‘A martini in a diner?!” my boyfriend said from across the booth.
Well, why not? I spent my youth in diners on Long Island, studying some version or another of that “classic cocktail” place mat diners have used for what seems like forever. As a kid, I’d study those illustrated pieces of paper, curious as to why each drink had its own special glass and intrigued by names such as zombie, stinger or angel’s kiss. I longed for the day I could be sophisticated enough to order my own pink lady (and somehow simultaneously gain access to Rizzo’s gang from “Grease”).
“I want a cocktail,” I explained to my guy.
“Well, let’s go to a bar, then.”
“No, I want my martini here.”
It’s only natural that at some point in my adult life, I’d realize the joy of a diner cocktail. It had been there waiting for me, but the discovery came only when I was ready. For me, Friday night is an evening of recuperation from the busy week of work and going out. I like it to be mellow and relaxing so I can shake the stress. Crowds and bars and even busy restaurants don’t appeal, with weekend warriors squeezing in like sardines, but sometimes I don’t want to go straight home to comfy clothes and a movie. The Friday night diner visit provides the transition to the weekend: a hot meal of anything I could dream of, space, comfort and most of all, that fabulous concoction handed to me by a friendly server.
New York diners are one of a kind in that they are fast, serve enormous portions, are open 24 hours a day — and best and perhaps most forgotten of all, have full bars. Though important to note, as Manhattan’s behemoth all-night eateries are dwindling, diner drinking is best done right in the outer boroughs, Long Island and New Jersey. For some reason, in a city that likes to get its drink on, most neglect to utilize this perk, sticking to coffee, soda and the occasional egg cream as their diner drinks of choice.
Why does the fact that diners have full bars fall by the wayside? Is it the lack of a mixologist? Truth be told, there isn’t even a bartender — your drink is most likely put together by the cashier — but that’s part of the appeal. Order the classic cocktail of vodka or gin with a splash of vermouth, and you might get a glass filled only with Martini-brand vermouth or even something else you can’t figure out, like a Sprite, olives and an unidentifiable liquor mixture. It’s like a mixed-drink lottery. The tipple could be strong, bland, watery or unrecognizable. But more often than not, you will get a fresh, cold cocktail, presented with an army of olives lined up on a toothpick.
You can’t go wrong with the ambience. I mean, what’s more comforting and familiar than a diner? You’ll always get a seat — chances are it will be in a booth — and you’ll seldom wait on line. You may even get one of those cocktail place mats (aka “studying materials”), which serve as a wormhole to another era, certainly better than any speakeasy or trendy bar’s attempt at recreating a different time.
Most likely your diner has been open since the classic cocktail era, when people drank on plush banquettes in a civilized environment. Hold your diner martini in your hand and lean back in your spacious booth, and you’re instantly as glamorous as a sleek midcentury movie star surrounded by her own personal Rat Pack. Plus, disco fries.
I mean, c’mon. Life is good.
Tara Cox is the author of “Airstream: The Silver RV.”