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Sandy’s Luncheonette: a meditation on the diner

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“I was at an all-night diner/The sign said, ‘Triple X’/But they were talking about root beer...”

— Modest Mouse, “All Night Diner”

In 2002, Richard Russo won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his novel “Empire Falls,” which is about, among other things, a diner called the Empire Grill.

The main characters of the book are Miles Roby and his daughter “Tick” and the connections between them and their friends, family and acquaintances, all who live in a decaying old mill town in Maine called Empire Falls.

The Empire Grill is as much of a character as any one person in the book and its fate is connected, in a very real way, to Miles’s fortune and, in a less literal sense, to the fate of the entire town.

Perhaps Russo’s true genius is his ability to make Empire Falls stand in for so many small blue-collar factory towns across the country.

In this way, the centrality of the Empire Grill to the plot of the novel is a prime example of the diner as unique feature of American Life.

A ready and willing literary device, the diner has been employed in so many novels, plays, books and movies that listing them here seems pointless; as if to demonstrate the veneration of the diner as a theme, there is even a movie called “Diner.”

The French have their bagettes, the Italians their espresso, in Buenos Aires the portenos nibble medialunas for breakfast and, in America, we have hot ham and cheese on rye with a cup of soup.

The diner is akin to the forum — a place to converse, to kvetch, to laugh and, lest we forget, to eat.

But, as with anything so well-used and so well-worn, the diner is overromanticized and, perhaps, especially now, underpatronized.

Sandy’s Luncheonette, on Public Square, may not be a diner in name, but take one look inside, at the long countertop, the tables in the back, the grill, and you know where you are.

Sandy L. Amo bought the place in 1999 after working for 18 years at the lunch counter at Wooloworth’s before it closed in 1996 and then at a few other places, including Art’s Jug, before purchasing the former Nicky’s Luncheonette and adding her name to the marquee.

She said she had trouble initially securing a loan. She was told that most restaurants go out of business in the first year.

But, 14 years later, the luncheonette is still going, clinging obstinately to life at the edge of what was, for many years, little more than urban blight — the empty shell of the Woolworth Building.

“We’re still not making any money but we’re still here,” Sandy said, laughing.

And even now, the construction turning the Woolworth Building into ground-floor commercial space and upper-floor apartments is a mixed blessing.

The site generates a lunch crowd but also makes it hard for people to see the restaurant, which even on the brightest of days is tucked into shadows in a little alcove at the far end of the square.

The space that Sandy’s Luncheonette now occupies has a long history of being an eating establishment of one stripe or another.

Nicolina J. Goutremout owned the space for 12 years; before that it was called McDonald Luncheonette; and before that it was the Whelan Drug Store and before that it was Herrick’s Pharmacy and before that, well, who knows. The chicken or the egg? Or the omelette?

Sandy said she has worked in and around Public Square since she graduated from high school and she comes by her expertise honestly.

“I never went to school for this,” she said.

Ironically, though the diner has its regulars, including former Times executive editor Bert Gault, who started going there on a daily basis after the ice storm of 1998, it now has more delivery customers than dine-in customers.

Since the Public Square redesign, there are fewer parking spaces nearby, Sandy said, which means that the workers at the diner have to deliver meals by foot.

Sandy has two employees beside herself. They traverse up and down Washington Street and into and out of doctors’ offices, lawyers’ offices and banks.

That may be the reason why the diner is such a uniquely American institution. Diner food is relatively inexpensive, yet seems to be universely liked by all manner of people up and down the income scale.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy running a restaurant with such an egalitarian spirit. Overhead — electricity, heat, insurance — keeps increasing but the prices have stayed the same for four years, according to Sandy.

I asked Sandy what keeps her going, what gets her out of bed every morning.

“You feel like you’re filling the need for somebody else,” Sandy said, before self-consciously adding, “You don’t have to quote me exactly.”

I guess maybe that line, however true it may be, sounded a bit too corny for her.

After all, a diner is a place where salty food and salty language proliferate — a characteristic best illustrated by Sandy’s analysis of what keeps people coming back to her diner.

“We have really, really good food, you’ll get waited on quickly, it’s inexpensive and it you want a smart-ass comment you’ll get one of those too,” she said.

And there’s always the hope that you might turn a profit.

“I figure someday I’ll make something so I might as well keep going,” she said.

Sandy’s Luncheonette is open from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday. Try the chicken gumbo.

Daniel Flatley is a staff writer covering Jefferson County government and politics for the Watertown Daily Times. He writes a column once a week for the local section of the paper. He can be reached at dflatley@wdt.net.

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