Monday, September 27, 2010

Out Of The Ashes

“OH MY GOD, THE OLYMPIC IS ON FIRE! What? Of course I’m sure. I’m sitting in the parking lot across the street watching it burn. Well, my truck windows are pretty hot, so I’m sure it’s not just a rumor. No, the glitzy sign hasn’t burned. Not yet, anyway. How would I know if it’s an insurance job? The paintings probably weren’t originals and the wall colors were ugly anyway. Yes, I know they had a two dollar breakfast special, but there are other places. The weather’s getting colder here too. No, I didn’t know they found a dead person down the road from your house.”

That phone conversation with my mother took place several years ago, but it’s still clear in my mind. Not because I found it more than a little bizarre that I was consoling my mother, who was in Florida for the winter, over the destruction of our favorite Coney Island diner in Flint—we ate breakfast there every time my parents came to visit. The memory is so vivid because I had grown to love that old run-down, dingy place on Court Street and considered it my own go-to space.

I had a soft spot for the beaten down wait staff who were more focused on simply surviving than they were on getting your order right—or getting your order at all, in some cases. I loved the cracked red vinyl booths that shifted every which way when you sat down. I tolerated the skanky tasting coffee, even though I was too stubborn to get off my purist high horse and put a little cream or sugar in it.

And who didn’t love the food? It was quintessential Coney food. Everything frozen and pre-made. Everything deep fried or grilled in something called lo-melt, a combination of cheap margarine and even cheaper vegetable oil. It saturated the already unhealthy food in alarming amounts, but a) it made the hash browns crispier and the eggs a little shinier and b) it gave the food that signature comfort food taste.

All of that changed, however, when the Olympic Coney Island Diner made way for the construction and opening a couple of years later of The Olympic Grill. Yup. The Olympic Grill. The owner made a strategic decision to abandon the historic Coney Island Diner identity. Instead, he designed an upscale Coney Island restaurant. Calling it a grill instead of a diner is only one change that characterized the new digs.

The new place was designed with large windows all around to create a brighter, dare I say cheerier, atmosphere. Gone were the tired old booths and tables. In their place, a dining room with all booth seating. Shiny booths. No tables. Just booths. And the old linoleum floor—it reminded me of walking on my grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen floor—was upgraded to tasteful tile flooring.

This was all well and good, but every time I went into the new Olympic, I felt like I was stepping into a place that was caught between two kinds of restaurant, but not really succeeding at either. Instead of moving completely away from the Flint Coney Island concept, The Olympic Grill tried to elevate itself to a high-end version of what it once was, almost to a family restaurant. But it never fully embraced the family restaurant idea and, for me, this created a conflicting identity for the restaurant. The food was good. The atmosphere was nice. The wait staff were pleasant. But the place lacked a personality.

On my recent visit for lunch with Stephanie, we both noticed something different. A yellow banner had been tied to the posts just below the main sign that read something like ‘New daily breakfast and lunch specials.” The Olympic Grill sign had changed as well. In smaller letters, just underneath, was a new line that read “Family Restaurant.”

Hmmm.

We arrived shortly after 11:00 am and the place was about a third full already. By the time we left, a steady stream of customers flowed in and out. This increase in traffic was also a new sight. The menu was new too. It had far more choices than the previous version (way too many, in my opinion), and it came with a laminated list of daily specials, about a dozen, claiming all of them to be “home made.”

Ok. At this point, Stephanie and I were both sure that the place must have changed ownership.

Not long after we sat down, the manager, who was constantly patrolling the dining room, stopped by our table. He introduced himself as Noah, the new owner of The Olympic Grill Family Restaurant.

AHA!!! We were right!

According to Noah, who’s been in the business in excess of twenty years and who owns another family diner in Royal Oak, “the Coney Island is just not my style.” The changes he’s made to Olympic in the six months that he’s owned it are intended to move it’s identity away from the typical Coney Island and to make it a more traditional family diner.

So what’s the difference?

I’m especially interested in this question because there seems to be no consistency whatsoever in making the distinction. In fact, a lot of the Coney Islands in the area that I would consider quintessential Coney joints include a tag line on their signs that says “Family Restaurant”. Some don’t but seem to me closer to family diners than Coney Islands.

Well, Noah certainly had a clear idea and clear distinction that he’s applied to the new Olympic Grill. Everything that can be made from scratch is made from scratch. The typical “everything is frozen and goes into the deep fryer” concept has been thrown out the window—even though my French fries, good as they were, went from the freezer to the fryer. Daily lunch and dinner specials create what Noah calls a true dining experience. The distinction isn’t so helpful to me because other places do similar things and yet consider themselves Coney Islands.

The real test, I suppose, comes in the quality of the food. As usual, Stephanie and I started out with a Coney Island hot dog. As it arrived, slathered in sauce and onion—we were invited to put our own mustard on—we wondered together how we would tell this dog apart from the one’s we ate in previous weeks. We aren’t, after all, trained Coney Island hot dog testers. It only took a bite or two, however, for us to know that something was indeed different.

First off, the bun was not fresh and fluffy and light. It was hot, probably too hot because it had already begun to deflate the way a bun does when it’s been heated too long. The hot dog, while it had a good, clean flavor to it, was definitely different than those of the first two weeks. While Olympic serves Koegel’s dogs, this was not the Vienna frank but most likely the stock Coney dog of lesser but still good quality. The sauce was noticeably wetter, the meat a bit grainy, and the grease factor a bit on the lean side. The onions were pretty good and the mustard added a nice pop to the end of each bite. All in all it was an ok dog but definitely not as good as Angelo’s or Tom Z’s.

If Noah is shooting for an upscale dining experience for his customers, then he’s on the right track--at least with the entrees that Stephanie and I enjoyed. I ordered off the menu, she ordered off the Specials list. Her Chicken Potpie was gargantuan! I added a pickle slice to her plate for the photograph to give a little perspective on the “holy crap” size of this thing. The top crust was flaky and well browned with a small pond of “homemade” chicken gravy puddled on the crust’s surface. The inside was laced with great chunks of potato, carrots, some peas and onions, and a generous amount of chicken chunks. The gravy on the inside was thick enough to bind everything together and distinguish it, in looks as well as in taste, as made from scratch.

I took a more traditional route with one of my favorite Diner menu items: The Club Sandwich. When I was a cook at a Big Boy restaurant in 1980 (it’s been torn down and replaced with a Walgreens—good grief!), making this sandwich was a nightmare. It’s tall and it’s thick, and when you cut it into quarters after assembling it, you have to get a long, frilly toothpick into each section while holding the other three sections in place so they don’t fall apart. It’s a little like sewing bars of wet soap together. It takes great skill to pull this off. Every time I order one I think about the poor slob who has to suffer through the stress of making it. On this day, mine was well assembled—ham, turkey, bacon, cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo on whole wheat. It’s like a BLT on crack! The melding of flavors and textures is addicting.

While neither of us ventured into the breakfast portion of the menu this time, we’ve both eaten here before and think pretty highly of their offerings. My parents will be happy to know that while Olympic has changed in many ways, they have kept the cheap breakfast special, probably as a way to draw new customers and to keep the loyals coming back. It’s not as cheap as the pre-fire Olympic, but it’s still reasonable.

Family Diner or Coney Island? Walking back to our car after a really good lunch at Olympic, I’m not sure it mattered to me at that point. If Noah remains the owner of Olympic for any appreciable amount of time, his restaurant will probably gain the reputation of a Classy Coney Island Diner, which may be the same as a Family Restaurant, a difference with a muddy distinction at best.

7 comments:

  1. I want that potpie! And hashbrowns and poached eggs. And homemade soup with indiviually wrapped crackers. Mmmmmm.....

    Club sandwhich tip- put frills in before cutting. Easy peasy.

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  2. I could have used that advice 30 years ago :)

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  3. We were at Olympic last week after almost a year of no visits. Since I am vegetarian its not high on my list as I really hate plain grilled cheese or iceberg lettuce salads as is usually the norm. I ordered the spinach pie dinner special and the pie itself was good but the crust needed to be a bit crisper. It felt microwaved in all honesty. I loved it when they first opened because they used brown rice on the side with sauce. Now its plain old white rice, altho it was fluffy. I had the sauce on the side. I took my dessert home which was rice pudding-way too watery pudding at that. Hubby had meatloaf which he said had a sausagey taste. I can't relate to that and his soup, well it was soup. He can't remember much beyond the end of his fork. I would love to see them have a real veggie burger and offer a vegetarian soup along with the other two or three they offer. Or even a veg chili, since the Farmer's Market seems to be the only place with that right now. I might like breakfasts there if it wasn't so far, so we plan on dining depending on where or what we have going on for the day....So driving from Flushing is not something we do without other trips/items/to do's on the agenda. I still remember many a drunken night after the bars in the early 70's at the Olympic. We just had a lot less road to travel back then.

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  4. Ok Helen, your easy peasy solution kept me up all night long and by 3:00 am I had completely deconstructed the process of assembling a club sandwich. Yes, the easy part is "sticking" the three-layered beast before you cut it. The bigger problem is actually cutting it because the only thing in that sandwich that gets traction against slippage is the bacon. Everything else slides around in randomness. So when you make the first of two cuts, you have to hold the whole thing with one hand while you cut with the other, tucking and pushing the guts back in as you go. Then it gets even trickier when you make the second cut because the pieces are now taller than they are wide and the slippery guts are now even less stable than before. Honestly, I don't know how heart surgeons do it.

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  5. I had a coney there a year ago and it was awful.
    I'm sure the dog wasn't a Koegels and it wasn't even a vienna. The coney sauce was awful.

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  6. What I really want to know about is the body found near your parents' house! Holy crap, that's scary.

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