Twin City Diner has got it right

by Brian Clarey

It looks a lot like a diner in here, with booths lining the walls, chrome and Naugahyde chairs, a checkerboard motif, specials boards and a glass pie case.

But there’s something different going on here. There’s a full service bar, for one, which today is slinging $3 whiskey sours. There are other differences, too, which I’ll get to in a minute.

The Twin City Diner was founded here in Winston-Salem on the corner of 1st Street where it grazes Business 40 back in 1988, the year I graduated high school and also logged hundreds of hours in Long Island diners like the Old Country Diner near my parents’ house where you could get the best fries and gravy; the Garden City Sandwich Shop, owned by a lovable old cuss named Lou who would yell at us when we used too much ketchup; the Lantern, where you could buy a drink no matter how young you looked; the Garden Park Diner, which everybody called Gus’s, and which served a concoction known as a Bullburger – a double bacon cheeseburger with a runny fried egg laid across it; and Sparta, owned by the family of my friends, cousins Yanni and Rita Skiadis, that served onion rings that looked like doughnuts.

I know diners. Or at least I thought I did.

But this place… something different about it.

There’s no breakfast menu, for one. Which is fine, as long as you understand that before going in. And the menu: A Portobello sandwich? Blackened or teriyaki tuna? Atkins-friendly side dishes? Fried pickles and green tomatoes?

Old Lou would have burst a blood vessel in his forehead if we had asked him for fried green tomatoes back in 1988. But he would have approved of the bulk of the menu, a slate of sandwiches, salads, burgers and even a couple Greek items like souvlaki and hummus.

Another key difference is that the Twin City Diner stops serving food at 10 or 11 p.m., while any self-respecting diner on Long Island stays open 24 hours. But, in the Twin City’s favor, the bar stays open as long as people are drinking, which, at least, gives it something in common with the Lantern.

I’m feeling nostalgic, so I order a meatloaf burger. It’s brilliant: an honest-to-goodness slab of meatloaf finished off on the grill until it was a bit pink in the middle, coated with tangy brown gravy and with a ton of melted cheese – mozzarella? – on top. Also on the bun were a full slice of red onion, two (count ’em!) tomato medallions and a leaf of romaine lettuce, all signs of commitment to quality ingredients.

Unfortunately the lettuce obscured a thick smear of mayonnaise, which went unnoticed until I took my first bite. Memo to the restaurant industry: Not everyone wants mayo.

Otherwise the burger was fantastic, with an ample, well-seasoned patty and a pleasant commingling of tastes.

Two other burgers on the menu have been mentioned in Southern Living magazine – the BCBB, which is a blackened bacon bleu cheese burger, and the Gus burger, a true Carolina original made with chili and slaw which has been ripped off by Wendy’s.

The Twin City Diner also offers a somewhat more sophisticated dinner menu, with pan-fried local trout, barbecue ribs, vegetarian pasta and an array of steaks including an Angus ribeye, none of which could be had at Gus’s unless you brought it yourself and asked him to cook it. Which he probably would not do.

Another advantage the Twin City has over my old Long Island haunts is that they serve homemade desserts, including a hot fudge brownie pie that I was unable to consider ordering after my burger, and, along with their sweet tea, another Southern staple – homemade orange- and lemonade.

Also, I got the feeling that I could use as much ketchup as I wanted.

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