There is a pair of delicate purple tulips, with just a few inches of stem, in a small glass tea cup with a handle. The cup is filled about one third with water, leaving no doubt as to the authenticity of the flowers. At least the flowers are real. The same can’t be said for the slice of Boston creme pie on my plate. The diner was honest enough to spell it as “creme” since it obviously has no real cream in it. It is quite a beautiful imitation of a dessert. I guess that’s why I got a slice, after seeing its radiant beauty in the display case. But I wouldn’t dare destroy this work of art with a fork. I know that it would taste like artificially sweetened coagulated grease. And besides, just look at it – it’s a perfect, idealized replica of a real Boston cream pie.
Clearly, the person responsible for the pie is not the same as the one responsible for the living flowers on my table. Straight ahead of me on the dingy, yellow wall, hangs an original piece of fabric art. Spreading about four feet wide and six feet tall, it covers most of the space from the bathroom door to the first green, vinyl dining booth. The hanging is made of deep purples, orange and blood red felt. Although abstract, it evokes the feeling of India. To the left of the bathroom, next to the kitchen, hangs a reproduction of a hotel style painting – some soulless pastel flowers. Over all, the diner is fairly sparsely decorated, and most of the art is like the cheap hotel painting. But on the wall right by my table, at shoulder height, is another original, unique work of art. It’s a pen and ink drawing, about ten inches square. It’s an incredibly intricate drawing of a child clutching on to a book in a storm. There are furious waves and a violent rocky cliff in the background; the child, who looks to me like a boy, has an anguished, pleading face.
The decor and the food aren’t the only inconsistencies in this place. The menu is literally split down the middle with a thick black line in magic marker. On the left is standard diner fare – biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs, chocolate milkshake, etc. On the right, in a totally different font (light, italicized type with some swirly flourishes, as opposed to thick, san serif lettering on the left side) is an idiosyncratic list of dishes, like “Braised tempeh with baby kale,” and “Orange pekoe brussels sprout skins in dark béarnaise sauce.” Maybe you could find food like those on the right side of the menu in a boutique, gourmet, Fair Trade certified tea house in San Fransisco, but I doubt there was any other place in Iowa that served orange pekoe brussels sprout skins in a dark béarnaise sauce.
I don’t have time to try anything from the menu, though I think would have been interesting to get stuff from both sides, like “Our famous house meatloaf” with a side of “organic truffle-infused rutabaga fries with Sriracha aioli.”
I’d be embarrassed to leave the pie on the table, so I’m going to ask to take it to go. I’ll also ask if they can shed light on the split menu. Is the diner some sort of partnership? Does anyone ever order from the right side of the menu?
I’m waiting for a wait person to come over. It’s after the lunch hour, so the place is almost empty – just a couple other booths are taken. A diminutive woman just emerged from the kitchen. She sticks out as the only employee, or customer for that matter, who doesn’t have that healthy, robust Iowa layer of beef fat that thickens the people up in these parts. I’m from Ohio, which may sound similar to people from the coasts, but believe me, it’s a world apart from Iowa. This is my second year attending college in Iowa, and I’ve come to know this state as a land where people look disturbingly like the farm animals they raise and slaughter.
The woman who emerged from the kitchen is cleaning the tables. She looks like she may be of East Asian decent. I’ve decided that she must be responsible for the incongruous art and menu items. Probably the lovely flower arrangements, too. I’ll bet she married a local restauranteur. Or maybe, it’s her place, but her financial backer insisted that she devote half the menu to Iowa comfort food and that he have a say in the decor.
She just walked up to me and asked if I’d like my check. Not only did she have a midwestern accent, but when I told her that I liked the pen and ink drawing, she just said, “Whatever.” Now I feel all weird and confused. What does “whatever” mean in that context? She’s clearly not the owner, anyway. An older woman is telling her what to do.
I’m in my car now, so I have to stop writing. I guess I’ll never know what the story is with this place. I just noticed the name of the diner: “Diner.” Yes, just Diner. The Diner diner. I’ll have to come back some day and try the brussels sprout skins.