When it comes to what I like to call Late Night Dining, I’m referring to restaurants (or stands) many would call a “dive.” But one man’s dive is another man’s 5-star eatery.
With that in mind, I give you my three favorite places in the United States that fall into the category of 5-star slices of simple, culinary Heaven.
Original Tommy’s World Famous Hamburgers in Los Angeles (Tommy’s) – When I was attending USC several hundred years ago, one of the first nights I was in my dorm I heard a late-evening shout of “TOMMY’S RUN!” I had no idea what this meant but I was instructed I had to go. Figuring this was some sort of L.A. ritual I needed to immerse myself in, I went without asking questions. Within 30 minutes, I understood. I was a convert to the cult. The importance of The Tommy’s Run was now clear to me. What makes their burgers unique and indescribably sensational is their beanless, off-the-charts chili. You must experience a Tommy’s Burger to understand its greatness. Chili, onions, mustard, pickles and a tomato the size of Cleveland. My way: Double-cheese, no tomato, no pickle, extra chili. Superb. And…you must not go there earlier than 11:00 pm. Trust me on this.
Pat’s King of Steaks in Philadelphia (Pat’s Steaks) – I moved to Philly in 1972. The first week I was in high school, I was on my way down to South Philly one Saturday night for a Phillies game. Afterwards, it was explained to me we needed to go to Pat’s. Pat’s? Cheesesteaks, I was told. I had no idea what a cheesesteak was. But I was going to Pat’s, I was going to like it and I would need to learn how to order one. A joke? No…this is Philly. No one jokes about cheesesteaks in Philly. As you wait in line, there’s a sign that explains How to Order a Steak. Fair enough. You need to specify whether you want your steak with or without onions. With, you say “Cheese wit.” Yes, “wit”…..it’s Philly, deal with it. You tell them which cheese you want (Cheese Whiz is the original…don’t cringe until you’ve had it…it rocks) and then you assemble your money. The last step: Practicing how to order while waiting in line. And if you make a mistake…just go to the back of the line. I was told “don’t screw up, they will send you to the back of the line.” Again, it’s Philly…they’re serious. My way: Extra-cheese wit. A culinary treat.
Lafayette Coney Island in Detroit (Lafayette) – Before I got into radio and writing, the next-to-last play I did was for Mitch Albom at the City Theatre in Detroit. Working with an amazing group of actors, these folks ate as hard as they played. Before a Thursday night performance, one of them said to me “after the show tonight, we’re doing Lafayette…and you’re doing it with us.” It was ominous, it was firm and apparently I had no choice. This was Detroit. Downtown Detroit. You don’t reject offers in Downtown Detroit. I had no idea what “doing Lafayette” meant. Was it legal? Will I embarrass my family? As it turned out, I was ready to buy stock in the place after my first trip. Chili dogs are what’s on tap here. Again, it’s the beanless chili that’s the star…there isn’t a hot dog on earth, including my hometown Chicago-style dogs, that compares to a Lafayette Coney Dog. My way: Chili, mustard, onions. Eat one, you may have four more. It’s legal, but it can get embarrassing.
photo credit (features page): m.v. jantzen
About the Author: Christopher Gabriel is the host of the cleverly named Christopher Gabriel Program on AM 970 WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. You can hear him weekdays from 9 to Noon. As a writer and humorist, his work has been been published online by the Chicago Sun-Times, Reuters and publications within the Sun-Times News Group.