It was a slow morning in Manayunk. I woke up on the pull-out bed of my friends apartment to the sound of fresh rain and a busy street through the open window. The kind of sounds that put my brain at ease, and help me through this quasi-hangover which, truth be told, I thought was gonna be worse.
Laying there in the soft light of a cloudy day, I knew what had to happen next: cheap black coffee, bog-standard home fries, and Cream Chipped Beef on Toast.
I needed a diner, stat.
Pull out ye’olde Apple Maps and search. I know I’m close enough to the city I could do some classics like the Penrose or Broad Street. But how about something a little closer?
Bob’s Diner, 3 minute drive. Sold.
Pulling up to the place is satisfying on its own. The front dining area looking like a classic “train car turned eatery” with rounded corners and inexplicable chrome. Clearly modified over the years, it boasts a further building off the back for its main kitchen, but still holds on to that classic diner feel.
“Anywhere you like” a kindly masked woman behind plexiglass says. Positioned right inside the door in her little cash wrap that looks like a cozy section of the universe to spend a few hours each day.
I smell the coffee, I hear the familiar sounds. Plates clinking, shuffling feet, the door to the kitchen swinging open and closed, the sizzling of a flat top grill, and the soft lullaby of conversation.
I take a seat at the counter. A young lady sheepishly hands me a menu and asks if I would like to start with a drink. An older waitress leans in mid-convo with someone else and asks me the same. The trainer and the trainee.
“Black coffee please.” The older waitress nods at her student, who fetches the order.
It came to me in as satisfying a way as I could have asked. An old school, teacup style cup instead of a mug, a matching white saucer, and a teaspoon. I immediately recognize it by its smell: standard food service industry bulk diner coffee.
Some people like, as Tarantino would call it, “that gourmet shit”. None for me thanks. I want that cheap black stuff that’s as low quality as the sock it was probably filtered through.
A moment of honesty about diners: yes I’m going to review the food for you here. However, if you are going to a diner just for the food, you are either massively hungover, or under-cultured. Going to a diner is a 50/50 split of food and experience. If you don’t soak in your surroundings, you don’t really get the full enjoyment.
The cook just on the other side of the counter from me is just as classic as the coffee. Older Italian gent, short sleeved diner branded shirt, dirty white apron, and the gift of gab with the regulars. But that’s not even the best human observation in this little corner of the universe. I don’t know what to call this next person. Bus boy? No. Dishwasher? Maybe. All I know is he came out of the back every 10min or so to check the dish pans, and stock plates and mugs. I also know he was the best dressed person in the whole joint.
His pants were dark blue, only slightly darker than the button down shirt tucked into them. The shirt had a strange pattern of blues, greens and yellows, not exactly matching but still looking snappy. His glasses stood out on his aged dark skin, and the white of his apron (which matched his 1960’s style white kitchen worker hat) pulled everything together. He might spend his days on his feet scrubbing pots and pans but dammit….watching him do it must be like listening to live jazz.
He flowed into the room, dancing behind the counter by comparison to everyone else’s stomping about. He was always up in the business of the counter but he was never in the way, gliding effortlessly from one side to the other, from one conversation to the next, and with a grin on his face the whole time. He slid back through the doors into the main kitchen and suddenly there was food in front of me.
Cream Chipped Beef on white toast, home fries, and scrapple.
I’ll be honest about this quasi-review: there is nothing about this food that is stunningly good, or tv show worthy etc. But that’s the point. Diner food isn’t here to wow you, and the only award it’s gunning for is full bellies connected to happy faces handing over money. It’s made with deep roots in recipes that have been made in diners for decades, easy to make, low cost, filling, and at least decently satisfactory in taste. It’s “working people” food meant to help keep the masses going.
But that’s what’s to love. Because no matter how much each diner is the same, they are indeed different.
Not all diners use the same bulk coffee. Some places put a little more seasoning on the home fries, let alone the different “cuts” of potato used from one place to another. Do they overcook the bacon? Do the split the sausages and grill them or put them in a salamander? What brand of scrapple do they use? All these little details that develop across your taste buds as you go through life.
I’m happy to report that there is nothing bad to say about Bob’s Diner and it’s a dependable place. The food was standardly delicious, with the exception of the scrapple which was a more flavorful version than I think I’ve had before, which was very satisfying and perfectly cooked. Another exception was the toast under the cream chipped beef. Most of the time the toast ends up rubbery under all that, but this toast in particular still had a very satisfying crunch to it.
If you need the gold standard of Diner food and atmosphere in Manayunk, I highly recommend this place. Just remember seating is limited, social distance when you can, and like any good old school place: cash only.