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Woman walks into a Denny’s

I’m not particularly proud of any of this, this eating out at Denny’s. It’s a chain, it’s been racist, and its red-and-yellow logo is not cool, hip, or artistic. But you get a free Grand Slam on your birthday (not everywhere, but at my neighborhood one anyway), the booths are comfortable, the service is great (so I’m betting the training is good), and the food is standard diner, which is usually what I’m looking for. And did I mention I get a free breakfast on my birthday?

I live in a little town where there are great breakfast places. This is probably because it gets so freakin’, Baghdad hot in the summer. And, since most tourists come to Moab in that freakin’-hot summertime, they want to get up early, eat, and GO; thus, the breakfast places. As I work my way through all the breakfast places here, I’ll share my list of good-for-breakfast diner requirements:

1. A round-lipped coffee mug, preferably with the diner’s logo on it. Hats and T-shirts with the logo are attractive extras, and sometimes I’ll buy something. I bought the Mom’s Cafe (Salina, Utah) and Midvale Mining Cafe mugs because I liked the logos. Accompanied by small pitchers of half-and-half.
2. Comfortable booth upholstery. No cracks, no four-inch-wide openings between said cracks, and no duct tape repairs.
3. Great service. I’m not too picky here. I don’t care if the wait person writes or doesn’t write down my order. I don’t need lots of smiling and asking how I like the town or the weather or the local high school football team, etc. I don’t need flashy or pretty or charming. I do like efficient and, well, servile. So, say, when I ask for ketchup, the ketchup should arrive within five minutes with no reminders.
4. Reasonable checking in on. I don’t need a “How’s everything here?” every two minutes. Maybe every ten. Do keep an eye on me. I like about two full cups of coffee in my rounded-lip mug every breakfast. That’s about three top-offs worth.
5. Good, well-stocked, clean restrooms. I’ve been in non-franchise restaurants with restrooms down the hall, out a door, up the stairs, and across from the Olympic-sized pool. When I’m full to bursting, I don’t want that.
6. Parking where I can see my car. That’s not a strong requirement, but, since I’m usually on a road trip when I choose a Denny’s for breakfast, I like to check that my darling honey Honda Pilot is alright. On a road trip, my Pilot is my knight in shining armor, my love and companion, serving my every need. It may be the heated seats that make me go on like this, but those of you who’ve taken long road trips know how attached you get. Any Denny’s usually meets all six of my criteria.

Some minuses with diners are loud TVs and poor heating or A/C. Moab’s Red Rock Bakery shows a TV football/soccer game all the time, but–bravo–with no sound. And please set your thermostats for extreme comfort for us travelers. We might have just come from our condo where the wintertime thermostat is set at 58 because we’re cheap. Or we’ve just come from pumping gas in 120-degree heat, and we’d like some respite before going out again.

Denny’s started in 1953 in Lakewood, California, as Danny’s Doughnuts. The name changed to “Denny’s” to avoid confusion with Doughnut Dan’s, another doughnut place. Denny’s has won awards for hygiene (nice to know) and it’s open 24 hours. A friend of mine goes there at all hours when she can’t sleep. Tom Waits writes about it. A dependable, safe, predictable eating place open 24 hours is a precious thing. And I’m talking as a short old lady who often travels alone. Sometimes you don’t care if the food is fantastic, you just want a warm, dry, safe place.

As a former waitress, I get to talk long and hard about service. I hated waitressing. Actually, at Hermosa Beach’s Taco’s Bill’s, “waitressing” was greeting, seating, taking orders, cooking, busing tables, and cleaning up. And putting up with know-it-all Agnes. Hard work with little thanks. I remember getting a dime for a tip from a couple who came in everyday for large taco salads with extra olives. Everyday. I’d see them coming and start their order. For a dime. Now I shamelessly over-tip every waitress. A waitress would have to do an absolutely crap job to get no tip from me.

An old boyfriend used to say how he loved going to pool rooms because no one knew who he was; it didn’t matter that he had a law degree or several angry ex-girlfriends or little money. He was accepted as is. That’s something I like about diners, too: I’m anonymous and equal, just a body at the counter or in the booth. The only clue to me is my good manners and a debit card. Maybe that baring-of-the-soulness is why I’ve written so many country-western songs in diner booths.

My dad loved Denny’s. He was a filmmaker and took many road trips around the country to meet with clients and do location shoots. I remember turning my nose up when he’d talk about how he “could count on Denny’s” to serve the same things. His assertion that food safety, clean bathrooms, and dependable menus were important seemed so boring, so Dad. And then I was the one driving long distances through parts–and eating at places–unknown. The Cortez, New Mexico, Navajo taco food poisoning event brought my nose back down pretty quick. I will not say that my father knew best, since he could also be brutishly inattentive to the work his mother and my mother put into family meals, but he did seem to know some things.

There were many times in Paris I got so tired of the cute little bistro scene with great food, hard and narrow chairs, euro-coin-sized tables, nice paintings on the walls, and the requisite huffy ignoramus waiter. I wanted a wide, smooth bench seat in a booth at a warm, convivial Denny’s. Where a table big enough to spread out my road atlas comes with the hash browns. Denny’s is also the largest corporate sponsor of Save the Children, a nice circular benefit since my son Sam’s fiancee works for that fine organization. And Heinz ketchup–Pittsburgh’s finest–is right there on the table. No need to ask.

I have other favorite diners: the Y Cafe (Carlsbad, New Mexico), Waffle House (Ft. Collins, Colorado), Belgian Waffle (Sandy, Utah), The Outlaw (Wellington, Utah), Mom’s Cafe (Salina, Utah), and Moab faves Eklectica Cafe, Moab Diner, and The Jailhouse. But if I’m pulling off an interstate in the American hinterlands, I like a bit of predictability, a private booth, and a warm bathroom. I prefer a non-franchised breakfast place, but it is nice to know Denny’s light is lit 24 hours everyday and is but a short walk from my house.

You’ll next see me at a Yuma, Arizona, Denny’s bent over a road atlas and a Grand Slam on January 10.

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