The simple lunch of yesteryear

by Brian Clarey

In the days before mesclun mix salads and egg white omelets, the midday meal was a simple affair with the dual purpose of providing a short break from workaday stresses and filling the belly for what the remainder of the day had in store.

This was the golden era of the lunch counter, a standard fixture in drugstores, department stores and five-and-dimes throughout the country. In New York they served egg creams. In the South they dispensed orangeade. In sunny California they opened on the street under awnings and in the big cities they existed in the lobbies of office buildings.

It was in America’s lunch counters that a form of service-industry slang was born, giving us terms like ‘“over easy’” and ‘“86’” which are still used today (see sidebar).

So imbedded in the culture were they that the right to eat at them became a touchstone for the Civil Rights Movement.

Everybody around these parts knows what happened on February 1, 1960 at the Woolworth’s lunch counter on Elm Street, but not everybody knows that there is still one place in town that keeps alive the tradition of cheap, simple food at reasonable prices.

The Brown-Gardiner drugstore exists in the borderlands between the tawny neighborhoods of Fisher Park and Irving Park, a throwback to simpler times when a drugstore meant more than just the place where you buy your Odor Eaters.

They still fill prescriptions here behind a high counter in the back, buttressing rows of sundry ointments and quick cures. The other side of the room is reserved for the bustling breakfast and lunch crowds ‘— round tables with faux cane-back chairs and a low counter with blue-topped swivel stools. The kitchen is just a cramped space in the corner with a small griddle, a double fryer and a conveyer-belt toaster, where a short-order specialist turns out dishes that are spectacular in their ordinariness. The only thing that’s fancy is the ketchup.

Egg salad. Hot dogs. Grilled cheese. Burgers. Cream cheese and olives. White bread. Wheat. Iceberg lettuce and yellow American. Club sandwiches. Bologna. Pimiento cheese. Barbecue. BLTs with crinkle-cut fries. In the cold weather they ladle out soups and stews. In the summer they dish out scoops of ice cream in sugar cones. All year long they squeeze fresh oranges on a press over crushed ice and mix in a healthy dose of simple syrup for an orangeade that tastes like days gone by.

You’ve seen it all before, but the fact that nobody else in town serves fare like this anymore makes it strangely exotic. This is food that could certainly be re-created in your own kitchen, though the experience is one of a kind.

A recent late afternoon visit showed the tables filled with a cadre of the city’s letter carriers, many of whom had recently pulled their government-issue gray shorts out from winter storage. The stools at the counter were occupied by newspapers readers and gossiping couples.

Looking at the menu is like looking in your mother’s refrigerator, and after a brief internal debate I order the patty melt ‘— two thin burger patties nestled against a bed of melted Swiss and sizzled loops of thin-sliced white onion between greased and grilled bread. It’s served sliced down the middle with twin pickle chips on top. The fries come in a small cardboard boat with red and white checks on it. Orangeade is delivered in a plain white Styrofoam cup. Fancy ketchup oozes from the squeeze bottle with a light flatulent sound.

Eating it is like traveling through time.

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