If I don’t get out of the house by noon, I start going crazy. So as the morning rain starts to slow down, I accept the urge to wander over a slowing mist. I take my usual path but slow a bit because I know these drivers get panicked when it rains. Locking up at the store my blue jacket is soaked but it is my second shower and feels pretty good as the sun starts to appear.
It seems everyone who was coupe up by the rain also had the same idea; and they brought their kids. I didn’t need to get much but I wandered the aisles trying to avoid the screams of the children or run over the little cart pushers or step aside to their wild abandon with lost directions from a flustered mother’s face.
After my usual feeding of the yard and commenting to the drown rats, my stomach is growling. I think it is because I had two meals the past couple of days instead of one and it wants more. Even with fish and noodles, I’ve been stuffed, even over stuffed so instead of washing dishes or cooking, I decide to treat myself and eat out.
I’m not really hungry and don’t have a taste for anything unusual so I decide to try out this little place up the street. I had passed it a couple of times going to the hardware store. It is just a little hole in the wall shop in a ‘50’s strip mall between a wedding photo shop and a antique place that has gone out of business. I remember it because there was a sign in the window saying it had the “best” chili in Richmond. Or was it salad? Soup??
I think it is called “Karen’s Kitchen” or maybe “Karen’s Kooking Kitchen” (with a K, that is so kute). There is nothing overall distinctive about the exterior. A big glass window that could have been a display for shoes or toys has some colored paper menus or flyers or something taped to it, but I don’t look at any of them. A rolled up awning crossed the front of a fairly plan white building.
I open the glass door and walk inside. It feels like I’ve walked into another time period. On the window sill there is a little ceramic pot with some brown and yellow sticks that used to be a plant. The walls have booths filled with what looks like regulars. Wood pews from some faraway church separated with red Formica tables held up by chrome legs are populated with folks who seem to be comfortable here rather than home watching television. Groups of three or four have quiet conversations and little movement holding their beers. A musty hazes fills the air and I see this is not a “no smoking” zone.
A woven wall divides the “dining area from a counter/bar with uncomfortable looking wooden stools but they are all filled. The lighting is minimal so deeper in the room becomes darker. An old television sits on platform attached to the wall in the back. A tiny screen with the sound turned down so I have no idea what it is showing. On the side of the quiet room is a Wurlitzer jukebox. It looks like it has been there for years.
There are two empty tables between the booths, so I take a seat. They are fairly small tables with little wooden chairs that are light enough to stack on top of tables or move around with round seats that looked well worn and dipping for heavy duty. The backs are curved like bamboo but it is only brown bent wood. As I pull the chair back it scraps on the dusty wood floor making a loud noise that brings everyone’s attention.
I sit down in the wobbly chair and take my hat off. The table is covered in a red and white check vinyl tablecloth like those on picnic tables during family reunions. The center of the table tells me everything I need about this eating establishment. The condiments.
A woman comes around from behind the bar and approaches my table. She is wearing an apron that looks like it should have been washed a couple of weeks ago. Her shirt is red and white checked patter to match the tablecloth. Around her neck is a blue bandana like a cowboy. Her tussled hair is pined back but sprigs are sticking out giving the effect she is working hard. She slaps a menu on the table with the plastic meeting plastic with a load wake. Again I get the rooms attention. “What can I get you?” she asks.
It is three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and as I look about the room everyone seems to be nursing a long neck beer, so I ask, “What do you have on tap?”
“Bud, Bud lite, and Pabst” she replies as if I was bothering her. I again scan the room and there are a lot of red labels on those bottles.
“Do you have Coors?” I ask as if to annoy her a little more.
“Bottle or Can?” she huffs.
“Bottle.” Sends her off to the bar again followed by wandering eyes of elderly men.
I pick up the menu and smile. It is the old clear vinyl single fold variety that an 8x10 printed or hand lettered description of what the restaurant offers can be slid in. The front does not have the name of this place or a phone number or address or any reference to make this a unique dining experience. There is not even a website. I look around the room again and decide they do not have Wi-Fi.
The first page or cover offers the breakfast items. Eggs, or course, and all sorts of meats are offered in similar variations but mostly the same. Eggs with ham, eggs with sausage, eggs with links, and even eggs with steak and sides of taters and grits appear under the stained cracked plastic cover.
Opening the cover I discover new adventures in fine dining. The second page offers lunch options and the third page is designated to dinner or supper dishes. For lunch there are sandwiches ranging from ham and cheese, grilled cheese, egg and cheese, egg salad, and hamburgers with assorted toppings. Sides were described as taters, slaw, tater salad, and beans. There is also the mystery “soup of the day”. Dinner gives an assortment of hamburger steak, ham, or meatloaf with sides of mashed potatoes, taters, Mac and cheese, and slaw. Flipping to the back page I see a libation list of assorted American premium beers, cola, coffee and that’s about it. I guess you have to ask for water?
My beer arrives sweating droplets on the table without a napkin. “What will you have?” she request pulling out a small pad and pencil from her apron. I want to say, “The cuisine is so rewarding that I don’t know where to select.” Or “What do you recommend?” but I know better. I’m in a strange land and will get what I expect.
“I’ll have the eggs.” I say while folding back to the front.
“That is only for breakfast.” She replies with a bit of curse in her voice. “Breakfast ends at noon.” She point with her pencil to the deadline sentence that had been covered by greasy fingerprints. A couple of guys in the next booth seem entertained and chuckle at our conversation.
So I open the crusty menu again and run my finger down the options. “I’ll have a burger.” I have made a selection that can’t be too messed up. “You want cheese.” She replies while writing down burger as if that was so hard to remember since no one else in this place seems to be eating. “No cheese, but how about tomato and lettuce?” Now I didn’t see many greens on the menu and got a shocked face from the lady I will call “Karen”. “You want fries?” she says holding her little pad tightly in her grasp. “Sure.” I reply as she walks away.
I settle in to my uncomfortable chair and my lukewarm beer to observe the room. There is an elderly guy behind the bar who is constantly opening bottles and scurrying about replacing the empties. The clinking of bottles thrown into a trashcan in the back is the constant soundtrack. I guy in the back booth gets up as he walk through an even darker passage. I guess that is the bathroom but I’m not sure I want to go there. A few minutes later he returns to his companions and his refreshed beer. One guy raises his hand as the guy behind the bar with his stooped over shoulders going as fast as his frail body will carry attends the booth with overripe obscenities and demeaning orders. The old man seems used to it and returns to his station. One group, with a hardened lady, seems ready to venture on. A guy put his arm around her neck and laughs excessively. She doesn’t seem amused and gets up and walks out the door. The two gentlemen follow, waving good-bye to the old guy behind the counter as if to say, “Put that on our tab. We will see you tomorrow.” Another guy in the back gets up and staggers into the door I think is the kitchen. The door swings closed and then there are loud voices. The yelling subsides after a few minutes, the door swings open, and the gentleman staggers back out and into his booth under the television.
Amid all this activity, someone steps up to the jukebox and puts a quarter in (or whatever amount it takes to run one of these things now-a-days). The old Wurlitzer lights up like a Christmas tree and the small speakers strung up on the wall to increase the sound blast out an unexpected number. Instead of Tammy Wynette or Porter Wagoner or George Jones, which I expected, comes Randy Newman “Little Coppers on Parade”. There may be hope for this place after all.
My wonderfully lovely Karen slides my plate of burger and fries on the table and asks, “Do you want another?” pointing to the empty bottle. Knowing they make more money of beer than food, I ask for a cup of coffee. Annoyed as ever Karen removes the bottle and walks back stopping to wipe the table of the group that just left. Another chorus of clinking bottles follow.
The burger, sans tomato or lettuce, is somewhat warm on a soft bun. The fries were those crinkly ones found in the frozen food section. They were almost cooked but a bit wobbly like the table. Karen did bring me some unmatched silverware but the rest I had to do myself. Now it was on to the condiments.
In the center of my table were all the selections anyone could ask for. Squirt tumblers of yellow for mustard and red for ketchup offered possibilities. I guess this was not the place to as for Gray Poupon. The salt and peppershakers looked like little chess pieces with silver caps. The salt looked as if it was filled with a crust on top and the pepper looked as if the interior had decayed into dust. The sugar container seemed full with the lid half open gathering flies. The napkin dispenser was half full of that really thin paper that will not absorb anything or will fall apart when you wipe your face. A half bottle of Tabasco sauce was the spice alternative.
A generous squirt of mustard and pressing the bun down, I took a bite of the hamburger. Yum! A precooked slab of processed substance heated on a greasy grill. Seriously what did I expect? Sloppy up some of the mustard drippings on the fries made them almost suitable. More salt and whatever was left of the pepper made the mystery food at least tolerable.
The coffee arrived in a white, well kind of off white, mug that seemed to have been used since the beginning of the last century. There was no cream offered and remembering the sugar container; I decided to drink it black. The cup, though cracked on one side, reminded me of what coffee cups are suppose to be. It was that thick walled short stocky Wicker cup that was so popular in the 50’s. Not a big volume but coffee was cheap and refills were free back in the day. I almost asked Karen if she had another one I could buy. I had a couple of these cups but somewhere lost them. Coffee doesn’t task any better in these mugs but it just feels right.
After a refill and removing the plates of leftovers, Karen slipped me the check. Not a bad price for such an exciting and delicious home cooked meal. I place a twenty under the coffee cup which should cover the cost and the gratuities, put on my hat and slide the chair back creating such a noise to get everyone’s attention again. I wave at the couple behind the bar and mouth “Thank You” before ducking out the door and back to my bike.
Though I respect the grit and the homage to another’s kitchen now you know why I don’t eat out.