Few establishments have been more influential in the sculpting of the American culinary culture than the great American diner. But today these humble restaurants are a dying breed. What with the uprising of farm-to-table, locavorism, fusion cuisine and an emphasis on artisanal products, the lowly diner has become lost in the shuffle.
We love farm-to-table, etc. But sometimes there's nothing more comforting and satisfying than traditional diner fare. Sitting down at a "greasy spoon," being served a messy patty melt and fries or big, plate-sized pancakes with slabs of real butter — there's something emotionally rewarding about such an experience. It's the definition of comfort food.
Starlite Diner in North Little Rock is no stranger to change. The shimmering metal building has seen several openings and closings, new owners, and name changes in the past years. But now it returns with a determination to make this go-round the greatest ever in Starlite history. They've cleaned up and revamped the place, revitalizing the small but comfortable interior. The results are encouraging, and hopefully this time Starlite Diner will stick around for a long, long time.
We first visited the reopened restaurant for breakfast, a meal where a great diner separates itself from the rest. When a place offers breakfast all day, you know this meal isn't some meaningless afterthought, some hapless attempt to wrangle in a few extra customers in the morning hours. They're not reserving the "show-stopping" dishes for dinner. No, breakfast is really the time to shine for any respectable diner.
We started with the "Big Boy" breakfast special ($7.99). No surprises on this plate; all the expected breakfast staples make their appearance here. But it's a substantial amount of food, sure to fill that empty space inside of you, that growling morning hunger aching for relief — three eggs, three strips of bacon or sausage patties, hash browns, biscuits and gravy or two pancakes.
We ordered our eggs over easy and we were presented with three perfectly done specimens. Runny yolk, soft, but firmer whites, prepared by a cook who clearly knows his way around the flat-top, who's certainly made hundreds, probably thousands of such breakfasts in his day. The sausage was of the prefabricated variety — the frozen, packaged discs that cook quickly and easily. They were just a tad rubbery, and we would have preferred freshly prepared, but they were not unpalatable — we still managed to eat every bit. The hash browns were adequate — soft potato, not overly greasy, with a nice, golden crunch from a quick trip on the hot plate. They required a bit of salt, but again, we happily gulped them down. Lastly, our biscuits and gravy proved to be surprisingly good. We've had issues with bland, lazily-done sausage gravy, often sloshed together from a prepared "just add milk" mixture. This gravy, however, had a good bit more flavor than most other gravies we've sampled, owing to the hearty portion of crumpled sausage incorporated within. The biscuits were plump, fluffy, and dense. When generously slathered with gravy, they made for an excellent dish overall, one that we plowed through with gusto.
We could not pass up the opportunity for some classic diner pancakes. Starlite Diner doesn't offer any fancy adornments to their pancakes — no nuts, fruit, or chocolate. Simple buttermilk pancakes with real maple syrup, slathered in butter. We chose a short stack ($3.49), two 10-inch pancakes. They were heavenly. Airy, hot, and buttery. It's everything you'd ever hope for in a traditional, no-frills pancake.
Our next visit to Starlite had us sampling some of its lunch menu options. We opted for the BLT sandwich ($5.49), which the menu describes as being prepared "the way they're made at home." It's probably an accurate statement. It's a simply constructed sandwich, one that is readily prepared in most home kitchens. Six strips of nicely cooked bacon with crispy, slightly blackened edges start things off. Then iceberg lettuce, sliced tomato, and a spread of mayo on plain white toast. It could have used a touch more mayo, but it was adequate and sufficiently met our needs. We were a bit disappointed, however, by the uninspired addition of plain potato chips plucked straight from the bag.
Our cheeseburger ($5.99) was a 1/3 lb. patty of freshly ground beef, slapped and squashed on a hot flat top. It's of the "thin burger" variety, cooked throughout, but it was flavorful nonetheless. It came with a smattering of traditional condiments — cheddar cheese, yellow mustard, lettuce, tomato, pickle, sliced raw onion. It's a burger that won't likely be drawing crowds from around the state, but it does the job and was satisfying overall. This time we opted for fries over chips — an excellent decision as we were served a plateful of hand-cut, perfectly fried, golden brown potatoes. A fine way to end our lunchtime excursion, though ultimately, it's breakfast, not lunch, that's likely to inspire us to make a return trip.