lunch, or dinner, it's all real fine.