Diner Utopia

A woman shuffles into the Utopia Diner wearing large black sunglasses in spite of the rain dumping out of the gloomy sky. Beads of water wiggle on top of her jumpsuit blaring with alternating squares of pink and white parachute fabric. Ignoring the bored young hostess completely, she makes a beeline for one of the small booths and settles on the vinyl bench with a deep sense of comfort and propriety.

diner scene, new york
The server, who has been staring out the window at people leaping over expanding puddles between the sidewalk and the 72nd Street 1 train station, takes one long step right to her tableside. She looks up and states, “One scrambled egg. Toast. Dry. Very dry!” with her index finger pointed upward to emphasize her reckoning. “And fries—”

“On a separate plate,” concludes the waiter with a good-natured smile.

“Yeah. Exactly. You know what I want.” She drops the menu and smiles deliberately, the shiny, freshly Botoxed skin around her mouth creasing like a new pair of leather gloves. “Como estas?”

“Very good, Señora. Your food coming right up,” he says, ripping the ticket from his pad and moving toward the kitchen.

Taking a sip of coffee from a thick white ceramic mug, I think the Pink Lady probably has one of the best rent-controlled apartments on the Upper West Side. I settle in to watch the noon tableau of aging characters straight out of a Nora Ephron movie.

It could very well be Harry and Sally who order “two burgers. Extremely well done. No pickles. Onion underneath the burger.” Or You’ve Got Mail‘s Joe Fox, before he fell in love, who rushes to his booth while informing the waiter that he is “in a rush. A really big rush, ok?”

I feel such admiration for these waiters who are simply devoted to satisfying each and every quirky desire, who display no peevishness over their customer’s wish to have lunch just the way they want it. There is neither judgment nor coddling. They just make sure the orders are precise and never fail to bus a table, even while jogging to the kitchen to pick up an order of “oatmeal, very hot. I want it still steaming so when it gets to me, I put the sugar in, and it melts.”

Utopia servers aren’t grad students fumbling their way through a shift before going home to cry into a futon in their studio apartment. (I’ve been that server.) They don’t make you pay attention to them like aspiring actor/waiters who tell you their name four times and then give you the evil eye for not ordering the $26 shrimp scampi they tried to upsell.

Utopia servers convey that they are quite happy to be servers. While they all chat with each other in Mexican-accented Spanish, each one flawlessly understands the ornamental lunch orders for dressing on the side, pickles at room temperature, low-fat, whole wheat, no sodium, not to mention local lingo like egg cream, Dr. Brown’s, and Reuben sangwich.

A construction worker comes in with an incredibly fussy list of lunch orders from the rest of the crew written on a piece of cardboard, and the waiter memorizes every line of it. When a young ballerina from nearby Lincoln Center orders nothing more than a plate of steamed broccoli, her server omits the standard “Anything else?”

A diner like Utopia (or a coffee shop, as pre-Starbucks generations call them) is as local as it comes in an ever-changing city like New York. It is neither a relic nor a reinvention. It’s about the eating, not the food, the comfort, not the ambience. A place like this could be in the Deep South or on the coast of New England and, like religion, the underlying good would be the same, its permutations clearly reflective of the local taste.

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