Baptized in Bacon

On a cold Saturday morning, the back end of Fall Creek is quiet. The air is filled with an enticingly buttery smell, tricking passers-by into taking a deeper breath and instead giving them a lungful of ice. A spatula-wielding caricature of Abe Lincoln looks sternly at them from the window, either judging them for not entering his establishment or mocking them for falling for the buttery arctic blast. As the door opens the clanking of pots and pans, shouted orders and friendly banter welcome guests inside.

***

Lincoln Street Diner is a no-nonsense greasy spoon with a dedicated breakfast crowd and a flattop baptized in bacon. While the 24-hour joints are the late-night go-to for drunk college students, Lincoln Street is the diner of their parents and grandparents. They come in right at 6 a.m. when Chris flips the “Open” sign, awake far before the rest of Fall Creek. They grab a house mug off the rack and help themselves to coffee behind the counter, even refilling the grounds in the machine if it’s empty. They know exactly what they want to order; half the time, the conversation is little more than “The usual?” “Mmhmm.” And most of them have come and gone long before noon, with the occasional exception of Helene and her scrambled eggs, three slices of marmaladed toast and grumblings about last night’s hockey game.

This is an unlikely hotspot for a city that prides itself on being dietarily inclusive. There is no vegetarian menu. There are no designated gluten-free options. You can’t even really keep kosher when the entire flattop has at some point been graced with some sacrilegious combination of beef, cheese, and at least three different pork products. It’s a no-touch-itarian’s worst nightmare. Pancakes will be kissed by the savory flavors of the previous patron’s Ziffy omelet, and there’s a slight chance that the next Ziffy will have a stray blueberry (or, heaven forbid, a chocolate chip) from the previous pancake order. Everything will be greased up with copious amounts of butter.

And no gritty little diner would be complete without its owner calling the shots from the grill, donning a pair of navy blue shorts covered in flying pigs and wiping his hands on his increasingly less-white apron. Chris bought Lincoln Street 11 years ago, back when his daughter was young enough to be excited about writing a poem about spoons for the menu. Food service is in his blood. His mother ran a catering business in addition to working as a nurse, and he and his brother Sean both went to Johnson & Wales University for culinary arts.

Tommy Battistelli/The Ithacan

Tommy Battistelli/The Ithacan

Chris pulls out a sheet of bacon strips from the distribution box and slaps it paper-side-up on the flattop — “the paper is so they’re flatter” — as he recalls his first restaurant job. As a teenager, he started as a dishwasher on a Friday, and the next night, he was closing the restaurant by himself.

“The police were at my doorstep Sunday morning because the place burned down.” He laughs heartily. “I was the last one who was there, so you can imagine … I think I was maybe 14? That was a little scary. Like, I don’t know what the hell you think I did …”

Mugs clink on the other end of the counter, and bacon sizzles behind him on the flattop. He stands there, still bewildered by that Saturday night decades ago.

“I mean, it was kinda bizarre: they had this brand new kid, you know, one night he’s there and the next night they’re letting him close by himself. I guess in hindsight I could’ve paid attention more cleaning, but … I mean, I would never let somebody that just started here close on their own, let alone a 14-year-old.”

Incoming customers jostle around one another and the door to hang up their coats and wipe the breakfasty fog from their glasses. Ben comes over to greet them in his usually plaid, always collared shirt, varying amounts of beard and
a smile.

“We’ll have a table ready for you in just a few minutes.”

They look at each other, debating on whether to go elsewhere.

Ben clasps his hands together in proper maitre d’ fashion. “I can assure you it’s worth the wait.”

Once the table is wiped down and reset, they sit down. In between taking orders, delivering orders and receiving payment for orders, Jolie flies over in a blur of hot pink hair.

“Can I get you guys something to drink? Coffee?”

She’s greeted with a resounding chorus in the affirmative and quickly returns with all five cups filled to the brim, not a single brown drop sliding down the white ceramic. She flies back to the cash register, puzzling for a split second before very slightly hanging her head apologetically and asking the guy in front of her to remind her what he had, hon. Prices are punched in by memory — very rarely does she reference the menu or turn around to the specials board covered in her swirly script and Snoopy and Woodstock drawings. A menagerie of solar-powered bobbleheads in front of the cash register stare at the guy while waiting for Jolie’s verdict rounded to the nearest nickel: almost $10 even. She hands back two 20s as change for the 50; the guy frowns. No good for a tip.

“I’ll do the tip on my card,” offers his friend as she cashes out, but Jolie shakes her head.

“We can’t do tips on cards. The machine won’t even accept it.” She hands a pen and the receipt, devoid of a tipping space, to the friend.

The two cringe. “I’m so sorry!” She apologizes, convinced she’s ruined Jolie’s day. “It’s my first time here.”

“That just means you have to come back and see me again,” she replies without missing a beat as she finishes the second transaction. “Have a good day, guys.”

***

Sass is standard fare at Lincoln Street, especially if you’re a regular like Jester, a disabled Army veteran, physics graduate of North Carolina State, and self-proclaimed mad scientist. He’s only been in Ithaca since August, when his girlfriend started grad school, but he considers himself a regular.

Living three and a half blocks away from Lincoln Street means Chris has a “geographical monopoly” on him.

“Regular?” Chris gives a robust “huh!” that lies somewhere between a laugh and a groan. “There’s nothing regular about him. More like an irregular.”

Jester enjoys getting Chris’ goat by telling fellow patrons how to get Chris to serve a breakfast sandwich on pancakes, demanding that his staple (blueberry pancakes, two eggs over-medium and bacon) be added to the menu as the “Mad Scientist Special,” and threatening to eat at Denny’s where he can “get some respect.”

“Food or respect, you can’t get both,”

Chris warns as he tends to the flattop.

After sharing a laugh with Jolie and reminiscing over that first Philly cheesesteak omelet that got him hooked on the diner back in August, Jester gets very serious over his blueberry-covered French toast.

“My psychiatrist at the VA said there are two genres of people who I can always count on to say whatever they’re thinking, whatever’s on their mind. The first are toddlers.” He laughs at the thought. “The second … is infantrymen because they deal with life and death for a living. These are wars, and, hell, I say what I mean, what more are you gonna do to me?”

He pauses and looks around the orange-walled diner.

“It’s difficult for me to find a place where people actually say what they’re thinking. It always has been. But this is a place filled with farmers, construction workers, people that plow roads, contractors, people who have bigger things to worry about than what the world thinks of them. You can say whatever, and you know that if that person’s skin isn’t thick enough to take it, they are wrong. And it is like that nowhere else.”

Jester leans over to see past the other patrons at the counter and locate Jolie.

“Jolie!”

“What-y?” she yells back, eventually making her way to Jester’s end of the counter.

“Jolie?”

“Yes.”

“Your ass looks gorgeous today.”

“Oh, well, thank you.” She casually shrugs it off, a little confused but not insulted.

“Now, name me one other place in Ithaca where I can say that.”

She laughs. “That’s all you wanted me for, huh? Alright.”

“That and if I pulled you down to this end of the bar, you eventually have to walk down back to that end of the bar.”

Jester turns back to his blueberry-covered French toast as Jolie returns to her post.

“I told you, I have to find it. Wherever the hell I am, whatever the hell I’m doing, I have to find this place, otherwise I have to spend my life alone, and no social creature wants to spend their life alone.”

In an instant, he returns to the light-hearted banter, not-so-subtly calling out Chris for not sending out emails for his specials. He’s still mad that he missed the Valentine’s Day red velvet pancakes.

***

To the right of the register sit two Cornell vet techs, a rare sight in the primarily (grand)parent-age clientele. To the untrained ear, their voices fuse into a single poetic waxing about their late breakfast.

“This is awesome.” Bite. “This is awesome.” Bite. “That is bomb.” One tech notices his Kosher-keeping friend looking longingly at his feast: country fried steak with red-eye gravy and bacon cheddar grits. “Jealous?”

“Yeah.”

Chris takes advantage of the post-breakfast break to step back from the grill and drink his coffee. “Next time you come in, I’ll make some without bacon.”

On the other side of the register, Jolie leans over onto the counter in order-taking position, sleeves rolled up to reveal a three-quarter-length tattoo on her left arm. She starts writing without asking the man in front of her.

“Alright … wheat toast, over easy…” She pauses. “Do you want an OJ today?”

He smiles and nods, and Jolie rips off the sheet and crams it under the clips with the other orders. The slips wait for Chris to start as he serves up a breakfast dessert of single pancakes for both techs, slapping a spatula’s worth of butter on each plate.

“If it wasn’t so expensive to get your stomach pumped…”

“This place would put me in an early grave if I lived in Ithaca.”

The other vet tech looks at the now-empty pancake plate of the first. “You ate all your butter too?”

“I’m going to the early grave happy.”

As the diner continues to empty, the Cornell vet techs join the emigration, still aglow from their meals. One cashes out with Jolie, and the other walks toward the door to suit up for the trip back.

“He’s leaving this guy as collateral.”

Black fingernails with silver star designs punch the prices into the register.

Chris sips his coffee and turns back to his workstation. “I don’t know if we want him.”

***

Two whiteboards hang high above the flattop to announce the specials. The larger one, rarely touched, serves as the diner’s calendar: in the church of Lincoln Street, Tuesday is the holiday of chicken and biscuits. The smaller board is home to Jolie’s Peanuts cartoons as well as the daily specials, where Thanksgiving sandwiches and strawberry Texas French toast catch the eyes of those without a “usual.” On Saturdays, it serves as calendar overflow for Chris’ omelet lineup. He hates making them, but they scratch his creativity itch.

Holidays provide an additional creative outlet for the diner: Jolie gets to doodle on the specials board, and Chris gets to play with new ingredients. This is how the red velvet pancakes that Jester was so distressed about missing came to be, toasty pink circles smothered in strawberry sauce and finished with a dollop of homemade buttercream.

Halloween, however, goes beyond the food, as the restaurant annually transforms into the Haunted Diner.

The regulars who make the diner a part of their breakfast routine don’t notice anything different about the building on October 30. The bright orange walls, while conveniently festive, are part of the standard 1970s-style decor. But the basement under the hole-in-the-wall houses some eldritch horrors only seen in an old-fashioned horror movie, horrors that gradually consume the diner itself. By the next morning, it transforms into an insane asylum.

The already cramped space is filled with a maze of moving walls, on which eerie murals are painted. The faint purple glow of black lights and the twitching of strobe lights replace the bright fluorescence that normally lights up the walls. A girl was tied into her wheelchair, struggling to escape. Outside, a zombified figure in a white nightgown swung in the tree in front of the building, and the girl’s father donned a lab coat covered in blood and slowly stalked unsuspecting visitors in the asylum.

“Leave me alone!” one girl finally screamed, and Chris backed off.

While many were sufficiently spooked — Jolie was given reprieve from waitressing for the day to hand out candy and console the children — a lone cowboy stepped up to save the haunted diner from Ryan, the dishwasher, who was moonlighting as a chainsaw-wielding madman. As the maniac ran out from his hiding place behind a Jeep in the parking lot, revving his chainsaw, the quick-thinking 7-year-old sharpshooter pulled out his toy pistol and pumped him full of invisible lead. Ryan convulsed with each shot and fell to the ground as the cowboy jumped for joy.

“I got him! I got him!” he cried.

***

Articles, reviews and plaques take turns with the Phillies memorabilia to pepper the diner walls with glowing praise about the cheap eats, homey atmosphere and award-winning chili. Nowhere to be found, however, is the key to the city of Ithaca that Chris won simply for making Mayor Svante Myrick a garbage plate.

“I’ll make a proclamation. Cut a ribbon. Whatever it takes. I just want a garbage plate in my life,” he pleaded in an interview with Edible Finger Lakes, published July 23. The Ithaca Voice officially published the challenge July 24, offering the key to the city to the first person to make Mayor Myrick a garbage plate.

“Let’s try it,” dishwasher-turned-prep-chef Cody said to Chris the next morning. “We have all the stuff for it.”

“Well, go ahead and make it.”

Chris personally drove the Rochester-style monstrosity — a greasy, pain-in-the-a– mountain of carbs, meat and the traditional spicy chili known as “hot sauce” — to City Hall that morning, so it would be on Myrick’s desk ready to eat when he came in. The administrative assistant looked at Chris in confusion, wondering why this guy from a little no-name greasy spoon was delivering a garbage plate to the mayor when a handful of other restaurants, including the iconic Moosewood, had called dibs on Twitter the day before.

Chris shrugged. “You said the first people, so …”

Handing over the styrofoam box was the last he saw or heard of Cody’s creation. Aside from a Twitter picture of a very happy mayor and his garbage plate, no announcement of Lincoln Street’s win was made. Despite a valiant attempt by some local reporters to get Chris his due, he never received the key to the city nor any recognition from the administration.

“Yeah, well, that’s politicians for you.”

***

The order clips see fewer and fewer slips, and fewer coats hang on the racks behind the door. Eighties music in the background fades in as breakfast conversation fades out. The home fries on the flattop sizzle quietly. Jolie leans on the far end of the counter, investigating the newspaper with two regulars as they finish their breakfasts. Ryan, armed with a stack of plates, delivers dishes to the front line without having to jostle between everyone.

Ben greets an incoming group of four to find seating for them. Chris fights with a stubborn piece of bacon as he tries to drape it over a slice of ham on the flattop.

A lone breakfast ranger sits by the window, hunched over his meal as he drinks from his oversized house mug. A couple migrates to the mostly empty counter to allow the incoming group to sit down at their table. Guys lean over their girls, protecting them from the draft of the door as they check out the menu. A dad and his bow-tied son season their eggs.

***

Tomorrow is Sunday, Chris’ only day off. But come Monday, he’ll be back bright and early, slapping bacon paper on the flattop, heckling the regulars and starting their usuals as soon as he sees them through the window. Outside, the spatula-wielding Chef Lincoln waits for  passers-by, his serious glare threatening them to get their asses inside the diner for breakfast.