August 19, 2011 10:07 pm

Must fry harder

Friendly diners and drive-ins flourish in small towns across the US. So why does Britain still lack good, everyday places?

I’ve discovered recently that I share a guilty secret with a load of chefs and foodies. It’s a dreadful programme on the Food Network called Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (“Triple D” to aficionados).

It is presented by Guy Fieri – an irritating “chef” who travels the US in a spectacularly phallic red “muscle car”, visiting local “joints” and sampling their specialities.

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What’s so compelling about this televisual treat is not, as you might anticipate, that the food is entertainingly dreadful – quite the opposite. All these small-town mom-and-pop operations are turning out fantastic meals from scratch ingredients to local tastes, and with something approaching love. Even the emetically shallow Fieri is transfigured from a gurning muppet to a wide-eyed evangelist – lit with enthusiasm for how great this food is in its context.

So what is it that’s attracting the dining cognoscenti to this phenomenon? There are no astonishing regional differences to the cuisine. Stuff is still beige in the South, cheesy in the Midwest, and in California they’ll stick an avocado into anything that lies still long enough on the plate. The only surprise to a British cook is the astonishing amount of onion or garlic powder that seems to feature.

The show’s appeal is certainly not the repartee of the chefs, who mainly grunt the same platitudes, and it surely can’t be Fieri, whose script comprises a breathless rapid-fire litany of the ingredients accompanied by trademark fratboy interjections: “So we got salt-fat-cheese-onion powder-a little cilantro-raw meat-pineapple-and-onion powder … AWESOME!”

The truth is, I think I am envious of Taffy’s Cheez-O-Bar in Podunk, Iowa, Eddie’s Chilli Bucket in Rank Stump, Texas, or Ol’ Bubba’s ’Cue, Grits n’ Bait in Hogsqueal, Tennessee. OK, at least a couple of those might be imagined but still, I can’t help feeling that we Brits are missing out.

In my misspent youth I fell in love with an American waitress and followed the tracks of her roller skates back to North Carolina. For several years we moved around, working in small-town diners. I thought I was Jack Nicholson in The Postman Always Rings Twice – she thought I was an idiot … but that’s another story.

What was humbling and educational was to realise the social importance these places had in their small towns. We’d open at 6am to serve breakfast to farmers and truckers; at lunchtime it would be college students, cops and local councillors. Kids would come after school and senior citizens would prop up everlasting coffees in the gaps. We’d host drunken celebrations for the volunteer fire brigade, or put a tablecloth and a candle in a booth and cook something special for a wedding anniversary.

The postwar boom meant that Americans ate out routinely with more ease than the Brits. For us it was still an ordeal. They could comfortably stop at a counter for breakfast on the way to work while we were still worrying about being snubbed by the waitress in a Lyons Corner House. Having a meal away from home was a democratic right for Americans, not an eternal Brief Encounter tea room of repressed conversation. As a consequence, we rather lost touch with local, independent, scratch-cooking in the UK.

And I reckon that’s where the secret appeal of Triple D lies. We love watching Fieri enthusing about these little joints, not from some obsession with an imagined 1950s America but because we’re ready to find places like that in our own towns. A dozen years of a full-on food revolution has given us farmers’ markets and international success for our celebrity chefs, but what we want now is good food, cheerfully prepared and served on all those days when we’re not at the latest hot venue – days when we just want to nip round the corner for a decent plate of nosh in a friendly place.

Nobody can eat “three star” every day. Internationally recognised culinary excellence is a great thing to have, but we can’t really claim a grown-up food culture until we improve the everyday. I know I’m not alone in thinking that what Britain needs now is a national moratorium on more Michelin stars and a lot better diners, drive-ins and dives.

Tim Hayward is editor of Fire & Knives.

‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives’ is on the Food Network, Thursdays 10pm

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