The 24 hour diner in my downstate New York hometown closes at one in the morning, two if it’s Friday or Saturday. Even then, the waiters glare at you if you come in after eleven. Generally, I get there about ten past eleven. The waiters are really good at glaring; it took me a long time not to feel like a jerk walking in. When it’s closed, the little yellow oval outside that says “Never Closed” is there to twist the knife.
There’s a lot worth eating at a diner late at night, the sort of stuff you really want to eat after two in the morning. There’s the humble burger, the slumber-tempting not-so-short stack of pancakes, or even the club sandwich (arguably one of the great inventions of the nineteenth century). But eating is secondary. Walking into a diner at eleven at night or two in the morning, the name of the game is coffee — specifically crap coffee.
Let’s be clear on what crap coffee is. It isn’t bad coffee. Bad coffee is the cup you get where the beans are burnt but you grin and bear it because it’s just too early. Bad coffee is the darkish water you drink at the office because, hey, it’s free and it gets the job done. Crap coffee is different. Crap coffee is great. Every cup is recognizable as crap coffee, but everywhere you get it there’s something special about it. It’s rejuvenating, but it feels as though you’re doing some minor violence to your body by drinking it. Most importantly, drinking it isn’t about seeking out something that’s less than good, or about slumming it; it’s about appreciating it for itself.
When I moved to Toronto, I wasn’t quite sure where to get my crap coffee fix. Then, one night, I found myself at Mars Food. I wandered in because of a family story. My dad told me about the place because of a time, some 30 years ago, when a friend of his who lived above the diner asked the then-owner why they named it Mars Food. The owner thought for a moment, and then offered frankly, “We named it … after the planet.” That was enough to get me in the door.
Much of the time, Mars is as cruel as my hometown diner. During the week, they close at eight, leaving the caffeine-seeking pilgrim to face a darkened storefront. On the weekend though, it’s a haven. The coffee is cheap and often tastes just slightly chlorinated; it’s perfect. Not too long ago I ducked in late at night as it started to rain. There were a couple of people at the counter being served by a bored-looking young man. I sat for a bit and absorbed a couple of coffees. Afterwards the rain didn’t seem so bad; walking home in it felt right.
There’s one more distinction that needs to be made, between drinking crap coffee during the day and drinking crap coffee at night.
Along Route 17, the highway that runs through the Catskill Mountains between New York City and Binghamton, there’s a town called Roscoe. Just off the highway is the Roscoe Diner. The walls are covered with college pennants and the portions are large. I’ve never been in the Roscoe Diner later than seven or eight at night. It’s a good place to grab a bite and a coffee on the drive from New York to Toronto. The coffee is crap coffee, but drinking it during the day isn’t the same. It’s still good, and it keeps you going for a while as you wind through the mountains to get on the thruway, but it’s a transitory experience. Its purpose is to keep you going, and it does that well.
At night, sitting in a diner just to sit in a diner, crap coffee takes on a different tone. During the day, its job is to get you somewhere or to make some task bearable. At night, without a purpose, it’s kind of perverse. You’re drinking it in spite of the fact that you’re giving the finger to your circadian rhythms. Late at night, with no purpose, the coffee just sticks in your stomach and makes you wonder whether it was a good idea to drink it in the first place (it was) and if it was a good idea to stay up as late as you have (it probably wasn’t).
There are exceptions to this rule. You can drink crap coffee at night on the go, but that seems to fall into a category of its own. It’s about drinking it when there’s nothing to do and you have to come face to face with the coffee. It has to slosh around in your belly and make you think and talk in the way that you only can when you’re caffeinated and it’s late.
Not terribly late a few weeks ago a friend and I visited Vesta Lunch, the Bathurst and Dupont landmark that consists of a single dining counter and a long window. It’s been likened to something out of an Edward Hopper painting so many times it should to be illegal (although I would be guilty of no fewer than five counts of this new crime). We sat at the counter and spoke for a while with the kindly older lady and sarcastic middle aged man who were on shift.
We went through one cup of coffee, then another. It was neither spectacular nor terrible — just exactly right. After the first cup, a pair of men came in. One was very loudly airing some terrible opinions about women. On our way out, we approached him and I told him his facts were wrong and his ideas were deplorable. I would’ve spoken to him anyway, as I hope anyone would, but I’d like to think that those two cups made it even more imperative. In the world of crap coffee, there’s no room for crap thinking.