As my foodcentric comrade and I shambled out of the Goody Goody Diner after having packed away an embarrassingly large breakfast, I asked him whether he had any criticisms of the meal. "How could I?" he replied, shrugging. "It's diner food."
I nodded in agreement as I brushed powdered sugar off my skirt. Except at uptown hangouts such as San Francisco's Fog City Diner, devotees don't go to diners expecting to be served sauces flavored with fines herbes and desserts accented with blood oranges. They belly up to the Formica counter for such quirky specialties as Goody Goody's "Wilbur" (an omelette bulging with chili, hash browns and vegetables) and toastamales (tamales blanketed with chili and shredded mozzarella). But I'd add one caveat to my friend's unequivocal approval: Diner food should be made from scratch. At Goody Goody, it seems that freshness is sometimes sacrificed for the sake of diversifying the menu.
The Goody Goody Diner evolved from an A&W root-beer stand, which occupied the site during the 1930s and '40s. As the automobile gained popularity, the walk-up eatery was replaced by a drive-in restaurant. Then-new owners Herb and Viola Connelly named the place "Goody Goody," a childlike expression of glee. The Connellys' son, Richard, and his wife, Laura, took over the business in 1981 and still operate it. Goody's, as it is known by locals, may not qualify as a true diner (see sidebar), but its mosaic of customers gives it the soul of one. The restaurant draws military personnel, downtown businesspeople, police officers, day laborers, cross-country travelers and neighborhood residents. They gather to chat over pie and coffee, read the newspaper, scarf a few burgers and flirt with the waitresses, two of whom have hoisted trays and wielded order pads at the diner for more than a decade. Goody's does a brisk takeout business, too, with a pickup counter and a classic plastic-lettered menu board just inside the door.
Goody's thrifty prices, a hallmark of diner-style food, allowed us to taste a slew of breakfast dishes. We gingered up our steaming milky-white grits (made from ground hominy, or hulled white corn) with just a sprinkling of table sugar. Eggs weren't scrambled so much as gently folded into moist, soft curds. Crusty pork-sausage patties had a tingle of spicy heat and a hint of sage, and neat strips of bacon were nicely streaked with fat. Diced potatoes, chopped onions and garlic fried in vegetable oil were more flavorful than the bland lattice of pre-grated potatoes that passes for hash browns elsewhere. Thin hotcakes pockmarked with air bubbles greedily soaked up the syrup we doused them with. And Goody's french toast couldn't be better. It's made by dredging Texas toast in beaten eggs and milk laced with cinnamon. After the battered bread is browned on the griddle, the thick slices are cut into spongy triangles, dusted with confectioner's sugar and drizzled with syrup at the table.
In times past, even the homeliest diners -- such as Rosie's, which captured the nation's imagination in the 1970s Bounty paper-towel commercials -- prospered by offering unified menus of homespun dishes. Typical diner fare included meat loaf, mashed potatoes, BLTs, egg-salad sandwiches, burgers, fries, coleslaw, mac 'n' cheese, chowder, beef stew and lobster rolls (an Eastern specialty). Regrettably, though, places like the Goody Goody have tried to keep pace with all-things-to-all-people family restaurants, such as Bob Evans and Denny's. An outdated history section on the back of Goody's menu explains that "for the '90s our 'Specials' will feature modern versions of popular items." Ubiquitous dishes such as veal parmesan, veggie sandwiches and grilled-chicken caesar salads make up the default menu, giving the food a sameness that's inconsistent with Goody's colorful past and diverse clientele. What's worse, the broad menu overreaches, forcing the kitchen to take unfortunate shortcuts.
We passed over the Greek salad and chicken Monterey in favor of traditional diner dishes. A Reuben and a grilled cheese sandwich were satisfying enough, but the sides we ordered were almost all disappointing. We suspect that the wan mashed potatoes -- pasty, grainy and lumpless -- were made from freeze-dried flakes rather than whole spuds. The dark-brown gravy had a perfectly uniform color and consistency, like that of Heinz Homestyle Gravy, which resembles anything but. The watery dressing on the coleslaw had no discernible flavor. A heap of puffy onion rings looked promising, but the onion inside the golden coating was mushy. Fragrant New England clam chowder was surprisingly thick with chunky potatoes, tender clams and vegetables: Had the cook devoted all of his efforts to concocting this chowder? Turns out he uses as his base a Campbell's brand made especially for the restaurant trade.
Goody Goody has become a St. Louis institution, drawing diner aficionados from the neighborhood and all over the city. You can't go wrong having breakfast there, served all day on Wednesdays and Saturdays. You'll get snappy service if you snag a table early, when the restaurant is bustling. In the afternoons, the waitresses begin eating their own lunches and refilling ketchup bottles and syrup carafes for the next morning's rush. But you'll want to come early anyway -- Goody's has a platter of french toast with your name on it.