Say the word “democracy.”
Upon hearing it, images of white Grecian columns are painted in the mind, one can see Romans fluttering about the forum—you know, S.P.Q.R. and such. Thoughts fly back to every American student’s inevitable 8th-grade trip to Washington D.C.—think Lincoln Memorial, think House of Representatives, think Senate, think White House, don’t think about the fact that your crush never kissed you during poorly narrated bus tours along the Potomac. Democracy is a trigger word, thrown around by politicians and passed around like gravy—carelessly by everyone’s drunk uncle at Thanksgiving. But when we think about democracy, we should really be thinking about diners. And for Solomon Sidell, the owner of South Street Diner, diners are about people.
“The diner is a melting pot of America, whether you’re rich or poor, old or young—that everyone feels comfortable. That goes for staff and customers of all lifestyles, races, religions. Everybody comes together for a $5 plate of eggs. Everybody can afford it, but everybody wants it.” said Sidell.
The American diner is where home and street meet and hold hands—in the highly romantic waffle formation, obviously. Their fingers intertwine and touch, the divisions between them become a comfortable unclear. The diner is a cultural icon, a place where Americans come together to break bread and drink of creamy milkshakes—it’s a symbol for conversation and conversion. Discussions are held in diners. South Street is perhaps the only place where Mitt Romney and Ted Kennedy (both frequent visitors) could probably meet without throwing hands, and instead throw ham (onto some eggs benedict).
Every city has its diner, and South Street is Boston’s only 24-hour one. It serves over 800 meals a day. Sidell, who has been in the biz for a while, says it’s like having two—maybe three—restaurants in one. South Street was opened in 1947 by Worcester Dining Company, and originally named “Blue Diner.” It’s a hot spot for celebrities—former local athletes Clay Buchholz and Rajon Rondo can’t resist Sidell’s tricks—and it’s a hot spot for movies. The diner has been seen in Hiding Out, Second Sight, and House Guest.
It’s hard to operate a 24-hour restaurant, buts also hard to come by a 24-hour license in Boston. Residential neighborhoods, of which Boston has a bunch, are especially hostile to such establishments. The aspect of doing something that nobody else does, though, is what invigorates Sidell.
Sidell has had to combat his fair share of opposition. South Street is located in the Leather District and after the neighborhood became residential, the complaints came on the regular. One day, upon receiving a grievance late at night/early in the morning about outside guests being loud, a waitress decided to tell everyone outside to be quiet and considerate. Just kidding, she did quite the opposite: she riled up the crowd and got them to sing Irish songs. At court, Sidell admitted that he hadn’t trained his staff properly and that this was a mistake on his part. Outside seating was restricted to before 1 a.m.
The trouble continued, though, as new residents continued to complain. Sidell dodged a few bullets, but had it not been for the loving community surrounding him—his little linoleum building would be no more. During the last scare, 1500 customers came together and signed a petition in the restaurant, 1500 people signed an online one, and 150 showed up in City Hall the date of the trial chanting “Save South Street Diner!”
“People stood up one by one and said things about me and South Street Diner that I didn’t think I would hear until my funeral. I was shaking. I was scared that I had invested 10 years of my life into a business that could be taken away in an instant,” said Sidell.
Nobody got up to speak against South Street.
South Street is a place where dreams come true, whether those dreams be related to eating breakfast for dinner, or building a stable life in America. One day, Sidell decided to hire a new prep cook. As it turns out, the Brazilian man he hired couldn’t speak English.
“Every employee becomes family,” said Sidell.
The crew at South Street helped the new prep cook get his green card, get a mortgage, and buy a house. But Sidell went further, he asked him to go upstairs and cook with the big guys so that he could give him a raise. When he refused because of his language barrier, Sidell helped him go to school and learn English. Now he’s been working at South Street for 15 years and Sidell cites him as one of his best cooks. More importantly, he’s able to support his family and his new granddaughter in Brazil whom he visits frequently.
“That’s the American dream,” said Sidell.
A different American dream, but an American dream nonetheless, is being able to have any food at any time. At South Street, you can have a burger at 7 a.m. and pancakes at 7 p.m. The menu is dripping in excellence. The chicken tenders—which are easily well done any way you throw ’em, just about anywhere—exceed expectations. The simple dish, often reserved for those under 12 years old, or those who have a palate under 12 years old, is a must-try. The tenders are marinated for 24 hours then deep fried to the crispiest of all crisps, while retaining the utmost juicy-moistness. If you’re getting the tenders, you’ve got to get the fries. The fries are fried to golden perfection, then topped with a three-cheese sauce and gravy—Sidell compares his fries to the popular Canadian dish “poutine.”
The eggs benedict are simply inspiring, and make waking up the best part of the day. The English muffin on which the eggs marry the hollandaise is crispy on the outside, while the inner workings of the bread has a certain skeletal, crisp infrastructure, but the overall “muffin” retains its bready-bounciness. The home fries that accompany the dish beg to be dipped in the sauce, and when their request was met—fireworks went off.
No, fireworks didn’t go off. That was the sound of the next dishes being put on the table. Banana bread—Sidell’s grandmother’s recipe—which is complimentary on the weekends, and Boston cream pie pancakes. Three pancakes do a balancing act on the plate, stacked on top of each other with homemade Belgian cream in between—these examples of pancake perfection are one of the reasons Food Network named South Street among their top-five picks for late-night eats in America. The fluffy discs of perfection were blanketed in a homemade chocolate sauce. One bite could’ve killed my diabetic grandmother.
While tasting the banana bread, and expressing my flabbergastation at the fact that the thin slices were moist and balanced with a bit of cinnamon-y crust I heard God—no! Sidell—say “dip the banana bread in the pancake’s chocolate sauce,” and that’s when things went from good to f—king fantastic.
“Know who you are, play to your strengths, and always make it better than it was yesterday,” Sidell said when asked about his personal restaurant philosophy.
Sidell and his people know what they are doing. They do typical diner food, and they do it good. They don’t try to stray, they don’t try to be something they’re not.
“Boston is a cultural bastion of all different kinds of ethnic food. You’re not going to come to a diner for chinese food. You’re not going to come for pizza. In your mind you’re looking for a milkshake, burger, and eggs,” said Sidell.
Nothing is better than the classics. Sidell proves this everyday within his modest lunch car, wedged in between Boston’s downtown skyscrapers. The linoleum floors shine, and countertop glistens—plates crash into one another, bacon sizzles on the grill, the vinyl of the booths squeak as children shift around in them: These are the sweet sights and sounds of breakfast of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Featured Image by Mark Niu / Heights Staff