Register Friday | March 31 | 2023

In Praise of the Greasy Spoon

A place to go to sit life out

Bacon and eggs with coffee might seem like a silly menu upon which to situate contested visions of what a good society should look like. But the first time I ate at Green Spot Restaurant, I knew that I had arrived in civilization.

Green Spot is as authentic a diner as you'll find anywhere in Canada. A sign inside boasts that it has been "open for 62 years," but the era in which these words were painted is left to your imagination. Nothing else intentionally calls attention to its age. The diner is located along a once forlorn stretch of street in Saint-Henri-a Montreal blue-collar neighbourhood in the early stages of gentrification. In a glut of condo construction, renovations and new shops, the number of cheap breakfast joints seems unusually high. Across the road from Green Spot is Restaurant Green, and along that section of Notre-Dame Street are several other eateries offering poutine and steamies. There is nothing gimmicky on the Green Spot menu, although you can get a decent pork chop. The booths, once red in the way of today's faux-vintage diners, are now more of an orangey scarlet, and the benches are dull and scuffed. There are jukeboxes at almost every table offering Ricky Martin and Britney Spears in addition to an impoverished selection of fifties rock 'n' roll. Green Spot fascinates precisely because it is so unremarkable.

When The Daily Show with Jon Stewart's bestseller America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction takes a random shot at a "pretentious coffee table book" called Blurry Diners and Poor People, you know, if you didn't already, that diners are done. Done like Route 66. Done like donning red windbreakers and dreaming of road trips to Fairmount, Indiana, in chrome-heavy cruisers with girls who look like Bettie Page. Done like rockabilly, oily ducktails, filterless Lucky Strikes and the twist.

Still, we long for the diner. So much so that capitalism gives us back what it took away: glossy, glitzy recreations with shiny Coca-Cola paraphernalia. For those who want fake diner chains, Montreal is happy to accommodate. Quebec's own Nickels franchise is a good example. Original owner Céline Dion could have instructed her management team to style the restaurants after nineteen-twenties speakeasies, or her high-school cafeteria, or the dugout of the Pete Rose-era Cincinnati Reds. She didn't. Instead, some marketing team conducted focus-group research and found that suburbanites and tourists will pay extra to eat their chanteuse-approved smoked-meat sandwich on a Formica table in a red booth.

This is a far cry from the first diner, reportedly a covered freight wagon that, in 1872, began selling food to night-shift workers in Providence, Rhode Island. By the nineteen-twenties, the trend was to transform retired railroad cars into inexpensive, short-order restaurants; and many more diners were manufactured to resemble train coaches, cars, ships or airplanes-all reflecting the modern American fascination with travel. Manufactured diners proliferated from the thirties until the late fifties, at which time the advertising budgets of multinational fast-food chains began to explode, changing North American dining habits forever.

Economic booms aside, when a culture is so certain that the dominant model is the only model, when it rejects diversity and celebrates homogeneity, it stifles the imagination of its citizens to an extent that no financial incentive can ever compensate. Now that every highway looks identical, and franchised fast-food has made us sick, there are many who wish we had known that progress would bankrupt thousands of small businesses and replace them with glowing signs, standardized menus and a generation of workers making minimum wage. No matter how much of a cliché it has become, the diner persists in our cultural memory as a symptom of our unease-what we've allowed to replace the diner may not be good for anything, not for the world around us or for the world inside us.

In the morning and early afternoon, Green Spot is inhabited by the people who walk the streets of Saint-Henri and adjoining Little Burgundy. I don't know if Céline Dion has ever eaten here, but if she did I don't know how much the regular customers would  care. In spite of a nearby university residence and the local economic revitalization, Green Spot seems to have a section permanently reserved for those who have chosen to live life disconnected from the fast lane, who would be more impressed by complimentary fries than by a celebrity sighting.

Green Spot serves the same function that Baudelaire once wrote of public parks in Paris. The diner is "haunted" by those of "disappointed ambition, unfortunate inventors, thwarted fame, shattered hearts, by all those tumultuous and secretive souls in whom a storm's final sighs still rumble and who retreat far from the insolent gaze of the joyous and the idle." The diner's regulars are men with forearm tattoos who smoke over unfinished eggs that stagnate in eddies of ketchup, salesmen with their smiles turned off and couples who talk to the waitress but eat in silence. In short, Green Spot offers precisely what the ersatz diner never can, no matter how many retro jukeboxes are screwed to the walls. It offers anonymity and heterogeneity. You could wear pretty much whatever you want to Green Spot and the only eyes you might catch would be your own, in the reflection of the window. As long as you pay your $2.95 for a pre-11 am breakfast of two eggs, choice of meat, baked beans, hash browns, toast, fresh fruit, coffee and juice, no one-neither staff member nor fellow patron-will care what you are smoking, even if it's those nasty clove cigarettes, which you should stop smoking in public immediately.

Dilapidated diners evoke the great undiscovered expanses that still belong to the individual, whole cave systems of  eccentricity and difference. They remind us that the master narrative of progress has played out more as myth than as miracle.

Green Spot does not hold the good life in its greasy hands but rather a sense of freedom: freedom from monoculture, freedom to be different. Not a difference defined through consumption choices-differences up to and including the right to sit life out with dignity, to rest alone, pensive or merely penurious, in some twenty-four-hour booth.

The way corporations fetishize and stereotype our collective past seems to work against places like Green Spot-places that remind us through their very existence that there was a time-not so long ago-when global capitalism did not rule the world.

And what does the nostalgia for diners suggest? That beneath the boosterish surface, there's uncertainty. Offshoots of doubt are growing. Even as we are told that value-added meals and international mergers represent progress, we recognize that by losing places like the diner, we're losing a lot more than we bargained for.