You've been lying awake since three in the morning; the cat's goosing your headache with plaintive, pet-me meows; there's nothing in the refrigerator; and you haven't dumped yesterday's grounds from the coffeemaker.
The diner is there.
You stumble out of the bar after last call, your belly roiling with beer.
The diner is there.
You didn't get out of bed until after sunset, and now you want pancakes and eggs.
The diner is there.
Since I first visited After, the new 24-hour diner in Forest Park Southeast's Grove area, I've been trying to figure out how to evaluate it.
You know exactly what to expect from diner food. It's the flip side of that old quip about pizza being like sex: Even when it's pretty good, you know there's a good chance your guts will soon feel like they're auditioning for Cirque du Soleil.
And then, as I thought about the eggs I'd eaten at After early one Saturday afternoon, I understood: A good diner isn't just there. It's there.
I ordered the eggs over easy, with bacon, hash browns and toast. One egg arrived over easy, the other cooked nearly solid. The bacon was good, cut thick, crisp at the edges, a little chewy. The hash browns were limp and gluey.
When I returned for breakfast a few days later, I ordered pancakes and, taking another chance on eggs, an omelet with ham, red pepper and Cheddar cheese. The omelet was titanic. The menu said three eggs, but a fourth or even fifth must have snuck inside. It wasn't pretty, but it was satisfying. The pancakes, though, were disappointing: fluffy but almost flavorless on their own and, worse, served with whipped spread instead of butter.
A good diner is there, so reliable that it's basically automatic. You're able to take the little things eggs cooked right, hash browns crisp, the dribble of real butter melting along the curve of a pancake for granted. You don't have to worry about what is or isn't good. You don't have to think much at all. You order, you wait, you chow down.
That's a tough standard for a new diner to meet.
After doesn't look new. It doesn't try to blind you with chrome fixtures. No cardboard cutouts of Elvis or Marilyn loom over your table. Sit in one of the wooden booths, rest your arms on the syrup-sticky tabletop, and listen to the sizzle-scrape-scrape-scrape of the cook frying eggs on one side of the flattop while cleaning burnt bits from the other. You might believe After is the venerable institution around which the Grove is rising rather than one of its most recent additions, not quite three months old.
There are nods to faux-diner nostalgia: a blue-and-red-neon Route 66 highway shield in the window, golden oldies on the radio, vinyl records stuck to the walls. But the TVs were usually tuned to CNN when I visited, a touch-screen video game sits atop the long red counter in the main room, and one of those glued-on records is a recording of Madame Butterfly.
A second, larger room serves as both the smoking section and a game room, with pool tables, a pinball machine and an arcade game. As a whole, After's look is ad hoc: part grungy dive, part neighborhood rec center, part dorm lounge circa 1983. It should be a good fit for the Grove, which offers several bars and a few restaurants on the stretch of Manchester west of Vandeventer, but not, until now, a place to read the newspaper over several cups of coffee before work or sober up with several cups of coffee and a slinger after a night out or both simultaneously.
That coffee is a step up from the thin brown brew in most diners, by the way. After is owned by Dennis Gorg, who also owns the Coffee Cartel in the Central West End. At both venues the coffee is supplied by local roasters Chauvin Coffee.
The menu is the expected diner fare, plumped out with nachos, Buffalo wings and other snacks likely to appeal to those not inclined to order a slinger when smashed. Spudsters, for example, are nuggets of fried mashed potato. Like Tater Tots, only denser. Can you improve the Tater Tot? That's a question for another week, or possibly a very late night at After following one too many margaritas at its next-door neighbor, the Atomic Cowboy.
Spudsters, however, aren't the answer. "Buttered, dusted and deep-fried" (according to the menu), they were crisp on the outside but grainy inside. You get a side of nacho cheese or ranch dressing for dipping. I went for the nacho cheese, which was creamy but lacked a good tang.
The diner lists more than a dozen sandwiches, including burgers. The "After Burger," which servers promote on their T-shirts, proved the best thing I ate though how an "After Burger" differs from any other burger with American cheese, lettuce and tomato on a thin, soft roll escapes me. At any rate, this one was about a third of a pound, the meat juicy and the bacon (add 95 cents) was very crisp. The fries weren't bad, either.
(The bacon was served under the American cheese. I don't know whether this was intentional and it does prevent the lovely fusing of processed cheese and ground beef but it's such a head-slappingly obvious solution to the great bacon-falling-all-over-the-place design flaw of the bacon cheeseburger that I can't believe I've never seen it before. I mention it here for anyone else who takes these things seriously.)
After offers four "Full Plates": chicken-fried steak, fried cod, meat loaf and strip steak. Each is served with mashed potatoes or mac-and-cheese, green beans and a biscuit. I tried the chicken-fried steak, which came properly smothered in a thick white gravy flecked with black pepper. The gnarled batter was very crisp, and the pounded-thin steak was tender enough, but both batter and gravy were too salty. The macaroni and cheese was enjoyable in a Kraft-dinner-throwback sort of way, but the green beans (tossed with small pieces of bacon, but without much bacon flavor) and biscuit were buffet-line bland.
I skipped dessert, because After doesn't make its own, though it does offer a selection of treats from several local bakeries. But know that you can get an ice-cream sundae made with ten scoops of Edy's Grand served in a goblet that you could turn upside down and wear as a helmet. Also, if you want, you can add nacho cheese to anything on the menu for just 95 cents. If either option appeals to you and I suspect it will to someone, probably at two in the morning on a Friday well, then:
The diner is there.
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