When I moved to New York after college, a few of my friends and I were looking for an easy way to see each other regularly. We needed a new routine for our formless lives, something fun to do every week. So we decided to eat at every diner on the Upper East Side. There were a lot of them: roughly 60 when we began. We went to a new diner once a week, always for dinner on a weeknight. Initially, perhaps with a remnant of collegiate work ethic, we planned this to be a rigorous exercise: a spreadsheet where we’d determine ratings for the food, the ambiance, the service; a standardized order (fries, coffee, pie) to ensure a fair ratings system. We had visions of turning this into a profitable exercise. We’d build a website, a one-subject Zagat. We’d write a book in the time-honored tradition of Julie & Julia, the story of how we discovered the true meaning of life by adhering to an arbitrary routine week after week. Maybe the book would turn into a movie. Maybe we’d get rich!
Our system didn’t last long. We were diligent at first, but as the weeks went on, we neglected the spreadsheet. Diligence requires energy. Diners, as I quickly discovered, do not give you energy. Eating at a diner is the opposite of eating at a fine restaurant with white tablecloths and multiple forks. There, you are on high alert, interrupted every ten seconds by a hovering waiter. At a diner, you are left to your own devices. You are not inspired to sit up straight and take notice. No one cares how you look! It’s basically one step up from being at home, on your couch, in your sweatpants.
I began to love the relaxation of the diner experience. It was a highlight of my week. At the end of a long workday, I’d slide into a cracked pleather booth along with my friends, and my body would sigh in relief, like I was sinking into a hot bath, or taking off a pair of tight shoes. The energy would flood out of me. A diner was a simple place. I only wanted to sit there, and talk about nothing, and eat whatever I wanted, which was always: breakfast.
What is it about a diner that makes me throw restraint out the window? The salads or the sides of vegetables are not for me. Neither are the entrees that present a balance of protein and fiber and carbohydrates. These options do exist. In fact, there are too many of them. Diner menus are bafflingly long, and it is possible to return to the same place over and over again, and never order the same thing twice. Some of it seems like trolling. Who orders these things, the baked scrod and the jumbo seafood royale platter? If you have ordered raw shellfish off a diner menu, you are a braver person than me.
Instead, I stuck with one section of the menu: the breakfast section. Because the breakfast section is the best section. Just listen! Fried eggs with bacon; Western omelettes; chocolate chip pancakes; waffles with snowy drifts of whipped cream. Stacks of buttered toast with jam. Egg sandwiches on squishy rolls, melted cheese escaping from the edges. Heaps of crispy fries to mop up the ketchup. The notion of breakfast granted me the permission to order whatever the hell I wanted. Why can’t I have a stack of frisbee-sized pancakes, drenched in butter and maple syrup, at 8 p.m. on a weeknight? If you told me that I was ordering this food from the dessert section of the menu, I would agree that it was a little absurd. But it wasn’t dessert. It was breakfast! Everyone says it is the most important meal of the day, and if this food belongs to that meal, then—ipso facto—it must be okay.
Within the boundaries of the work week, different meals take on different moods. Lunch is an efficient affair, a desk-bound salad or a brisk business meal. Dinner is freighted with expectation; it’s a last-minute rush to pull something together, or it’s an expensive meal out with friends. But breakfast is simpler. There’s no pressure. It’s turning on the coffee pot when you’re still in a sleepy daze; it’s enjoying the empty morning before the day has dumped its problems upon you. It is a meal we almost always eat in the privacy of our homes. It is a little island of contentment. It is sweet, or it is savory, or it is whatever you want it to be.
That was the unexpected and delightful discovery of our diner routine: we had managed to make a weeknight dinner out into something new. There were no expectations. No need for assessments or ratings. This once-a-week meal was intimate and ordinary and cheap. It was quiet and easy and calm, in a way that so few meals in a big city like New York feel. The magic of the diner, open 24 hours a day, the air perpetually smelling of coffee, is that it allows you to have any meal at any hour. Once a week, in those cracked pleather booths, we managed to turn a dinner into a breakfast.
Anna Pitoniak is an editor of fiction and nonfiction at Random House. She graduated from Yale in 2010, where she majored in English and was an editor at the Yale Daily News. Her first novel, The Futures, was published in January by Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown.