Where Everybody Knows Your Name

When you pull into the parking lot on Home Avenue, the tiny, cinderblock building might remind you of an old wild west jail from the outside – its windows are ensconced behind bars painted white, its stone block construction looks like it could withstand even the huffing and puffing of the big bad wolf, and there’s a solid metal door that might have witnessed its share of deputies toting rifles, as well as the accused, going in and out. The only discordant note: two window-boxes in front full of colorful flowers in the summer. If I’m not mistaken, Fred – of Fred’s Diner fame – sometimes waters them himself, fake or not.

Fred’s Diner has been around for more than a couple of decades but it looks much like it did when Fred Spencer took over the helm. There are various types of memorabilia adorning the walls and an old clock that broke down just a few months back. Instead of just buying a new one, Fred had the old thing repaired, at a cost, he says, that may well have been a lot more than it is worth on its own. He said it had been with him from the beginning and he didn’t want to let it go. He’d become a bit superstitious, and besides, a new one might ruin the look of the place. Maybe so, but his attitude toward repairs and upgrades is well known. There are few and far between. Fred’s is what it is – and that’s what customers love about it. You won’t find a better meal, in quality or substance, nor one more reasonably priced. Not anywhere.

We have more than our share of yuppie breakfast spots in our town, but despite their “frou-frou” décor and higher prices, there is less food that is not always as good as it should be. You don’t get as much of it either and, in some cases, the quality suffers greatly due to owners for whom the bottom line is reflected in papery bacon that is more fat than meat. One of these restauranteurs can be found at Fred’s table from time to time. I asked him once if he wasn’t in the wrong place. No, he told me, “I’m in the right place.” Enough said.

As for Fred’s – it’s a meat and potatoes kind of place where comfort food is king and where people in suits, as well as people in steel-toed work boots and hard hats, converge effortlessly. Lace curtains, like your grandmother used to hang on her windows, grace his. One window developed a crack that that went from one side of the glass almost to the other. I asked Fred if he was going to get that fixed. “I did,” he said, “I put duct tape on it last week.”

The tables, chairs, bar stools, and counter and tabletops are vintage Formica, vinyl, and chrome, and Fred’s telephone, a clunky, rotary dial, on the counter next to the cash register, is a throwback as well (except it’s yellow instead of the standard black) and could even be a party line for all I know, like those popular before World War II. But Fred’s is one of those places you like to go for something more than just the food – though that would be reason enough here.

You go to Fred’s for the low-maintenance, comfortable atmosphere and the camaraderie – it’s the next best thing to home. You can relax and not worry about what fork to use – you get one. Isn’t that enough for anyone? The waitresses know most people by name, and many have been coming there for years  – which says something about Fred himself – a clever man with quick, sharp wit. Everyone who works there has a sense of humor and seems to have fun doing their jobs.

And really, how many of the rest of us can say that?

But Fred, a businessman, after all, issued a dictum a few years ago – “Eat, Pay, Get Out.” These words would put off most people, but Fred’s customers just laugh. The phrase quickly caught on and has immortalized his philosophy for all time (or so he would have you believe) on T-Shirts he sells and in his newspaper ads.

One ad he periodically runs in the sports pages of the Akron Beacon Journal pictures a bikini-clad model with short blond hair – and a face that looks suspiciously like Fred’s (oh, the wonders of photoshop!). Blondie offers “Topless” Open-Faced Sandwiches and “Bottomless” Cups of Coffee, and touts the “HOTTEST” Soups and “Best Buns” in town delivered to your table by the “Same old Girls.”

Fred’s same old girls whiz around him as he strolls through the main dining room in his apron and pours himself a cup of coffee. He could get one behind the counter but then he’d miss seeing who’s there, chatting with friends for a minute before taking his place behind the grill, and in general, letting his presence be known. Noticing someone he knows, he asks  “What are you still doing here?” “I just started eating,” the guy replies. Fred points to the shirt tacked on the wall under glass. “See that?” The customer nods. “Eat, Pay, Get Out. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Customers are waiting.” Everyone starts laughing and Fred waves, returning to the kitchen where the counter people can watch him work.

A week ago, Bill and I were sitting in a booth and Fred, coffee in hand, headed toward the short juncture between our booth, the pass-through hallway maybe 8-10 feet long, and the connecting corner to the back room where there are a few more tables. Two of the waitresses, Theresa and Fran, their arms loaded with full plates of food, were coming from opposite directions when they nearly collided with Fred at the juncture by our booth. At the critical moment Fred deftly stepped back and out of the way, his coffee gripped firmly in his hand. Not a drop was spilled. Fran and Theresa glided by each other like silent ghosts on a dark night, leaving Fred up against a wall papered with giant pink peonies right out of the fifties. Fred expresses a look of feigned surprise. “Did you see that?” he says, pointing in both directions at once.

“A near miss, I’d say.”

“We choreographed it.”

“Impressive. You must have practiced all day.”

“Oh yeah, it’s not as easy at it looks. And watch this,” he added, stepping forward, then back two or three times to demonstrate the agility of his feet. “This stuff’s not easy.”

Yes, Fred puts on quite a show in a low-key sort of way. His diner is a postcard of another time “where everybody knows your name.” You should give Fred’s a try – but squelch the urge to linger. Just eat, pay, and get out. Fred’ll love you for it.

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