For one it’s the end of an era. The other is simply at an end.
I WAS A DENNY’S RAT
I had been a patron of the Island Crossing Denny’s all my life. My earliest restaurant memories are of butterhorns at Don & Jackie’s in downtown Arlington (later, Brooster’s, and now, closed) and huge plates of spaghetti and meatballs at Denny’s. My family didn’t go to Denny’s much but it was very popular with my very few friends, all of whom lived well outside the city limits, making Denny’s their nearest restaurant.
I didn’t drive until I was 19 because I had jobs I could walk or bus to so I had to beg for rides to Denny’s to see friends. I paid for a lot of samplers (an appetizer basket overflowing with fried foods) and pumped a lot of gas into friend’s hoopties. I wrote my zines there – half a dozen quarterly issues of ‘Papercuts’ – and distributed them there, as well. I knew every table number in sections 1, 2, and 6 (the smoking sections, when there was smoking) and to this day do not know a single table number in non-smoking because in 34 years I was seated there maybe twice.
This particular Denny’s was notably unlike any other. It was a franchise – they ran the Denny’s logo out front, used the Denny’s menu, wore the Denny’s uniforms – but they were not corporate. The owners (who I came to know on a first name basis, as well as their children and their dogs, and who have been on my Christmas card list for 20 years) had final say in all decisions. They paid a tithe to Corporate, but did not allow the men back east dictate policy, hiring, firing, or decor. Consequently, if one enters a neighboring Denny’s, say, in Everett or Mt Vernon, they all have the same aggressively cheerful decor: a rainbow-colored, neon-accented, highly reflective 1980s vision of a 1950s diner. (With lots of glass block walls for some reason.) The interior of the Island Crossing Denny’s was sedate by comparison. Through countless remodels it remained at its core a perfectly normal family restaurant: patterned berber carpet, plain pendant lighting, a monochromatic green color scheme, framed photographs of local landmarks.
Before it was a Denny’s the building had housed what was once a date-night kind of restaurant: The O’Brien Turkey House (colloquially known simply as O’Brien’s or The Turkey House). The kind of place where the menu never ever ever varied, where the booths were high-backed, the lighting low, and the aprons long. O’Brien’s moved just 100 feet down the highway to a smaller building. A decade after the owner’s death, in the middle of the recession and after being submerged in floodwater, the restaurant was forced to close. It had opened in 1961. It has since reopened as a Patty’s Eggnest. (The sign says “Patty’s Eggnest & Turkey House” in honor of the previous establishment – and also because 6 years later people are still calling it “The Turkey House”.) Patty’s is a regional chain of family restaurants that specialize in eggs Benedict.
This Denny’s was the hub of my social life for approximately 15 years. Everyone I knew ate there and it was the only 24/7 restaurant for 10 miles to the south (if you are of the camp that acknowledges Don’s in Marysville), 20 miles to the north, and anywhere at all west and east (nothing but farms and water to the west and nothing but farms and mountains to the east). To the north the next option was another Denny’s.
We called ourselves “Denny’s Rats” us teen and tween patrons. My group was the good group – we tipped when we could and if a waitress needed the table we would go if she asked us. We called out tip theives and table hoppers. We defended our waitresses from the other patrons in our age bracket – usually visiting from towns we thrashed at football in high school, who made it clear that they were “slumming it”. Usually we just harassed them with discretely lobbed creamers and sugars and well-aimed farts at them until they left. One one occasion (which I missed) an interloper tried to steal the Toys for Tots bank off the front counter and a high-speed chase ensued.
I made my first (very unfortunate) dating selections at Denny’s, heavily misguided by frenemies. When, in my early 20s, my first major relationship was in its very dramatic death throes I made a pilgrimage to Denny’s every Wednesday night (even if I had to skip lunch at my awful temporary subterranean medical filing job to ensure I had coffee money) to unburden myself to the “friend” who would eventually take over my half of the rent at the apartment from which I had recently absconded. What I thought was friendly girl talk was really spycraft. I have to wonder what, in all my agonized whining about that guy, could possibly have made him seem attractive to her. She can’t say I didn’t warn her.
I met my husband there, too. I have our first conversation (as adults) on cassette tape. I was laboring over a series of articles for my zine about local hauntings. Everyone I knew said the most haunted local place was a house just on the other side of the freeway from our Denny’s. A friend pointed out Matt to me and said “go talk to him – he used to live there.” So I marched over, bold as brass, and interviewed a perplexed, blue-haired stranger who was just trying to eat his dinner after a long day of work, about a haunted house he had lived in.
We became friends in the way that most strangers become friends at Denny’s. We want in on a full night and we’re willing to take the one empty seat at a table of semi-strangers we were introduced to once upon a time. Repeat until names are learned and bonds are formed. Months later, now actual friends who called one another on the phone, we discovered that we had, in fact, known each other almost all our lives. Our mothers came from the same very small town and one of my earliest memories was Matt daring me to climb the exposed-rock chimney in his mother’s house and then leaving me to (literally) hang when I got caught and bawled out by our mothers.
Among our wedding guests were half a dozen people we had met at Denny’s – at least one of whom was a current employee. My first time watching a Harry Potter movie was in the apartment of one of our favorite servers. The late, great Bucky cat – the one-toothed, cross-eyed, deeply codependent and unfailingly loving red-point Siamese – was given to us in the parking lot one night by another favorite server, who fostered cats for PAWS. A former dishwasher still has my entire collection of taped-off-TV episodes of News Radio. I bought a banjo on the installment plan from a cook who bid (bidded?) on foreclosed mini storage spaces. We traveled across the Sound to attend another server’s wedding and Matt drove the catering van. When we raised pigs three years in a row, we always got our piglets from a former cook – the same one who had often sold us meat rabbits (eviscerated, bagged, and frozen) in the parking lot.
After we were married and moved up into the hills we continued to come to Denny’s almost without fail, every Friday. If someone lost one of our numbers they knew they could find us there. If the snow was too deep for us to come down we would get phone calls from other patrons asking if we were OK. We were the last of the Denny’s Rats Pack still in regular attendance so we formed a new network of diner friends, these ones all retired and/or elderly.
Lately, with Matt working seven days a week at two jobs, the idea of showering, changing, getting back in the truck and driving 45 minutes for dinner after an hour long drive from a jobsite at which he had toiled eight hours was just not so appealing. Especially with Playa Bonita just five miles away. Consequently, our most recent visit, Friday before last, was our first in some months.
We got our usual table and our usual server and our usual order, but we were informed that the glory days were over. The owners, now well into retirement age, had ceded the fight against Corporate. I don’t know if the (now) previous owners were still living upstairs or not. We didn’t see them that night. I doubt the new manger will want to live on the premises. But he was already on duty and making life hell. Employees may no longer use the rear exit. Hostesses and bussers have been eliminated, meaning that waitresses will have to do all that work themselves. I heard some shady stuff about tip sharing I’m not going to repeat for fear of a libel suit.
Restaurant work is brutal but most employees at this Denny’s stayed for years and years. The owners children and the children of their managers all worked there, making the rules more humane than at some restaurants. Corporate rules will likely eliminate such hiring practices in the future. And I don’t anticipate the loyalty of the employees or the regulars surviving the regime change.
Knowing that our last visit was, in all senses of the word, our last, was very sad. Only one other regular was present, Bob “The Butcher.” (One of five regular Bobs at Denny’s, if you count the owner.) He’s got our number. He wants us to meet him at Patty’s Eggnest some time.
I SHALL IMMORTALIZE IKE’S
To be honest, I was very wary of my new home town for a long time. I had agreed, quite rashly, to move to an underdeveloped town in the mountains which was the laughingstock of the laughingstock towns we had been born in. Granite Falls was known only for two things: gravel and meth. You have to drive past several gravel pits to get to our house from town but I am pleased to report that the preponderance of the meth is out the other side of town from us. There’s a foothill and a twenty minute drive between us and the methy neighborhoods.
But it’s still not a cool place or even a very pretty place. The fronts of our downtown buildings look like the backs of the downtown buildings in my birth town of Arlington. The prettiest building in town, bar none, is the pocket-sized library, which sits off the beaten path on the edge of a neighborhood that would be called a suburb if it were just a few hundred feet to the north, over the city limit line. It looks like a rich person’s cabin.
When we moved to town there were (and still are) few options for dinner. For a sit-down meal your options were Playa Bonita, Los Flamingos (now closed), The Spar Tree (the seedy bar), the Timberline (the not-seedy bar), and Omega Pizza and Pasta. Of these, only Omega, Playa Bonita, and the Spar Tree remain. We’ve also got two teriyaki shops (one part of an Americanized chain, the other delicious and – miraculously – open on Sundays), an increasingly gourmet deli at the IGA, and a McChevron (a McDonald’s and a Chevron in one building). Now that Ike’s is closed my favorite place for breakfast is the Shell station deli. (I’m not shitting you – there’s a good reason their parking lot is overflowing at 5:00 am. Dump truckers know where it’s at.)
The first place I ate in our new hometown was Ike’s Drive-In. It was a relief to my frazzled nerves. I had just bought my first house, a hideous place I was embarrassed about, but which we hoped would be temporary (We’re still in it. thanks, recession!), I wasn’t yet married to my co-signer, I didn’t know my way around the area, and the town appeared to be tiny, backward, and redneck-y, even to my eyes. But in this unassuming, squat brick building with patchwork flooring, sticky walls, bare bulbs, and mismatched cutlery, I felt right at home. Diners that care nothing for their interior and little for cleanliness do not put most people at ease, I know, but in my experience, they always have the best food. Eating at a place like The Flapjack in Marysville or Beth’s in Seattle requires a sort of mental disconnect between eyes and mouth, but it is worth it. The Flapjack is the only place I will eat biscuits and gravy. Beth’s food is greasy glory. And Ike’s was hometown goodness. Their burgers were excellent (grilled buns and an entire cross-section of a white onion with seasoned fries) but breakfast was truly where they excelled. Everything came with hashbrowns and they actually carried marmalade on the regular. The O’Brien potatoes were homemade, with the skin on. They always had a few links of German sausage for me. Everything was cooked in butter.
When the distribution of employment in our household was more level (which is to say, when we each had one job apiece) we ate at Denny’s every Friday night without fail and had breakfast on Saturday mornings at Ike’s without fail. As at Denny’s, we knew our waitresses (one delightful, one nightmarish) and their children’s names, and their pet’s names, and we were friendly with the owner, too. When we came to town the owner was a man who called himself Mike. His daughter was the afternoon waitress. He was the cook. A few years ago he sold the place to a couple who changed nothing but the seating (swapping the broke-down booth benches for chairs) and therefore retained my full patronage.
Curiously, some people did leave when Mike sold. Some patrons complained that the place was now owned by “them Asians.” This perplexes me to this day because Mike was just as Korean as the new owners. But this was just one or two people who evidently needed their eyes checked. The rest of us regulars continued on, deeply happy that our ritual and its sacred space remained intact.
And then we got a Buzz Inn.
I feebly suggested once or twice that perhaps this would be like when we got the Rite-Aid. Very few people switched their prescriptions. People who are new to town tend to take their scrips to Rite Aid and I certainly give them a lot of money for cheap cosmetics, but those of us who had been served by the Pharm-a-save are extremely loyal. In the first week that we lived in Granite we both got sick enough to need medical attention. And when we got to the Pharm-a-save to get our medicines we came up $10 short. The employees pooled their cash and covered the gap for us. I left in tears. At my next paycheck I ran to repay them. They refused and I insisted, and I would never dream of taking my prescriptions anywhere else.
But I didn’t have much conviction this time. Most people, I knew, preferred clean, shiny, noisy, new things. Most Americans like brand name stuff. Buzz Inn has TVs and a liquor license.
The weekend that the Buzz Inn opened we ate breakfast at Ike’s for the first time in ages. We usually had to fight for a seat. Today we were the second table of the day.
The following weekend we arrived again to vote with our dollars, one hour after opening time, and the building was dark and the owners’ little car was not out back. They were open later, for lunch, but we weren’t able to make it in.
The third weekend they opened late again and we missed them again.
There was no fourth weekend.
Some friends of ours tried the new Buzz Inn against our very vocal protestations. I insisted that all it would take was a few regulars “trying” the new place and the old place would collapse. Restaurant margins are wafer thin. Our friends did it anyway and reported back that it wasn’t really all that great and they would be going back to Ike’s.
“No you won’t” I spat. “No more Ike’s.”
So much for the local movement, eh? What will become of that long line of old men and miscreants that practically lived at the counter? Where will they go for warmth and coffee and socialization? The Buzz Inn is not going to let them occupy bar stools from open til close.
There isn’t enough parking on the main street for Buzz Inn customers, and the other business owners now spend a lot of time and energy shooing people out of spots reserved for their businesses. When the old towing company in town retired it was replaced by a new one within a week. Coincidence? (Yeah, maybe, but let me pretend, OK?) Ike’s parking lot sits empty on the next block.
Before all this happened I started writing a series of books set in a fictionalized version of my beloved home county. Two of the (thus-far three) books take place in “Silver Peak” which is 90% Granite Falls 10% Arlington. In the geographical center of Silver Peak is a squat brick building called Waller’s, run by a Korean-American man and his daughter. The burgers are also wide and flat and the milkshakes are cold and thick. And unlike Ike’s, Waller’s will live forever.