Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dear Readers:

Due to unexpected life-changing events, I will not be posting on Eating Flint for the next month or so. Please check back as you can. When I am able I will resume posting but until then, thank you for your support and understanding.

Bob Barnett

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Flint Coney Islands Dominate

The more things change in our quirky little town, the more they stay predictable. Take the constant ebb and flow of the restaurants for example. The combined number of restaurants that have either gone out of business or opened as a new business is staggering. If I had more time to keep track of all the movement, I’d put a counter on my blog with a running tally. Suffice it to say, the restaurant business can be a quick-moving revolving door of beginnings and endings.

When I did the Mexican Restaurant Tour last year with Stephanie, we could barely keep up with all the new places opening for business. We could have extended our tour by another six months and easily hit another dozen or so restaurants. But we also witnessed a depressing number of closings over the year. I remember looking forward to eating at Los Quatros Amigos on Linden and Corunna because everyone was raving about how good it was. By the time we got there, however, it had gone out of business and I never got a chance to try their food. They weren’t alone; at least six other Mexican restaurants went out of business while we were doing the tour.

And the Asian restaurants in Flint have an even higher turnover rate. The area is saturated with Chinese Buffets, so it’s no surprise to see them come and go. It’s the frequency with which this happens that’s so stunning. The old Big Boy on Dort Highway has changed hands at least six times in the last decade, and most of the places that came and went were Chinese Restaurants. There’s a little building in one of the Strip Malls on Miller Road, I think in the Plaza where Harbor Freight is located, that changed from three different Chinese Buffets to a Middle Eastern Buffet, all in the span of three years.

My point is this: One, it’s tough in any climate for a restaurant to succeed, but in this bad economy, it’s even worse. I expect more restaurants will go out of business in the next year or two, and just as many will open in their place. The second point, though, is that in the face of all this opening and closing, there’s one segment of the restaurant population in Flint that enjoys a more stable existence: The Flint Coney Island Diners.

Although they’re not immune from the market forces that drive others to open and close their businesses, far more Coney Islands set up shop in Flint than go out of business. And they stay in business a lot longer than many of their competitors. The Coney business is far less transient than, say, their Asian restaurant competitors. And I think there are reasons for this trend. In almost every Coney diner I’ve been to, with the exception of Rio’s on Davison Road, which has gone out of business, I’ve felt a strong sense of familiarity, even camaraderie, among the customers, and between the customers and the staff. This sense of the familiar creates a much more inviting atmosphere, and my theory is it helps bring customers back again and again.

Whatever the case, there’s little dispute that the Coney Island diner scene in Flint is thriving! In the last four months, I have scarcely written about the importance of the breakfast part of a Coney Island’s success, but you probably already know that the morning scene is the bread and butter for most diners. They can put out a good tasting plate of food with a much lower overhead cost than lunch or dinner, they can do it with relative quickness, and the best ones can serve eggs, toast, hashbrowns and meat for around three bucks. That’s why I’ve stood in line before at places like Telly’s just to get a seat. One of my favorite Saturday rituals is to linger over a breakfast special and a cup of coffee at one of the local Coney diners with Philip and Friday’s edition of the Flint Journal.

But it’s the lively, alive feel of the Coney diners that make them such a centerpiece of the local restaurant scene. Maybe it’s why places like Applebee’s took up advertising campaigns that attempoted to give them a more “neighborhood” feel. The Coney diners, as Ron Krueger pointed out in one of his recent Coney reviews, are competing directly with the Chain restaurants—and I’d say they’re doing pretty well for themselves.

Such is the case for a place I’d heard a lot of stories about but had never been to: Coty’s West Side Diner & Coney Island on North Ballenger (North of McLaren Hospital). I often thought when people mentioned Coty’s, they were referring to the West Side Diner on the corner of Miller and Ballenger. Not so. West Side diner is fine and all, but I fell instantly and madly in love with Coty’s!

Physically, Coty’s has all the charm of even the best places I’ve been to. It looks intimate from the outside, feels intimate on the inside (even though there is plenty of booth and table seating), and it’s one of the few Coney diners where the interior design and the use of natural light come together to create the kind of familiar feel you get when you sit at your own dining room table. Despite some rumors that I’d heard about how mistreated and overworked the wait staff are at Coty’s, I saw just the opposite. They were happy to see us, bent over backwards to take care of us, and even those not waiting on us came over and chatted it up when they could. If these were mistreated workers, they either enjoyed being mistreated or they put on a good façade. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a wait staff this year and even if the food sucked, which it didn’t, I’d still go back just to be taken care of by them.

Not only did the food not suck, it was quite good. Stephanie and I are starting to grow bored with the homogeneity of the Coney Island menus, so to mix it up a bit we’re trying to order items that aren’t on the menu—most of the time they’re printed on bright orange construction paper and taped to the front door. Like this one at Coty’s. It’s also another way for them to compete with the ever popular two for twenty concept that Applebee’s, Chili’s, Don Pablo’s, Salvatore Scaloppini’s and other national/regional chains have all adopted. There’s a big difference, though, that gives the Coney diners a huge advantage. At Coty’s for example, their two-for special is $11.99, a far cry from $20.00.

The options looked appealing enough for both of us to agree that we’d take a chance. It was pretty cold outside the day we visited, so the Hot Meatloaf Dinner was just what Stephanie was looking for. It was a generous portion of pretty tasty meatloaf (not nearly as good as Telly’s but way better than Tom Z’s), a big mound of mashed potatoes and gravy, a pile of mixed vegetables, and either a cup of soup or a small salad. Stephanie wasted little time deciding on the hot cup of soup. The chicken dumpling was actually packed with flavor, and though the dumplings could have been bigger and more numerous, it scored high marks on the Stephanie Soup Scale.

I couldn’t resist the Broasted Chicken Special, and I was not disappointed. Two pieces of white meat, a breast and a wing, were served with a hot batch of those medium thick-cut fries that were sliced from fresh potatoes on-site, the same mixed vegetables that Stephanie had, which were more of a pretty face on the side than something of culinary value, and a side of hot gravy for the fries, though I couldn’t resist dipping pieces of my chicken in the gravy too. The broasted chicken had a great outer crunch/inner juicy thing going on, which I found quite pleasing. I think my fries and chicken were both cooked in fresh oil because they had that pale complexion to them that I’ve seen at home when I deep fry something in new grease. (That’s why every time I use a pot of grease, I strain it back into the bottle when I’m done. After a few rotations, the food looks much more attractive because once the grease gets “broken in” it browns the food with an appetizing hue).

Before all that, however, and after gobbling up our soups (mine was an ok gumbo that had good heat but not much other flavor), we had an intercourse: Flaming Greek Cheese, ignited tableside, with pita points and a twist of lemon. O. M. G. This stuff rocked the house! The intense fire created a crusty-cheesy bottom layer and a soft, molten-hot top layer that I could not get enough of. With a cup of soup or a salad, you could really make a whole meal out of this Opah-licious appetizer. Of all the Coty cuisine I gorged myself with, it was the tastiest thing I ate and it’s the first thing I’ll order on my next trip.

Satisfied as we were with our Flaming Cheese, we indulged in a second intercourse: The Coty Coney Dog. The second intercourse is rarely as good as the first, but in its defense, the Coty Coney Dog had a high bar set for it by the Flaming Cheese. Like many of its competitors, this Coney was a mixed bag that staggered down the middle of the road. The consistency of the sauce was good, just a little loose and wet, the bun was warm and fresh, and the onion was appropriately strong. The grease level was acceptable but could have been taken up a notch, but what really disappointed me was the wimpy flavor of the sauce. It was too mild, too bland, and because of that it was completely overwhelmed by the onion and the mustard (and almost by the bun and the hotdog, which wasn’t a Koegel Vienna but some sweeter, plumper version with no discernable snap to it). Aside from that, we thought it was pretty good.

All the while we were enjoying our smorgasbord of choices, both on and off the menu, we also enjoyed the festive, familiar feel of Coty’s. It’s a place where, if you go there enough, everyone will know your name. Whether they know you or not, customers or workers, they’ll take the time to stop and have a word with you. It’s that kind of small town charm that endears me to the Coney culture and keeps me coming back week after week. Which Stephanie and I will be doing, by the way, for at least 16 more weeks. We’re almost half way through the tour!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Thanks for the Mammary

I landed my first real job in 1978. I was fourteen and determined that by the time I passed Driver’s Ed. I was going to buy a car. Independence was of the utmost important to this young teenager, and what better way to express that independence than to drive around town in my own set of wheels. And so, after weeks of calling and pestering and pleading, I finally convinced the owner of The Anchor Inn to hire me as a dishwasher/busboy.

I mostly worked weekends because my parents didn’t see the wisdom, as I did, of letting me cut classes to earn two fifty an hour. I saw it as an experiential learning opportunity, one I could apply, say, to my business class or at the very least to my creative writing class. (As I write these words thirty two years later, I wonder who was the wiser after all. I might not have started this blog, for instance, had I not cut all those classes in exchange for the rich experience of washing someone else’s dishes.).

Most kids my age were preoccupied with stereotypical activities like football and basketball and cheerleading. I had no interest in that stuff. My fascination was food and people watching, and being a busboy at the Anchor Inn gave me a front row seat to indulge in my favorite activities.

Many of the customers I met are still vivid in my memory. Like the blue haired woman who was going through Cobalt treatments for cancer and had to eat her scrambled eggs “soft” Or the older sister of one of my friends, who was usually plastered when she came in, ordered the same meal every time—a farmer’s omelet with dry wheat toast, and who “fell asleep” in the booth until the waitress shook her awake and made her go home. My grandmother was a regular and was a sucker for the hot beef sandwich. After I was promoted to cook, I took great pride in making her the best hot beef sandwiches my budding culinary skills would allow.

Washing dishes was even better than bussing tables because my station was directly across from the cook’s station. My hands were in the dish water but my eyes were glued to Chris, the owner’s wife, as she worked on three or four tickets at a time, gracefully cooking and plating one dish after another. She made it look effortless. I was smitten. I wanted her to teach me her art, and so I begged and pleaded until finally, she agreed to be my mentor.

She taught me how to crack an egg with one hand so I could use the other to flip hash browns. She taught me how to pour eggs on the griddle and shape them into a perfect rectangular omelet. I learned how to time the cooking of everything in an order so that, even if there were six people at a table, their food would all be done at the same time and the customers would get their meals fresh and hot. She even taught me how to make the perfect Mickey Mouse pancake—getting the ears just right takes a boat-load of practice and should not be tried at home without the supervision of a trained professional.

Before I knew it, two years had passed. I had become an accomplished short-order cook at the ripe old age of sixteen and, more importantly, I had saved over three thousand dollars, enough to buy my first car, a ’77 Grand Prix. Bumble bee yellow with a black top and a black interior. It was everything I ever dreamed of, and the envy of all my basketball/football/cheerleader friends. Sadly, the joy of owning the coolest car in town was short-lived because nine days after getting it I ran off the road and hit a tree. There were several more “incidents” after that, and by the time I graduated from high school, I was forced to sell my battered baby for a fraction of what I paid for it to help cover my first semester’s tuition at college. I drove cheap “beater” cars for years after that, and none of the nice cars I’ve since driven as a “responsible” adult have ever given me the same pleasure as my prized Grand Prix.

As Stephanie and I pulled into the parking lot of the Colonial Coney Island and Restaurant last week, a quintessential throw-back to the 1970’s, I could almost picture my big yellow car sitting in one of the spaces. The Colonial has been around almost as long as the Coney Island Hot Dog, and by the looks of the place, inside and out, I imagine very little has changed. The tired exterior reminded me a lot of the Anchor Inn, except instead of a big sea anchor perched atop a giant pole alongside the building, Colonial’s giant Waitress statue welcomes her customers and passers by

The dining room of Colonial also sports a tired, retro 70;s look and feel. Oddly, it’s one of the few Coney Islands in Flint that has no booth seating. It’s all tables randomly placed, divided by a half-wall that most likely separated the smoking from the non-smoking section before the all-out ban on smoking in Michigan restaurants.

Our server was as friendly as the staff the week before at Starlite, so we were a little surprised to find out that she had only been a waitress at Colonial for less than a week. We also learned that she had waited tables around town before. It showed not only in the mechanics of her job but also in the easygoing way she engaged us in conversation.

When I told her what I was up to with the Coney Island tour, she made a quick retreat to the kitchen and returned with the news that Dave, the lunchtime cook, would be happy to talk to me and give me a tour of the kitchen. How could I say no to such a generous invitation? Again, I was taken back to the Anchor Inn, which had a similar setup, with the grill placed centrally across from the prep and heating table, the fryer off to the side, and the refrigerator/freezer off in the corner.

Dave showed me how the magic of the Coney Island assembly happens, and he even showed me the simmering pot of Coney Sauce. Theirs starts with the Abbott’s Meat base, which is personalized to the Colonial with their secret blend of spices. The dogs are Koegel viennas and the buns mass-produced from a local bread company. According Dave, Colonial pumps out about 500 Coney Dogs a day.

Back in the dining room, our soups and our server were waiting for us at the table. Stephanie’s cream of tomato soup was easily identifiable as home-made, but the flavor was still closer to Campbell’s condensed. My vegetable beef soup had a good flavorful base to it, but it tasted like a combination of home-made and store-bought. That’s not a criticism as much as a simple observation. The chunks of beef were simmered from fresh meat, but the canned corn, vegetables, and carrots were clearly not fresh. I couldn’t tell if the potatoes were canned or fresh, but all in all the soup was more than acceptable.

I’ve come to appreciate the presentation of the Coney Dog, even though most customers, I imagine, never give it a second thought. You lay a dog in the bun, spoon some sauce on it, layer it with onions and mustard, put it on a plate, and ring the bell for someone to take it to the table. Nothing special about that, right? Well, not so fast. A neatly constructed Coney Dog can add a certain visual appeal that in some restaurants accentuates the good taste of it and in some cases covers up how bad it tastes. Colonial Dave’s version fell somewhere in the middle. The presentation said, “We’re going through the motions and if you’ve seen one Coney Dog, you’ve seen ‘em all.” The taste said, “We know we’re not the best, we don’t really care if we’re the best, but this is what we have to offer.” The sauce was a little unimaginative and heavy handed with the black pepper. The dog was pretty good and the bun passable. Stephanie put it best when she said something on the order of, “It’s no Telly’s, but it’s a far cry from Gillie’s.”

I’ve decided over the last four months that if you’ve looked at one Coney Island Diner menu (with some universal exceptions—I’m not really sure what that means), you’ve seen every other one. Maybe it’s just me, but they’ve become all too predictable: Appetizers, Soups, Salads, Sandwiches, Dinners, Desserts, and Breakfasts. And with eighty to a hundred different choices. Pare it back, people! Keep it simple! In an effort to keep our Coney Island tour from becoming a homogonous, mind-numbing experience, Stephanie and I have taken an unspoken vow, to order off the “Specials” menu or to order something we wouldn’t normally have for lunch.

Stephanie was more adventurous than me and ordered the Sloppy Joe and fries special. The bun was buttered and grilled (well, the bottom bun anyway—not sure why Dave made that choice) which gave it a surprising and contrasting texture to the wet glob of flavored ground beef that overflowed onto the plate. It had a slightly sweet Bar-B-Queee taste to it, and was probably a variation on the Abbott’s meat base. The shoestring French fries were good enough, but I have a problem with French fries cut this small. They don’t hold the heat nearly as long as, say, thick-cut steak fries. By the time you get half way through, they start to taste like a combination of cold grease, mashed potatoes, and bits of intermittent crunch. Not my favorite.

I was less adventurous than Stephanie but still wanted to order something I don’t usually eat for lunch: A grilled chicken sandwich. I also wanted something a little on the healthier side, and in that department I ended up with a mixed blessing. The breast was marinated and then cooked on the hot part of the grill, which gave it an unusually juicy, tender consistency with a beautiful brown-black outside. That was the blessing. The curse is that it was the size of a damn ostrich breast. I swear it was at least an inch and a half thick, and it hung awkwardly off all sides of the bun. I ate as much as I could, but I also had a pile of frozen, mediocre onion rings to choke down, so I didn’t come close to finishing this beast of a breast.

Despite its charming culinary shortcomings, Colonial Coney Island ranks in the upper tier of Flint diners. Maybe it’s been around so long because it has changed so little over the years. The next time you’re taking a trip down memory lane and feeling hungry at the same time, I highly recommend a trip to Colonial. You can satisfy both cravings simultaneously, and depending on what you order, you can even take some home.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Foodie's Fantasy

(for Margo)

Everyone discovers their sexuality and sexual identity at some in their early life. I was no different, but long before I made that realization, I made another, far more important discovery: I knew at a very early age that I wanted to be a chef.

Maybe I was influenced by my sisters’ easy-bake-oven (though envious or jealous would be more accurate-they never left their cakes in long enough to get that spongy, easy-bake texuture, which I credit to using a sixty watt light bulb and not the wimpy 40 watter that Hazbro recommended. Proper temperature is everything).

Maybe I was influenced by my mother’s all-day Sunday cooking marathons. She would start early because a day in the kitchen started with hand-made cinnamon rolls, at least one cream pie, and then some big entrees, like liver stew, boiled dinner, or roasted chicken (which she usually killed herself). In order to get anything done, my mother kicked everyone out of the house for most of the day. My dad usually dragged my brother and me out to the woods on squirrel or rabbit hunting trips, which I absolutely hated. On more than one occasion I found myself sitting on a stump with a twelve gauge shotgun in my hand waiting for the hounds to chase a rabbit my way, dreaming not of the kill, but of how I could turn a snowshoe hare into a beautiful rabbit stew.

My mom would scoff at the notion, maybe my passion for cooking was influenced by my grandfather (her dad), a drunkard, a heavy smoker, a wood cutter, and as I found a recently, a cook on one of the Great Lakes Freighters in the 1930’s.

In short, I don’t know if cooking is in my blood or in my head. Like sexuality, I was either born with it or it was learned behavior. Whatever the case, I’m sure it’s a topic of debate that wont’ make it onto the radar of the extremist teaparty nut jobs in this country who, if they could gain some political/religious advantage from it , would try to shut down the restaurant industry and have every chef sent to prison. They’d probably go after the pastry chefs first and then after Hazbro, rationalizing their crusade by demonizing Hazbro’s Easy-Bake-Oven as the gateway drug for the flaming lifestyle of a pastry chef. (If you’re an extremist teaparty nut job who might be offended by my comments, I’m pretty sure you stopped reading my blog after Philip had his merry little meltdown last year, and you’re not reading this anyway). Disclaimer: not all Teapartyers are extremists or nut jobs. But I digress.

The genesis of my culinary identity aside, it’s always been my fantasy to go to cooking school, open my own restaurant and become a world-class chef. Maybe someday I will fulfill that fantasy, but for now I’m content with the life I’ve carved out because I get to hold down a real job that I love love love, and I get to explore my passion for food by eating and writing about it. So imagine my surprise when out of the blue an accidental food fantasy recently fell in my lap.

The Flint Area Convention and Visitors’ Bureau hosts an annual invitation-only event called the Holiday Cuisine Showcase. A who’s who of local chefs are invited to prepare a taste of their best dishes for guests to enjoy. It’s a chance for them to showcase their talents (our local Flint chefs are a wildly talented bunch), and it’s a chance for everyone else to mingle, quiz the chefs, and of course eat. Chefs prepare dishes in three categories—appetizers, entrees, and desserts—and a panel of judges, after examining and eating, chooses the best of each category. Separate awards are given in each category for presentation and taste. The invited guests get to vote separately for Peoples’ Choice Award.

If you haven’t put it all together yet, I was pleasantly surprised to be picked as one of the judgesfor this year’s event. For me, this was a dream come true. Along with eight other celebrity judges, I helped select the winning dishes and crown a small number chefs as the best of the best in Flint’s culinary scene. Holly Carlton and her team put together a first-class event that I thought well worth sharing with you. What follows is a list of the winners in each category, along with a visual sampling of some of the food. I was assigned, with Bill Blinke from WNEM-TV 5 and Pat O’Boyle from the Trillium Theatres, to judge the appetizers, but we also had a chance to sample the other great food that was presented by the chefs. Bon Apettit!


Winning dish for Presentation: Winter Ravioli Trio (Epoch Catering At Genesys Conference & Banquet Center

Winning Dish for Taste: A tie, Seared Sea Scallops with Spicy Edamame (501 Bar and Grill) + Winter Ravioli Trio (Epoch Catering)


Winning dish for Presentation: Certified Angus Beef topped with Blue Maryland Crab Cake served with Duel Sauces (Captain’s Club of Woodfield)

Winning dish for Taste: Filet Oscar with Hollandaise Sauce (Redwood Lodge)


Winning dish for Presentation: Black Forest Truffle Cheesecake with Wild Cherry Sauce (Paddy McGee’s)

Winning Dish for Taste: Cranberry Bread Pudding with Vanilla Sauce (Cranberry’s Café)

Crab Cakes with Chipotle Remoulade

Seared Sea Scallops with Spice Edamame

Winter Ravioli Trio

Honey Mustard Bacon Wrapped Pinapple

Caribbean Banana Chicken with Calypso Rice

Orange and Dark Chocolate Cake Truffles

Black Forest Truffle Cheesecake with Wild Cherry Sauce

Zingerman's new candy

Happy Chefs

Happy Guests

A Happy Foodie

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Savvy Server

Like most college kids, I worked my way through school so I could help pay for my tuition. Working class parents finally wised up and started sending their kids to college in record numbers during the early years of the Reagan presidency. In retrospect, that was a really smart move. The problem was that college, even in the dark ages of the eighties, was expensive, and families often lacked the financial means to send their kids away to school. And so we worked at jobs we mostly hated with the understanding that our paychecks would cover stuff like food and clothes and books.

I wanted out of the lower middle-, working-class life so much that I took any job that came along. During the school year, I worked in offices around campus and in the cafeteria. The office jobs were so boring I wanted to beat myself to death with a stapler. I think that experience influenced my decision to become an educator so I wouldn’t have to get a real job with real hours like everyone else.

I started working in the cafeteria for a couple of reasons: It was a steady income, and I got to eat all the food I wanted for free. Since my alma mater had only one meal plan—three meals a day, seven days a week—that was mandatory for everyone, I saw free meals as a significant fringe benefit. I could make money while bringing down the cost of my meal plan by almost half. (And I chose English over Business as my major. What a dope.)

My little business plan was sound in theory, but the reality on the ground was quite another story. On good days, I was chosen to serve, which meant doing little more than wearing rubber gloves and handing entrée selections to hungry coeds. But on every other day, I was damned to the conveyor line, a thirty foot moving pig trough of trays with food in various stages of the digestive process. My job was to scrape the food into a disposal, separate the silverware, and send the empty trays down the line. I always made sure to eat before work because I’m not sure I could have done it after.

Summers during my college years, despite my hopes and dreams, were not filled with days at the beach and nights out with my friends. I worked. Day and night. One summer I worked three jobs at the same time. I worked forty hours in one of the local salt factories, part time at the Salty Dog Saloon (which was located right across the street from the salt factory), and part time at the Birdfeeder, a diner owned by my friend Ginny. It stayed open twenty four hours on the weekends to feed the drunks who came out to eat after the bar closed. These were the restaurant’s busiest times of the week.

In addition to bartending and cooking at my part-time jobs, I also waited tables. Of all the jobs I’ve held, present employment excluded, waiting tables was my favorite. For me it was like being a performer—a little stand-up, a lot of schmoozing, even more fawning (mostly over blue-haired Polish grandmothers), and a good dose of the All-American-Boy charm. This last bit usually came between the time I delivered the food and the check. It’s a trick I learned early on that servers use in hopes of boosting their tips. After all, that’s the major income for this line of work. The money I made from tips went a long way to funding my “discretionary spending” during the school year. (By the way, if you want to read a good book on the life of a food server, pick up a copy of Waiter Rant; it’s based on a blogger who anonymously wrote not very flattering things about his customers, co-workers, and bosses).

Whenever I see food servers in the restaurants around Flint, most of whom have been at it for more than a few years, I wonder how they’ve managed to stay in the business for so long. Even at their best, customers are demanding, high-maintenance, and down-right annoying. At their worst, and I’ve seen it first-hand, their bloody loony.

And through it all, the best servers rarely let on that they might be irritated or annoyed by their customers’ rude behaviors, even as they’re running frantically to fetch this or that for as many as six or seven tables of hungry guests. (Another by-the-way moment: if you want to be taken care of by the best wait staff in town, then pay a visit to The Red Rooster on the corner of Averil and Davison. They rock!).

The unreasonable work load is most noticeable for servers in restaurants like Coney Island Diners. And there’s a reason for it. The dining experience, especially for breakfast or lunch, is far more abbreviated than it is for more elaborate, more expensive restaurants. The key, at least for the diner owners, is to turn around as many customers as possible in the shortest period of time. That’s what they count on in order to eke out a razor thin profit margin.

The other deck that’s stacked against the wait staff is the price of the food on the menu. It’s pretty closely linked to the size of the tip one gets after all is said and done. With cheaper menu prices at Coney Island Diners comes much smaller tips, so a server has to wait on far more tables to net a respectable salary.

And yet most of them do it gracefully, with smiles plastered on their faces and with cheerful demeanors, real or fake, as they try their best to please the madding crowds. Such was the case on a recent trip Stephanie and I took to Starlite Diner & Coney Island on the corner of Davison and Center Roads, on Flint’s east side. (Isn’t that interesting. Most diners bill themselves as either Coney Islands or family restaurants, or sometimes both. But Starlite is a diner first, and a Coney Island second, and not a family restaurant at all. Sometimes I think I’ll never figure this out).

If you’ve never been to the Starlite, then you probably don’t know that it has a deep history and a humungous following. It’s been around for at least fifty years ( I don’t know exactly how long it’s been in business, but I ran into Ron Krueger today, Food Editor for The Flint Journal, and he informed me that he has a column coming out next Thursday in The Journal that traces the history and the ownership of Starlite, so make sure you catch it). Starlite’s Facebook page boasts over 4,000 followers, which is about the strongest testimonial a restaurant owner could ask for.

Stephanie and I got there by 11:30 and the place was already filling up. The dining room is shaped in a big L formation, and it’s pretty expansive. The chatter of the dozens of customers was pretty loud, but the place was alive and it felt good to be in a restaurant so full of energy. I recognized the hostess who seated us, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on how I knew her. She was warm and friendly and chatted with us for a few minutes after leading us to our booth. Come to find out, I knew her when she was a server at the Old Olympic (before it burned down). She also worked at Paul’s Coney Island on Center Road, and then at the New Olympic (after it was rebuilt), and now at the Starlite.

Our server was also attentive and friendly, despite all the other people she was taking care of in her section. She rattled off the daily specials, which were also posted on the front door on a big poster. Seems like meatloaf and stuffed cabbage are popular specials with the diner crowd because this the third or fourth place we’ve been to that’s offered them. We started our meal, as we usually do, with soup. I had the beef barley and Stephanie put on her brave, big girl hat and went for the stuffed pepper soup. Mine had a good hearty base with lots of tender meat and a not overwhelming amount of barley, which gave it a nice flavor/texture balance. Stephanie’s soup, though, was the real winner. It was a deconstructed stuffed pepper turned into a thick, rice-based stew. It had a great balance of peppers, tomatoes, spices, and broth. If they don’t serve this on a regular rotation, they certainly should. Our happy server took both cups away completely empty.

The obligatory Coney Dog, which I’m having second thoughts about only because I’ve eaten more Coney Dogs in the last three months than I think I have in my whole life, was a handsome fellow, presented with an overflowing mound of “sauce” and bright white onions that rivaled the bright yellow mustard. Looks aren’t always everything, though, and in this dog’s case the saying holds true. It was tasty enough if you’re just in it for a good Coney Dog, but our more critical palates found it pretty mediocre. The sauce on some of our previous tastings was complex and a bit intense. This dog was rather bland from a lack of seasonings, both in quantity and in numbers. We could taste a faint chili powder, but beyond that there wasn’t much to write home about. The sauce lacked that perfect greasiness that should marry the sauce to the dog to the bun in a ménage e trios of yumminess. But we were hungry and ate the whole thing anyway.

The tempo of our food coming and our empty dishes leaving and our drinks being refilled was smooth, almost choreographed, and our waitress still took the time to make sure our experience was good and lingered at the table to make small talk when she could. Despite the stressful nature of waiting on a half dozen tables at the same time, our waitress gave us great service that added to an already satisfying lunch.

I tried to go for a sandwich that I hadn’t had before, so I skipped the burgers, club sandwiches, and Reubens and went for the Smoked Turkey Po Boy with a side of fries. The sandwich was served on a hoagie bun and was more of a sub than a Po Boy. It was good enough, but in retrospect I should have ordered something else. The fries, though, were the best I’ve had this year. They were made in-house from fresh potatoes and sliced in such a way to maximize their outer crispiness while preserving their moist interior. Thinner and narrow than steak fries, these babies were well seasoned and hot as blazes—right out of the fryer. Whatever you order when you go to Starlite, and you really must come here, make sure fries are part of the mix.

Stephanie went for the chicken gyro which, like my smoked turkey, was good enough, but it didn’t knock her socks off. The onion rings she ordered, however, more than made up for the sandwich, and they were even better than my house-made fries. I learned a little secret about ordering Starlite onion rings from another dining diva, Mrs. Hopkins, who I have lunch with at least twice during each year’s tour. If you just ask for onion rings, you’ll get the stock, frozen variety that they serve. But if you ask for the house-made version, you’ll get some of the best onion rings in town. I’m not ready to crown them the best in Flint, but they were near perfect. Crispy and colorful on the outside. Not overcooked on the inside. Grease pooling a bit on the plate. Napkins at the ready. I couldn’t stop eating them. Stephanie and I have a little system when we order. One of us usually orders fries and the other orders onion rings, and then we share. It was Stephanie’s turn to order the onion rings, so I felt a little guilty that I kept reaching into her plate after these goldenly delicious (that’s not trademarked, is it?) gems.

On our way out, people were still filing in, and the place was very near capacity. If every meal at Starlite is as good as the one we had, then it’s no wonder to me that 4,000 people have taken the time to log onto Facebook and sign themselves up as fans. Which is what I’m going to do right now.

(Do you have a personal history with Starlite Diner, or any of the places I’ve written about this year? Write your stories down and send them to me at I’ll repost them and you can be a guest blogger).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mike's Deli Closes in Downtown Flint

I heard the news this morning that Mike’s Deli on Saginaw Street has closed its doors. Mike’s has been a fixture on Saginaw Street for the last seven years, serving good affordable food to their downtown clientele, including the bourgeoning student population who live on and around Saginaw Street.

I’m mad as hell at the closing of Mike’s because it represents a major setback for those students, and others like them, who need a more affordable alternative to Blackstone’s, 501 Grill and the like. I’m not criticizing these places because we need them too. They’re great supporters of the downtown area, they serve great food and drinks, and they obviously cater to people who want to come to downtown Flint. That’s great, but we cannot forget about those who call downtown their home, those who don’t’ want to spend a lot of money every time they go out to eat. With the closing of Mike’s their options just became a lot more limited.

We need to attract as diverse a population of diners as possible in order to sustain and expand the much needed development that’s given new life to the city’s center, to the local businesses, to the colleges and universities, and to the permanent citizens of Flint. After the decades-long smackdown Flint endured from its abusive relationship with General Motors, this hard-luck town has begun to liberate itself, to reinvent itself, to move on and reclaim its identity. The will of the people of Flint to build a better future here, despite the enormous challenges, is impressive. That’s what makes the closing of Mike’s Deli so heartbreaking.

And thank goodness for places like Churchill’s, The Torch, Hoffman’s Deco Deli, the Lunch Studio, and the local coffee shops. The owner’s of these places should be lauded for the work they’ve done to help draw people to the downtown area who loyal serve the thousand or so people who live in the dorms and loft apartments nearby. They offer variety and affordability to a population that is critical to the continued growth of the local economy.

So why am I so mad? One restaurant has closed, but we still have a number of good options. But that depends, I guess, on who you are. If you make a decent living, then the offerings downtown look a lot more appealing than if you’re a struggling college student or a single parent trying to make ends meet or someone trying to get back into the job market. The latter groups far outnumber the former, and perhaps that’s what’s fueling my frustration.

I truly believe the rejuvenation of downtown Flint is happening in the spirit of total inclusion, but the reality on the ground is that the changes aren’t nearly as beneficial to the people whose sheer numbers could prove to be a big shot in the arm to the heroic efforts of the organizations and individuals who’ve gotten us this far. I’m no economist, but it seems logical to me that we need a more balanced approach to rebuilding the infrastructure of downtown that better reflects who and how many people it intends o serve. I’d hate to see students, for example, not have adequate services—food, entertainment, shops, etc.—to make them want to stay, even after they graduate.

I can’t do much about the closing of Mike’s Deli but I can hope that entrepreneurs considering a move to downtown Flint will also carefully consider the wide range of clientele who could help support their businesses. It’s much more hopeful to see businesses open their doors in downtown flint than it is to see them close.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Toad and the Brothel

(a tale based almost entirely on actual events)

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a man with a warped sense of humor, a laptop computer, and way too much time on his hands.

The hero of our story, Sir Writesalot, had to wake up at 5:00 in the morning to catch a flight for the faraway land of Nawlins, where he was to sample, write about, and report back to Queen Stephanie on the local cuisine. Writesalot was only half awake as he drove to the Bishop’s airport to catch his plane. NPR (Nauseously Pretentious Radio) was in the middle of a story about some tree hugger’s effort to save some kind of spotted toad, a story Sir Writesalot had no interest in until he heard the reporter mention something about a brothel.

At that moment, he turned up the volume and leaned in for a closer listen. The property, complete with a full sized, outdoor, clothing optional swimming pool, was owned by a husband and wife team who gave up their funeral home business to run an environmentally friendly whore house. To help with the preservation of this ugly little species (the toads, not the hookers) the brothel owners chose not to put chlorine chemicals in their clothing-optional pool. That way the toads could hop in, have sex, safely lay their eggs, hop out, towel off, and be on their merry way. The brothel even had its own airstrip to shuttle the toads to and from their native Rainforest stomping grounds in Brazil. The cost for passage was steep, however, and few toads were able to afford such a luxury.

Writesalot was intrigued. So intrigued, in fact, that he passed by his exit to the Bishop’s airport and headed straight for the brothel. This would be a much better story to share with the queen, he thought, than simply reporting on what food he ate and where he ate it. Save that for the amateur bloggers, he thought. I’ll bring The Queen a story that’ll really whet her appetite.

And so Sir Writesalot set off to find his story. The plan was this: He’d find a toad willing to talk to him, get a personal perspective on the whole mating-and-egg-laying-in-a-whorehouse-swimming-pool phenomenon, write a charming personal interest story, and maybe he’d spring for lunch in exchange for the information he needed in order to write his piece. (Oh please, I had to get it in there somehow).

As he approached the brothel, he could see people in the distance, hunched over and moving back and forth across the road in front of the property. Were they protestors? Residents of the nursing home across from the brothel? Sir Writesalot was wrong on both guesses, for in reality it was the tree huggers from the NPR story, bent over shooing toads across the road so they didn’t get squashed to death by passing cars. Writesalot, sickened by the possibility that he might flatten the very sources he sought to interview for his story, pulled to the side of the road and parked his car.

The toads were busily hopping to and from the brothel when he arrived. Writesalot did his best to get at least one of them to stop and talk. But the toads were focused on the mission at hand—getting to the clothing-optional, non-chlorinated pool, doing their business and getting back on the road to Brazil. Not one of them slowed down to talk to him. A twin engine Cesna buzzed over head as Writesalot, ready to give up, sat down on a bus stop bench to rethink his plan.

“Why the long face?” asked a deep-throated voice.

Writesalot turned this way and that way but saw nobody. And then he looked down. There on the bench next to him was the biggest, fattest one-legged toad he had ever seen. A deep-throated, spotted, one-legged toad.

“No one will talk to me. I’m writing a story,” Writesalot answered, a little defeated.

“Join the club. These schmucks are like robots. They don’t talk to nobody,” said the toad gruffly.

“Well, what’s your story?” asked Writesalot.

“Me? I got flattened on my way to the pool. ’67 Corvette got my left leg. Sliced it right off. That was two years ago. Been hangin’ around ever since. Can’t afford a plane ticket home. Can’t hop in a straight line with one leg. Can’t catch my own food, so I gotta beg. What I wouldn’t give for a nice hot lunch.”

Writesalot had a problem. The Toad had a problem. Perhaps, Writesalot thought, we could help each other out. He wanted his story in the worst way, and he knew this one-legged beggar was his only chance. He knew the little wretch was starving and would spill his guts for a good meal.

“Say, how ‘bout we make a deal? You dish me some inside information on this bizarre little ritual and I buy you a nice lunch for your troubles. I’ll get what I want, and you’ll get what you want.”

The toad thought about the offer for only a moment. Lunch would be great, but he wanted more. He wanted get out of this miserable place and get back home to his familiar stump in the Rainforest in Brazil And now he began to see a plan emerge. With a crafty Grinch-like smile, he calmly replied.

“Sure. Where ya gonna take me?”

“There’s a place on the other side of town, on the Miller’s road. Telly’s. Hop in and let’s get outta here.”

And so it was. The toad and the writer drove off to Telly’s for their interview lunch. The place was packed by the time they arrived. According to the townsfolk, every day was the same: it was busy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and it wasn’t uncommon to wait ten minutes for a booth. They had not tables. The locals usually went to other restaurants when they couldn’t get a seat at Telly’s. For the toad and the writer the wait was short and soon enough they were seated at a booth by the window.

Their server was friendly and offered them menus and drinks, and in a long single breath she rattled off all of the specials they were serving that day. The toad cringed and the writer blushed when, without thinking, the server announced that one of the specials was a platter of frog legs. The writer knew he needed this one-legged toad to get his story, and without, missing a beat, he sent the server away for a couple of Cokes and began peppering the toad with questions. “How long did it take from Brazil? How long did you mean to stay? Did you travel alone? How did you choose a mate? Was the pool really clothing optional?” And on and on and on, until finally the serve came back ready to take their order.

The Toad had the hot turkey sandwich, the writer had the meatloaf dinner, and they shared a Flint Coney dog which the toad, apparently, had never tried. In deference to the writer, and because it was hard to eat a Coney with webbed hands, the toad let the writer take the bigger half. The writer was pleased at the kindness of the toad and gladly took the bigger half. Little did he know, the scheming toad had something up his sleeve.

To the toad’s delight his first Coney experience was quite good. The sauce had good flavor, good grease, and good seasonings; the bun was soft and warm and the dog itself was hot, fresh, and snappy when bit into. Sir Writesalot declared it to be the best dog in the land, better than any he’d eaten before (it’s actually the frontrunner for best Coney dog in Flint), and within minutes the Coney was gone.

Not long after, their dinners arrived. The toad, devouring his meal in enormous bites, went on and on about how fresh the turkey was and how light and fluffy the mashed potatoes were. The gravy was perfectly thickened and made from scratch, not the powdered stuff that other places just added hot water to. No, this sandwich was perfect in every way. The toad’s glowing review delighted the writer because he knew a full and happy toad would mean lots of material for a really good story. NPR might even offer him a spot on their staff for uncovering such a heart-warming personal interest story.

For his part, the writer loved his meatloaf dinner. It, too, was fresh and made from scratch. The mix of green pepper, onions, and not too much seasoning made for a moist and juicy loaf. Uncomplicated and straightforward, that’s how he liked his meatloaf and that’s how Telly’s served it. The mashed potatoes were not the instant kind you’d expect but mashed from fresh spuds into a sweet and creamy mixture that delighted the writer as much as his chance encounter with his one-legged friend.

After the meal and after the check arrived, the writer reached for his wallet, for he had agreed to buy the toad’s lunch in exchange for the interview. As he pulled the billfold from his pocket it slipped from his hands and fell to the floor beneath the table.

“Let me get it for you,” offered the toad.

“What a nice gesture,” responded the writer.

Little did the writer know that the toad had been waiting all through lunch to make his move, and now the moment had presented itself. While under the table the toad reached into the wallet and stole the writer’s credit card. He emerged with the wallet and handed it back to the writer.

“Why thank you,” said the writer. “How kind of you to help me out.”

The toad, feigning gratitude, thanked the writer for the meal, and the two went their separate ways. The writer hurried back to his office to write his story. As for the toad, well, the toad hitched a ride to the medical store and purchased a prosthetic leg using the unsuspecting writer’s credit card. From there he hopped on all fours, for the first time in two years, and headed straight for the airstrip at the brothel. With a fake leg he felt whole again. And with a one way ticket to Brazil, compliments of Sir Writesalot’s credit card, the future looked bright for the toad.

As for the writer, he got his story but at a terrible cost. He gave up pursuing human interest stories and went back to writing about food, having learned a painful but valuable lesson: Don’t’ jump to conclusions about someone’s character or it could cost you an arm or a leg.