When I was first approached to review the diners in Williamsburg, I thought that I might be in over my head. After all, there are more than 20 places fitting that label in Williamsburg. Most unwilling to sample the fare served up in all of them, especially without an expense budget or a lifetime supply of Tums, I decided to make my life easier by focusing only on the nouveau Three Sisters, namely Miss Williamsburg Diner, Diner, and Relish. A simple task perhaps, but also a delicate one. Each has its own charm, a loyal clientele, and its own version of local color, but how to choose which is the best without stepping on anyone’s toes?
Before I begin, I should also mention my fear that everyone might somehow find out that I regularly eat sugar and margarine sandwiches or mayonnaise and flour tortillas and that I know nothing about food, all of which is basically true. Fortunately, with the Three Sisters the food, though quite important, isn’t the real attraction. Instead, these retro diners are after something else.
Plain or fancy, a true diner must possess several key elements in its makeup:
· The food should be cheap and greasy.
· It should stay open around the clock.
· Horrible, bottomless, truckstop coffee is essential.
· Grisly, but maternal waitresses named Dottie, Roz, or Doris are a definite plus. Of course she’s worked there since before you were born and thus automatically knows what you want before you do. Codfishballs.
· It must have wood paneling and a jukebox full of country greats with the occasional Wham! track thrown in for good measure.
· Chrome should be visible and neon needs to be strategically placed everywhere. The dessert shelf is visible from every point in the restaurant, as are the blenders for shakes and malts.
· The cook is sweaty and simply disgusting but a professional, perhaps with a real (i.e. prison) tattoo.
A great diner is at once timelessly dreary yet extraordinarily dear to its patrons and community. Like many Waits songs or Hopper paintings, it is a classic. Though none of these diners are what we commonly associate with the classic diner, each is memorable in one way or another. As for them qualifying as happening nightspots, another set of crucial elements must be considered:
Hours of operation.
Expense (in cash).
Ambiance and, actually, the smell.
Waitstaff/lunatic fringe accessibility.
With this improved criteria I can now fully investigate the Three Sisters. Let’s begin.
Ball One: None of the diners are open 24 hours. I guess if there were a major danceclub in the area they would stay open much longer, but that’s actually permissible. All three are open afterhours generally and serve booze, which Al Delvecchio’s didn’t, so that’s a plus.
Strike One: None of the Sisters are cheap. The average price for an entrée is 10 to 18 bucks which isn’t bad by New York standards but not when you’re hittin’ the sauce and being grand. Your friends always manage to show up, drink up, and then evaporate when the bill drops. Fifty bucks right there. And diners should be cheap. I mean after the taxis, Grey Goose gimlets, the pills, and the hookers, who has paper to spare on duck confit? My rule of thumb is: “Don’t go out to dinner if you can’t afford to pay for at least one other greedy person’s meal.”
Strike Two: Each Sister serves coffee along with the usual cappuccino and lattes but it ain’t no truckstop coffee and it is far from bottomless. I’ve had to ask for more at each place and it tastes far too good. At Dave’s in Oakland, I used to drink seven cups of coffee which was possible because it was so weak and after a few cups, the burnt taste sort of grew on me. Only Relish serves milkshakes and eggcreams and has the major authentic dessert case. The chocolate cake behind the glass is now flourless and crème caramel has replaced tapioca for good. Dessert, which used to be the main attraction, is now a bit of an afterthought.
Ball Three: Where are the elderly, big-breasted Far Side-like staff people? It’s safe to say that pretense is a constant at all three of the Sisters and what is more pretentious really than waifish SoHo expatriates originally from Boise studying film at NYU? I have to say that service was shoddy at each and many times we wanted to grab our quickly cooling entrees ourselves. The only thing that came quickly was the bill.
Like Rickey Henderson, I will take a walk. I get on, let me also take a chance and state which of the three venues was my favorite. I will not mention it by name, but here are some clues:
· Mussels with that outstanding broth.
· DJ Shadow, Rap, Cam, and Dimitri from Paris.
· Pommes frites and mojitos.
· It has replicas in Scandinavia.
· It’s so cutting edge that even professional trendspotters can’t keep up with it.
· Carmelized pearl onions atop a gruyere-covered range fed, PETA-friendly meat slab.
· It’s consistently fashionable yet has obvious street cred.
· Addicts, sculptors, sound tech guys, club and restaurant impresarios and their families all fit in.
· Lastly and perhaps most important is: they allow everyone to smoke, and the lighting and the fireplace are sublime.
I could go on about what’s great where and which place has what special something, but why bother? Sample all three for yourselves and tell me if we don’t come up with the same winner. Don’t you already know?
Diner, 85 Broadway, 718-486-3077
Miss Williamsburg, 206 Kent Ave., 718-963-0802
Relish, 225 Wythe Ave., 718-963-4546
ContributorJason Duvalle Jones
Jason Duvalle Jones is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail.