Cheap and Unwashed

Yes, I have to confess that I cringed when I paid my $55 lunch bill — at least that included a tip — at Circe (see review, page 37) for a $14 hamburger, a $10 plate of fish and chips, an iced tea and two desserts. Oddly enough, a few days later I had a similar lunch at a downtown establishment that was considerably less glamorous but a lot less expensive: the 32-year-old Denny’s at 1600 Broadway.

At this venerable urban diner, a cheeseburger goes for about six bucks (including fries), the fish and chips dinner for $7.29. The service is snappy, the napkins are paper and — proving that the 51-year-old restaurant chain seems to have overcome the racial-discrimination charges that badly hurt its family image in the 1990s — the customer base on a weekday morning completely runs the gamut: black, white and Hispanic; young and old; fat and thin; suits and sandals.

The only tension I noted came from a table at which a father of four forced his wife and two kids to get up and move across the dining room. “I saw the waiter in this station leave the bathroom without washing his hands,” he announced loudly. Thank God he wasn’t my server, I thought. I would have had to give him a little lecture on restaurant sanitation rules myself. But I’d have done it in a discreet whisper.

Denny’s, according to a recent story posted on restaurant industry newsletter, is slowly making a comeback. First-quarter sales in 2004, the site reports, “catapulted the chain ahead of … rivals Cracker Barrel, Perkins and Bob Evans.” It hasn’t been a blip on my culinary screen for well over a decade, even though it’s one of the few downtown joints that serves food until midnight.

Come to think of it, Denny’s is one of the few restaurants left on a stretch of Broadway that was packed with eateries from World War I until interstate construction ripped up the neighborhood in the 1950s. The Denny’s location was originally a drugstore, but nearby was the Day & Night Restaurant.

Now that downtown is getting a new arena, I vote for the return of a 24-hour restaurant to the city’s inner core — north of 15th Street. After all, there was a round-the-clock joint, the R.S. McClintock Restaurant at 11th and Walnut, as far back as 1916. It had a staff of spiffy waiters who, I’ll bet you, always washed their hands.

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