You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone

At 12:30 AM last Friday, I experienced a striking sense of disappointment. Our diner was gone.

As a cook in a fine dining restaurant, my husband works nights and weekends. So we don’t see each other as often as most couples do. As a result, I stay up very late on Fridays and Saturdays so I can spend a couple of hours with him once he gets home. As the default becomes watching TV or fussing about on the Internet, going out is important. Unfortunately, by the time he gets home, most of the date destinations are in the process of closing. So we’ve developed a habit of going to the Hollywood Diner, one of the few places close to our house open 24/7 close. It’s a classic diner, with a chrome front, huge vinyl booths, and the sense of being welcoming even at midnight. I always order the eggplant Parmesan or veggie quesadillas, which have surprisingly fresh vegetables and are oddly accompanied by ranch dressing. I often have a hot chocolate as well, to stave off the brutal cold. Chris always has a burger of some sort with fries as well as a coffee. The waitresses and waiters have begun to recognize us. In other words, we’ve become regulars.

When we pulled up this past weekend, the parking lot was empty and there were signs on the windows much to our dismay. We reluctantly sat in the car for a second, then hustled out, as if by moving quickly we could avoid the cold. “We will no longer be at this location,” the home-printed sign said. “Our landlord has betrayed us. We will be opening up elsewhere on Rockville Pike.” We both stared at the sign for a second, then walked back to the car. No date of when they’d be reopening, or way to tell if the new location will be near our house – Rockville Pike is a very long road.

Because we were still hungry, we headed over to the IHOP a few blocks down. But it just wasn’t the same. The IHOP was nearly abandoned of customers, even though at least seven or eight staff members were hanging around. Nothing on the menu appealed to me; even the things on IHOP’s menu that sound delicious are uniformly terrible. Plus, the place had a false cheer about it, decorated for Valentine’s Day a month beforehand. As soon as we walked in, I wanted to leave.

It’s hard to describe why we were so disappointed. The diner wasn’t anything particularly special in any food related. I doubt “sustainable” could be applied to anything on their menu. Like all good diners, they made their own baked goods, but I never ordered any of them. The food was good for late-night, but that’s a different standard than what you get during the day.

But one thing the diner had that IHOP clearly lacked was a sense of community. There were always a few police cars in the parking lot, cops who went for a snack after their shift ended. The diner even had a spot set aside for them. Driving over to IHOP, we spotted those cops at the 7-11, huddled around the coffee machine. It was clear the space was uncomfortably small for that number of people. Similarly, there were always several groups of people coming from concerts or late movies at the diner. Besides us, there was exactly one group of clubbers at IHOP who appeared to have abandoned the party a little early. Most importantly, the diner was locally owned. I think the night manager was one of the owners – or perhaps related to them – and everyone genuinely cared about the business and people in it. No number of paper hearts for charity can create that sense of togetherness.

I hope the diner comes back somewhere nearby. Until then, Chris and I will have to find somewhere else for our late-night dates. Even though we only went there for a few months, we’ll still miss it.

Have you ever lost a restaurant that you loved for its atmosphere, not its food?

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