r-daub-a-blog, May 7, 2006

I am sitting at the counter of a Denny’s somewhere in America. Within 30 seconds of stepping inside this particular franchise unit, I have been called ‘sweetheart’ and ‘hon,’ familiarities that normally make me self-conscious if addressed by anyone other than my wife or mother, but here it’s simply part of what makes the experience so alluring.

Out front, draped beneath the familiar yellow and red logo that has become a beacon of American culinary culture, is a vinyl sign reminding motorists and pedestrians that Denny’s is ‘Always Open,’ which is true of their 2,500 restaurants in the United States, Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica, Netherlands Antilles, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Guam, and a few other places. 24 hours a day and 365 days a year (366 during leap years), Denny’s is always there for you, whether it’s Saturday night and you’re drunk off your ass but not yet ready to call it a night, or if it’s Sunday morning and you’re nursing a nasty hangover and need that Grand Slam Breakfast and bottomless cup of coffee to get your engines started so that the day does not turn into a total waste.

There are several signs advertising a promotion related to Denny’s being the official sponsor of the Professional Bowlers Association: Buy any dinner entrée and get a coupon for a free game of bowling. Since I’m here for lunch today, I am not likely to order a Steakhouse Strip & Shrimp platter, nor am I likely to try the NEW Grilled Tilapia, so it appears as if I will not qualify for this particular promotion. I enjoy the breakfasts and the burgers and the melts, and, oh, those desserts are sweet—but ‘seafood’ and ‘Denny’s’ do not flow very well in the same sentence, as you are finding out at this very moment.

My wife and I used to eat at Denny’s quite often when we first started dating, but that has trailed off in recent years as we have grown a little older and more conscious of our caloric intake. During our honeymoon in Fairbanks, Alaska, we did eat at ‘THE NORTHERN MOST DENNY’S IN THE WORLD,’ a distinction proudly displayed on the sign out front and one that made us just have to eat there. I think I had the Grilled Chicken Sandwich that time. We also ate at the northernmost Taco Bell in the world while we were up there, but that’s another story for another day.

The Denny’s sign in Fairbanks, Alaska, 2003

Despite all the positive cheer embedded into the decor, there is something inherently depressing about stepping into a Denny’s. It’s the same everywhere, from Seattle to L.A. to Glen Burnie, MD. It’s certainly not the food (although the pop I was just given is flat—I guess they don’t clean the taps here)—I always look forward to a meal at Denny’s, especially now that I’m on a diet which today I am making an exception to. So, despite the flat beverage, I expect nothing but the best when my Bacon Cheddar Burger and ‘mound’ of seasoned fries are placed on the counter before me.

It’s a subtle sadness that settles upon the interval of deciding what you want and the actual ordering of it which commences the moment you lift your head from the menu. You unconsciously start looking around at the other patrons and can’t help but momentarily focus on the overweight family of four squeezed into the booth across the way just long enough to pick up their conversation above the din. Like you, they’re excited to be here, but their excitement is different than your own. This is the dinner platter crowd, the free bowlers, and they are anxiously anticipating the country fried steaks they have just ordered and are vivaciously contemplating what to have for dessert. To you this is really good junk food, but their anticipation is akin to yours when you ordered that sautéed duck at the four star Chez Flambé a couple of months back. Although this perceptive gulf shouldn’t matter in the least since it ultimately produces the same euphoric result for them as it did for you at Chez Flambé, it depresses you nonetheless. Then you start feeling guilty about being the elitist snob you promised yourself you would never become regardless of the grand success you achieved in life, the one that with each subsequent visit to Denny’s you realize you may already be despite not being anywhere near the level of success you had always envisioned.

And then there’s that old couple over there in the corner booth, the ones that even your grandparents would consider old—they’re probably going to die soon, while you’ve got many long years left—decades, hopefully. And working here? Not a chance. No, you probably couldn’t endure a single shift.

By the time your food arrives—which usually isn’t long, although some Denny’s are worse than others—you’re feeling a little blue. But there’s always the waitress to cheer you up, if you happen to get one of the older, more experienced ones who, unlike those high school and college part-timers who make no attempt to hide how miserable they are about being here, do their damndest trying to squeeze that extra dollar or two of tip money from you by working that Denny’s charm so reminiscent of Flo from Mel’s Diner.

Today I am fortunate to have one of the more experienced waitresses, a woman in her forties or perhaps even late thirties who looks older than she actually is, one with a deep, raspy cigarette voice calling everyone in the joint ‘sweetie’ or ‘hon’ whether it be man, woman, or child. Although this may seem bromidic, it is at least genuine—none of that phony-baloney fine-dining bullshit here, no working from somebody else’s etiquette manual or being overly cautious about minute details that might jeopardize a $100 tip. This is the real thing here, people being themselves—’You’re hired. Now grab an apron and get to work.’

As I’m scribbling in my spiral notebook, the waitress places my burger and fries in front of me and says, “You won’t have to ask Where’s the beef? with that one!” I wonder if she says this every time she presents someone with a Bacon Cheddar Burger. The burger is about half as tall as my soda glass, and there’s a steak knife sticking out of it through the bun.

Life is Denny’s, and Denny’s is life. There’s the mouthwatering anticipation of sinking your teeth into a Bacon Cheddar Burger or wrapping your mouth around a spoonful of the Oreo Blender Blaster you ordered for dessert, but with it comes the sadness that lingers when that anticipation disappears along with the food on your plate.

I wolf down my burger and fries—good times. Upon noticing that I have finished my meal, the waitress comes over and says, “How about a piece of pie for dessert, slugger?” I haven’t been called ‘slugger’ since Little League. At 33, I know I’m not old, but I’m at a point in my life where I’m realizing that I’m older than I used to be, and being called ‘slugger’ makes me feel like a kid again in a good way. And, despite addressing her other customers in similar fashion, I still feel appreciated—much more so than being addressed with a cold but respectful ‘sir.’ Maybe some people are into that phony respect bullshit, but those are the true elitist snobs who wouldn’t be caught dead at Denny’s.

After declining the offer of dessert—not an easy thing because I still have Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie on the brain from a visit to a different Denny’s several months ago when that waitress didn’t charge me for dessert because it was so frozen solid that I had to use a steak knife to cut it (but it was still so good)—and also the offer to take the rest of my unfinished soda with me (where else do they do that?)—I put three dollars down on the counter as a tip, nearly 30 percent. Yet, that still doesn’t seem like enough. There’s that Denny’s guilt again—you know this woman is breaking her back here day in and day out in, and now you’re on your way out the door while she has to stay and devote what amounts to a significant portion of her life to this establishment.

The cashier is one of the students well-versed in forced politeness. Without a word, he takes the check and the twenty I have just handed him and starts making change. He is wearing a button below his name tag that says, “Ask me about free bowling,” which, despite enjoying a good bowl every so often, I have absolutely have no intention of doing.

“Have a nice day, hon!” the waitress waves as I’m heading out.

In the foyer, next to the tank with the calipers rigged so as not to be able to lift any of the cheap stuffed animals forever trapped within it, is a poster taped to the wall that says, ‘We’re glad you came.’

I’m glad too, but there’s an aftertaste of melancholy accompanying my satiated belly, one that will linger for a time but will eventually disappear into the sweet sadness of existence that reminds us that not all is bliss no matter how good it might seem at the moment. ▪