Back a few years ago I was taking a trip across country.
I decided to avoid the many eateries clustered at the exits from major highways, and instead go to into town at meal time and find a diner.
One place I went had an obvious DINER sign, but finding the door was a bit of a challenge. I eventually found my way in, and was seated at a booth. It was then that I realized I was somewhere with “character”. The booth had the usual napkin dispenser, salt, pepper, grape jam and various color sweetener packets on it. But it also had ketchup and mustard, two types of Worcestershire Sauce, three types of steak sauce, six varieties of hot sauce, vinegar-- white and red and balsamic, something that looked like horseradish, two types of soy (one organic) and something that might have been rosewater. Every booth seemed to have a full set, so did every stool at the counter. Every table between the booths and the counter was practically covered with bottles too. How two people could sit there, I did not know.
The server came over, pushed a few of them to the side and plunked down a glass of water.
“What can I get you?” she asked.
I realized that I didn't have a menu, so I ordered the obvious breakfast: eggs over easy with toast and bacon, which seemed to be what everyone else was eating. “Oh, and coffee, too please.” I said.
When she brought the coffee we did a bit more rearranging of the bottles, making enough space for the cup, and when the plate with breakfast arrived she had to remove the water to make space for the grits.
The food was tasty, but some of the other customers looked at me with suspicion. One had put ketchup on everything, while another added hot sauce (the one in the blue bottle) to eggs, grits, homefries and even his coffee before even taking a taste. It would be pretty disheartening to be the cook here, I thought. Nobody likes the food you prepare.
As they left customers all argued about the bill... wanting twenty-five cents off because the coffee hadn't been completely filled, or half a buck off because the grits were cold. I didn't see anyone leaving a tip, just a lot of scowls.
When the serve came by with more coffee I asked her why the table was full of bottles. “We take pride in serving every customer's need,” she said, in a neutral tone. Was she serious? I wondered.
I had noticed that the booths seemed to have been shortened by about a foot, so when two people sat together the outside one's butt stuck out into the aisle. (How they found space to put down food, I'll never know.) I asked the server why they had cut the ends off the booths and she said they had to do it to fit the tables in. When I suggested that maybe the tables weren't necessary she seemed offended, turning and leaving before filling my cup. I never did get that refill.
I suppose I should have been upset. I should have stiffed the server, or found the manager for a talk about customer service, but instead I said thank you, paid the bill with tip and went on my way.
For all I know, that place still exists, in some small American town.