This morning it is my privilege to be indulging in breakfast at The Dakota Diner in Webster, SD. I'm on my way to a meeting in Aberdeen but when my colleague at Northern State University said I must stop at The Dakota Diner, I had to agree.
This is a quintessential small town diner. And the food meets exceeds my standards for diner breakfast. My initial thinking was I'd order coffee and maybe toast while I blogged. That thinking lasted about 27 seconds. I ordered the Bronco Breakfast. Eggs ordered your way. Choice of breakfast meat. Three silver dollar pancakes. Sublime.
The scrambled eggs were light and fluffy and my request for a little shredded cheddar on top was happily fulfilled. I ordered my bacon 'crispy' and it came crispy and well done without being burnt. Believe me - this happens a lot. And the silver dollar pancakes, three the size of dinner plates, were tasty, toothsome with just a hint of malt. Perfect! The coffee was standard but it kept coming. A true never ending cup.
Diner breakfast is only half about the food. A diner breakfast is also about the ambience and the customers. The Dakota Diner has both. Blue vinyl booths in rank order front to back. Thick porcelin coffee mugs turned upside down in groups of four, waiting for customers needing their first hit of caffeine for the day. The grill is fronted by a long counter holding baked goods under frosted plastic covers. You can watch the cook ply his spatula over the eggs, the ham, and the hash browns.
In the booth next to me is a changing group of men, spanning the generations, talking farming, politics, and passing observations on the local school system. Behind me are two older farmers talking about a new horse. In front of me is a mom, a dad, and a kindergartner grabbing some breakfast before the school day begins.
I'm reminded of stories my mother told me about her early career working in diners in New Jersey - The Turnabout Diner in Phillipsburg, the Waa-Waa along the Delware River in Riegelsville, PA and another one (whose name I can't remember) in California where she worked when my father was stationed in ports along the southern California coast during his service in the Navy. I've had a lot of diner experience in my own life. I've been in diners that were authentic and diners that were aspiring. You know - those diners that have the correct decor, with jukeboxes, formica countertops, and 50's music on the Muzak.
But it's the people that make for a true diner experience. You can't design a table that has been privy to first dates, celebrations, mournings, family secrets, and civic crises and intrigues. Walls that enclose the totality of small town life. This is the seasoning that goes with your coffee, your ham and eggs, your BLT (Hold the mayo), and your salisbury steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.
Long live diners in small town America. They keep us focused on the daily requirements of a fulfilled life - good food, good conversation, and good community.