Diner coffee’s joy is its consistency. The same every time, it fulfills the minimum requirements expected from every single cup of coffee on earth: It is hot, it is black, and it delivers caffeine. I ask no more of it, and the only decision diner coffee demands of me is which diner to enjoy it in.
When I go to Golden House next to the Riviera in Uptown, there is no choice: I must drink some. And I must have breakfast, even at 2 p.m. (I assume they have a lunch menu; I’ve never checked.) Before I’m even seated, coffee has been offered and I’ve accepted it. It comes, as all diner coffee does, in a heavy ceramic mug, accompanied by shelf-stable half-and-half and paper packets of Splenda. At home, I’ve been known to sweeten and lighten my coffee, but at a diner, the only option is pure, unadulterated black.
The ritual of diner coffee is tantric. It is the sighing of the foam and vinyl upholstery as you sit down, its glitter-flecked luster fading to an odd green-gold in the sun. It is the clatter of cheap silverware, the click of a saucer on Formica, the squeak of a bolted-down stool. It is the indelicate slosh of the unrequested refill that completely throws off your internal caffeination calculus. It is the connection beyond the cup, to the Streets and San employee after a long night, the crew that just closed down Carol’s Pub, the Senior Specials saving 10 percent on Wednesday. It is the tinny speaker playing Wilson Phillips, exhorting you to hold on, hold on for one more day.
Diner coffee is disconnected from time. It is the taste of Chicago before there were venti sizes and newspaper page-count declines and a smoking ban (take heart: cigarettes are still for sale behind the counter). It is the pleasure of something unrefined, unhurried, and forever unchanged.