It’s around noon at Barbec’s, and I’m overcome with a strange, uncomfortable feeling. I’m clutching the spiral menu, hunkering in the back at a cherry red table. The bird houses running around the vaulted ceiling seem to stare back at me. Nearby, someone tinks a metal spoon on a cup (I swear) to the tune of “Shave and a Haircut.” I’ve got a chicken fried steak in front of me, which looks like someone deep fried the letter “L.” The origin of my strange feeling: This is my first time at Barbec’s, and it’s a little ... rocky.
I love the magic of diners. I love the old-fashioned spots where you get mugs of scald-your-tongue coffee re-filled so fast that you suspect you’re the main character in The Truman Show getting all the attention. Patty melts and Denver omelettes and BLTs as old fashioned as Gone with the Wind — a real diner is the dive bar of the morning. It’s a short stack of unpretentious comfort.
My discomfort at Barbec’s creeps in because I’m having trouble feeling the diner magic. Is this just Barbec’s version of timeless charm? I’m certainly a timeless charm apologist — I’ve heard so much about their biscuits — but I feel like there’s something’s not quite right.
My waiter destroys a fly with the swatter nearby. She’s only been here a couple days, she mentions. The top of the menu announces that Barbec’s cooks everything in vegetable oil. Sure, that’s fine?
The chicken-fried steak, a deep-fried boat sail smothered in white gravy, is gasping for salt and pepper. Five minutes go by where I’m in denial about the disappointment over this chicken-fried steak. The black-eyed peas are under-cooked but have some good flavor. The mac and cheese side is overcooked, a noodle glop of hot orange. Pepper saves it from becoming cement.
The biscuits are fine, rich and dense with salty, crusty edges. With a smear of butter and honey, things get better.
Barbec’s has been serving their southern-influenced dishes off Garland Road in the White Rock area for more than 40 years. The building was there for 10 years before that as a Howard Johnson’s diner, I’m told by General Manager Debbie Stogner and Cathy Franklin, the server who’s been there the longest.
After scrambled eggs and a hash, stretchy with cheese and punctuated by thick dices of morning ham, I’m sitting at the counter talking with Stogner and Franklin. Stogner’s presence is instantly calming. She has cloud-white hair.
“Everyone here is like my kids,” Stogner says. “Cathy has been here 22 years?”
“Twenty-two years,” Cathy confirms with a smile. She’s pouring hot coffee for a customer.
“A lot of the older people ... she’s been waiting on them for 20 years,” Stogner says. “Some of them won’t sit with anyone else. They’ll stand and wait. They’re loyal.”
When I ask about their patron’s favorite dishes, Debbie pauses for a minute. She tells me about the meatloaf, all beef, and the chicken-fried steak.
As we talk, I get the sense that making patrons feel like they’re with family is perhaps a notch more important than the food. Looking around Barbec’s, I take in who’s eating at that moment: Pleased couples who look like they’re nursing a hangover, a couple of older men volleying conversation back and forth, another older couple, smiling at each other, cutting through a hemisphere-spanning CFS.
On that first trip, it took me until I paid my bill to realize that Barbec’s is cash-only, a fact I’d overlooked somehow. They asked, nicely, to hold my driver’s license with my check at the front as collateral, which I handed over quickly and embarrassed. I got back as quick as I could with the cash, paid and left wondering how many people make that mistake.
I felt like the antagonist in Field of Dreams who walked right through the middle of the supernatural baseball game, oblivious to its magic, and it hit me in the gut. I want to embrace all diners with primordial joy. I want to experience coffee and fresh waffles endlessly into the horizon, because it’s pure. At Barbec’s, I felt torn between the rocky bites of food and seeing the comfort and family working as it has for years.
The best diners have been operating long past the life of a food blog, and they don’t give a damn about anything outside their walls. They do their thing, and everybody goes home. Barbec’s is doing what they do, whether you like it or not, and they’ve been doing it a long time.
Barbec's, 8949 Garland Road