Pal's Diner

(Grand Rapids, MI) Being the Saturday before Valentine's Day, we were in a bit of a quandry. Should we seek out a Saturday night extravaganza or plan a more sedated outing? The thought of all those kissy-huggy couples making googly eyes at each other over steak tartare made our blood run cold, so we decided on lunch somewhere instead. Juliet had been wanting to try a diner (there are 3 or 4 in the area), so we drove to Kentwood. A quick stop at Cascade Winery's new facility first for a fortifying glass of wine (for her) and beer (for him), then we were ready to try Pal's Diner...

He Fed:
From the outside, Pal's Diner doesn't look like much: a tiny, weatherbeaten 50's style diner squatting in the far corner of the Cascade D&W parking lot. The blinking neon OPEN sign is like a beacon, however, so we park out front and go in.

The first thing that hits you is pink. Everything is pink. Pink booths, pink stools, pink paint. Secondly, you notice the thick scent of frying oil and the pungent cloy of grease hanging in the air, coating everything in a slippery sheath of invisible residue. This is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it's what one would expect from a "greasy spoon". You would be disappointed if it were not reeking of past meals, redolent with history. Elvis croons from loudspeakers set into the low ceiling.

Pink Pal's
We choose a booth that overlooks the parking lot through the plate glass windows set all around the front of the building. Although the day is grey, overcast, it seems bright and cheerful inside. Our young, pretty waitress greets us with a welcoming smile and playful attitude. Throughout our lunch she is the perfect server, checking in with us, refilling our drinks and exceptionally attentive.

The menu is a greatest hits for this kind of establishment: burgers, fries, home-style dinners and breakfast all day. I start with a Vanilla Coke (made with vanilla syrup) and fries served in a cardboard '57 Ford Fairlane. The french fries are crispy, hot and hinting at fish it shared with the fryer oil.

I can't resist the burger selection, so I opt to try the Olive Burger medium-rare. It arrives, the thinnish patty as medium-rare as you might be able to achieve, on a puffy wheat bun, fresh lettuce, and a thick slathering of olive tapenade. The first bite is bliss...crunchy lettuce and crispy fried beef, couched between the two pillows of spongy bread, with the sharp tang of olives and mayo mixing wth sweet ketchup. It is all I can do not to wolf it down in record time. Vanilla Coke washes it all down.

Olive Burger
Juliet's pot roast dinner is too inviting to resist. I steal a couple forkfuls of tender, slightly fatty beef in heavy brown gravy, along with onions, boiled potato, and carrot slices. The traditional preparation is comforting, accompanied by mash potatoes and gravy, along with a mini loaf of fresh-baked bread.

Warned in advance, I already know I want their bread pudding for dessert. Ordinarily I'm not a big dessert lover, but my grandfather used to make bread pudding from scratch and I've always loved it. A plate heaped high with a 5 inch thick square of bread pudding arrives. It is topped with homemade whipped cream and surrounded by a moat of vanilla pudding sauce, dusted with cinnamon. Inside the heated bread hides plump raisins. Each bite is a warm hug from the past, better than the last.

Pal's Diner is a pleasant anachronism, unabashedly delivering old-school service alongside nostalgic food. Although our sugar intake came back to haunt us later that evening (nothing an afternoon nap couldn't cure), we regret nothing. It may not be haute cuisine, but Pal's achieves what it sets out to accomplish. When we're in the mood for another diner experience, we'll definitely head back for another helping.
She Fed:
After three days of wining and dining in Atlanta followed by a series of travel delays and a 1:30 am arrival home Saturday, I really did not want another fancy dinner out. With Jeremy having to travel on Sunday, we decide Saturday would be our Valentine's Day and something casual and unfussy sounds wonderful.

I know the moment we walk in the door we had made a good choice. Our waitress, Katie, is friendly and genuinely excited it is my first time at Pal's. (Jeremy had been there once several years ago.) She walks me through the menu, explaining that everything was made on-site. Meatloaf and pot roast are Pal's specialties and the salads—chicken, tuna and egg—are made daily. I am immediately fixated on the idea of getting a cup of soup and an egg or tuna salad sandwich, but force myself to look over the entire menu.

We start with Cokes and an order of French fries; I get a cherry Coke and Jeremy a vanilla. They are tasty, but in retrospect a non-diet soda with a shot of flavored syrup was simply too much sugar for people who rarely drink even diet soda. We both have an intense sugar high followed by a noticeable sugar crash later in the day. No fault of Pal's, just our bad judgement.

French Fries In A Fairlane
The fries are crispy and delicious. If you've only had French fries from a drive-through, ordering them at a restuarant that fries them to order is a treat. (For the record, I did not pick up the same "fish fry" taste as Jeremy.) I abstain from eating too many fries to save room for my hearty lunch.

I decide on "Mom's Pot Roast" which sounds like the ultimate comfort food. I am not disappointed. The roast is fork-tender and nestled in a bed of sliced redskin potatoes, carrots and onion quarters, then topped with peppery rich beef gravy. The roast comes with one side; I chose mashed potatoes. While the menu clearly states the roast comes with veggies and potatoes, I miss the word "potatoes". I probably would have ordered something else, but my mistake is a satisfying one. The mashed potatoes are fluffy, hot and smothered in the same pepper beef gravy. Perfectly smooth mashed potatoes usually makes me suspect there's a box of "instant mashed" hidden away in the kitchen, but there was no mistaking these for fakes.

The onions had clearly been cooked with the roast. They are translucent and carmelized. But the carrots and redskins had been cooked seperately which kept them firm and bright and clean looking. Not that I have anything against veggies simmered in beef stock (and fat) all day, but it's nice to find the carrots and potatoes still had some "tooth" to them. The beef is fabulous and I find myself using hunks of it to swirl up the gravy. After a long week away from home, this dish is pure bliss. And, yes, it is just like mom used to make.

Pot Roast
Pal's Diner is on my new list of favorites. The decor is exactly what you'd expect, but I like a little (or a lot) of kitsch with my 50's music. The service was great, the food was delish and the prices were low. They serve breakfast all day, which I definetely plan to check out sometime soon. And they have an outdoor seating area where I intend to enjoy a burger and malted this summer.

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