When I was younger, my grandpa would take me fishing at Webster Bay. Too young to really care about bettering my catch, I was there for one reason and one reason only: the post-fishing diner club. Grandpa and I would meet a couple of his friends at the dock and head out to eat with them afterwards. I’d order the same thing every time: a coffee with two creams and three sugars, French toast with confectioners sugar, and hold the maple syrup. Few things are as marvelous as hot coffee and warm French toast after a cold, early morning of fishing.

Perhaps this was the start of my devotion to diners, or maybe it’s been there all along. Throughout my life, I’ve singled out diners as my preferred breakfast spot. The best are the ones that smell a little antiquated and can barely seat 104 people, like the one I was in this past weekend. That’s when you know you’ve struck gold.

The diner is an American wonder, a timeless phenomena that you’d think would have died out by now in the face of fast food and third wave coffee shops. Yet here they stand. The first stationary diner opened in 1913, and though aesthetics have changed, these quirky watering holes remain an oasis in the desert for travelers longing for a hot meal, cold shake, and small-town hospitality.

And, not to mention, that glorious cup of diner sludge coffee. You know the kind I’m talking about — that thick, acidic brew with a little oil slick swirling on top in a ceramic mug. That’ll get you moving. These days, I, like Twin Peaks’ Special Agent Dale Cooper, take it “black as midnight on a moonless night.”

Here in the Finger Lakes, some of my favorite spots are just around the corner. The Blue Ribbon in Phelps has been a mainstay for my family, along with Sweet Sue’s in Stanley, Connie’s in Waterloo, and Park Place in Victor. Most weekends, Dad and I would stop in after a garage sale marathon — eggs, toast, and bacon on our minds.

I could rave forever about cups of diner coffee and the rather unique aesthetic choices that adorn each roadside diner, but what I love most about them is their role as an epicenter of the community.

At a diner, you will never not fit in. Like churches, diners host within their walls folks from all walks of life; individuals from different spheres of experience brought together under a common need: good eats. And less pretension invites more vulnerability. Some of the deepest, most life-changing conversations I’ve ever had began across a diner booth with a friend or stranger. And who hasn’t had their spirits lifted by the sassy kindness of a friendly waitress? Diners bring people together and mostly give them exactly what they’d expect. In our world of uncertainty and chaos, familiarity can be precious.

More than ever, we need to frequent the places that anchor our community. Not only to support local businesses as they get back on their post-pandemic feet — though that is certainly reason enough — but to get back a spirit of neighborliness that has been lost to the asocial novelties of our day and this season of social distancing.

So if you want to really see a town, visit its diner. Order a cup of coffee, accept the endless refills, and don’t forget to leave a tip.

Abbey Sitterley is a copy editor at the Finger Lakes Times. Her “Around 520 Words” column runs every other Tuesday. Contact her at asitterley@fltimes.com or (315) 789-3333, ext. 256.

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