My sister lives on Long Island, where diners are more sit-down restaurant than chrome-walled roadside attractions. With full bars, massive menus and big screen televisions they draw a wide crowd. In Upstate America, a diner can be one of two things. The best case scenario is a greasy spoon with great breakfast and a menu that encompasses comfort food to the most complicated meal (not that anyone will ever order it, but its the effort that counts). On the flip side is the dumpy place you drive past and would never consider entering unless you were blind drunk and looking to offset some alcohol.
In Syracuse, we have Stella’s Diner. This is the gold standard of local diners and a case study in socioeconomic diversity. On any given day, you’ll see the working poor eating breakfast next to men in $500 suits. The Market Diner, B’ville Diner, Mother’s Cupboard, Gardenview Diner, and MaMa Nancy’s fall somewhere underneath Stella’s in the rankings of the best in town.
The Little Gem inhabited a corner at Liberty Ave. and Spencer St. in Syracuse for more years than anyone cares to remember. It was held up as a piece of our local history as one of the oldest chrome train-car style diners in the country and heralded by people of this ilk as a dying breed in eateries.
There’s a reason it was dying, of course. The food was terrible and the neighborhood is questionable. It didn’t hurt that the economy bottomed out, leaving the traditional diner diner at home. At the end, the owner’s $1.99 breakfast special couldn’t keep the doors open. It closed a little more than a year ago.
A week ago, a local builder and the owner of the aforementioned MaMa Nancy’s reopened it as The Gem, with expanded seating, renovated interior and other features. Sadly, they repeated one mistake.
The lousy food.
Seeking an exit from my office this afternoon, I grabbed a seat at the counter for lunch. Problem No. 1: No air conditioning. Or, better, badly designed HVAC. The thermostat is next to the kitchen doors, which face the counter. Those of us up front were in a convection oven, heated by the grill and fryers. In their infinite wisdom, the waitresses cranked the air conditioning and turned the back dining room into a meat locker.
Problem No. 2: The service. It was, in a word, terrible. It took about five minutes to get a waitress and even longer to get a menu. As I sat, menu on the counter, trying to make a decision, a waitress flopped her stuff down on my menu and began totaling a bill. The compound addition required a lot of concentration, as she missed the clearly annoyed stare I was giving her. The best part was that she took my menu with her when she walked away. When I finally got my waitress to come back over, I ordered a turkey club with fries. I was also the host for multiple pots of coffee that were set down in front of me by waitresses with better things to do than carry a pot of coffee.
On the upside, the kitchen is turning food around quickly. This is easy when you consider the portion sizes, or problem three. The rather paltry sandwich, consisting of mostly turkey and tomatoes, was okay. Listen, turkey club sandwiches are not culinary challenges or some measure of quality. It’s simple…turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayo, three slices of toast. Yet, it didn’t taste like anything. The bacon didn’t even have flavor.
Problem No. 4: The service. The counter is broken into two five-seat segments, with a walkway in the middle leading to the prep area and kitchen. I took the seat on the walkway, which left me in Grand Central Station for this place. For example, my waitress brought me ketchup with my lunch. The next time I saw her was 10 minutes later when I was looking for a check. The flavorless, soggy fries were begging for salt and ketchup. As I reached for the plastic ketchup bottle, another waitress took it away to another table. My waitress was nowhere to be found, but no other waitress would stop when I flagged them down for another bottle. I sat quietly, eat my lunch as fast as I could and waited for my check.
Problem No. 5: Cashing out. Apparently only one person on staff is allowed to handle money or cash out bills. This is a problem when you are so packed that there is a line out the door. They could not turn tables over quickly enough because of the pile up at the register. My $9 sandwich-and-fries took an extra 10 minutes to pay for, once I got the bill, because my MasterCard required a special handshake between the cashier and waitress in order to complete. I signed my receipt, tipped exactly 15 percent and left, vowing never to return.