Make Mine Short-Order

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I’m always looking for quick recipes. Sometimes I start a quick recipe and then realize — hey, this ain’t as quick as I thought. But I plod on — usually so absorbed and fascinated by each step that it doesn’t matter how quick it is. 

I like to cook my meals because — I like to cook. But also, because I like to know what’s IN THEM. I love choosing each ingredient — knowing how I’m treating that ingredient, and leaving myself no mysteries. The mystery is usually a magic not entirely my own. Just the sheer alchemy of cooking. Molecules, ions, nuclei shuffling together in heat ….wow, a little bit of stardust in the food.

Which brings me (and how could it not) to the joy of watching a fast order cook at work. Talk about magic. Talk about seeing every ingredient go right into the recipe. Talk about deftness of hand aerobatics. Talk about concentration, follow-thru, and thoroughness.

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Okay, let’s talk about it. Growing up in NY, and being of an everyday-food persuasion, I have, for a long time, found myself in diners. I have trouble trumping diners with high-fancy restaurant fare (excuse that word over there). I just love diners. 

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In the old days, diners were everywhere in NYC. You either went around the corner. Or you decided to walk five blocks to another, because you liked the decor better. Or because you were meeting a friend who lived five blocks away. Or — who knows, maybe you needed a walk. Because there wasn’t much difference in the food from diner to diner. They ALL knew how to make that menu shine and it always shined. My faves: scrambled eggs soft, with home fries, and whole wheat toast. Diners in NYC include tea or coffee in the price of the breakfast (I’ve learned that’s not true everywhere).

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Or get a grilled cheese with tomato (with maybe bacon?)

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Or venture further for a club sandwich, a meat loaf dinner, some Greek specialties like: spanakopita, or shish kebabs. Most diners in NYC are run by Greeks. There are Lobster Tails (the seafood, not the pastry) and Fettuccine Alfredo and NY Strip Steak on the menu, too. Okay— I probably wouldn’t order those things… I like the traditional diner fare. But people do order those dishes. I’ve seen them go by on the way to another table. Riveting.

Wandering around NYC streets, you sometimes get hungry while you’re neighborhoods away from home….you can always be saved by a diner. Looking to kill 20 minutes before your appointment? Siddle up to the counter and have a hot tea and a toasted English muffin. Or maybe a corn muffin (you don’t see corn muffins in the South…cornbread, yes, but not the muffin). I used to LOVE the diner corn muffin. They’d cut it in half, toast it on the griddle and serve with butter on the side. Groan. Yum.

But my favorite part is getting the seat at the counter just behind the short-order cook. It’s the kind of show that could entertain me for days. 

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Here’s where you will find some differences from diner to diner. Not in the competence of the cook or the menu, but in how the cook arranges things. What side of the grill is the bacon? How often does he scrape off the excess oil? Are the eggs all broken into a gallon-sized pitcher, ready for use? Or does he crack them as he uses them? Have the home fries just arrived to the griddle or have they been there for hours? (And hours.) Does he wear a baseball cap, a do-rag (du-rag?), a hairnet, or just hat-less, loose and free?

Doesn’t matter. The show must go on. The pressure of orders coming in fast keep the action of the story moving. WITHOUT a hitch.

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It’s even more fun when he’s cooking YOUR order. Watch closely — you’ll almost feel like you’re cooking it yourself. You can see every second and every morsel and every technique going into your plateful. Then it’s delivered. Live. In front of you on the counter, steam wafting, aromas poking your nose. Your fork poised, your diminutive diner napkin on your lap, your taste buds rushing forward, ready for sensations.

Time to EAT!

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(Dessert? No other place has so many choices.)

Fav Nashville Eats: Wendell Smith’s

Wendell Smith's

Wendell Smith’s

If a place has some character, serves good food (read: GOOD food…not necessarily complicated food, but GOOD), and the prices are reasonable…it gets my attention. Sure I love to sample what chefs create, but if I’m not in a sampling mood and just want something comfy and consistent and in an atmosphere where I relax easily…then I go to the ole reliables.

I lived in NYC for many years and one of my all-time favorite reliables was the local diner. Any one of them!

Malibu Diner in NYC

Malibu Diner in NYC

NY diners are usually run by Greeks with a menu that includes some Greek specialties, but the big draw for me was the all-day/all-night breakfast. Sure they had classic sandwiches, big burgers, a zillion salads, sometimes even lobster tails, steak, plus a lit-up carousel filled with mile-high cakes and pies (these I never ordered) (too much sweet for my timid sweet tooth). Gimme the eggs; I want the home fries.

Here in Nashville, diners aren’t on every other corner like they (used to be) in NYC (even there, they’re disappearing). But I’ve happily connected to 3 restaurants that do the diner thing and THEN SOME.

Today I’ll just start with one. Wendell Smith’s. To say I’ve discovered Wendell Smith’s just goes to show you what a Nashville greenhorn I am. When you walk into Wendell Smith’s for the first time you realize everyone in there has been going for YEARS. That maiden visit I almost felt like an intruder. But they greet you friendly enough. And now Wendell’s tickles me every time I walk in their door.

From what I understand the restaurant started in the 1950’s. The place still looks like the 1950’s including some wear and tear from the passage of decades. But that’s all added charm.

Wendell's menus

Wendell’s menus

It used to have a drive-up window that they closed in to add more tables. A friend’s mom and dad met at that drive-up window years ago!

Wendell’s is not necessarily known for its breakfast food. It’s a meat and 3 with a changing daily menu. Their permanent menu has the eggs and omelets, burgers, and sandwiches, and things like tuna-stuffed tomato.

Wendell's cheeseburger

Wendell’s bacon cheeseburger

But I’ve got my favorite breakfast dish and order it almost every time: 2 eggs, scrambled soft, home fries, and sliced tomatoes. (Okay, occasionally I get the cheese omelet.)

Wendell's eggs, tomatoes, home fries

Wendell’s eggs, tomatoes, home fries

Wendell’s is big on tomatoes. They ALWAYS  have big, ripe fresh tomatoes on hand. And they sell them by the pound, too.

Local tomatoes by the pound

Local tomatoes by the pound at Wendell’s

On some days they have Polish Sausage on the meat and 3 menu. Duane will always order that. And if their yumfest fried chicken is on the menu I’ll skip my breakfast for that. I also LOVE their turnip greens.

Meat & 2

Meat & 2

Meat & 3 Menu

Meat & 3 Menu

The place gets packed at lunch (when I seem to usually have breakfast) but each time we go there’s a booth available.

Wendell's at lunchtime

Wendell’s at lunchtime

ADDED BONUS: Wendell’s waitresses are the best in town. Serious career waitresses. They already know what we’re gonna order. And we love that feeling of being regulars.

Wendell Smith’s is true Nashville.

Wendell's is Open

Wendell’s is Open

Wendell's

Wendell’s