Scrambled and scattered at Diner

In my younger and less prudent years, I often found occasion to visit a breakfast diner after being over-served at a drinking establishment. I can vaguely remember one such evening, where, after stumbling to a counter stool and drunkenly attempting to mumble my order of hash browns and eggs, the patient waitress leaned down to me and said, “Honey, what are you trying to tell me?”

At Ron Eyester’s new Diner, in Atlantic Station, I’ve experienced an opposite, yet similar situation. I’ve walked into this place stone-cold sober and encountered a menu that is so confused and unintelligible in its intentions that it can only be described as incoherently drunk. I want to shake this menu and say, “What are you trying to tell me?”

Diner is ostensibly Eyester’s improvement on the classic American diner. I’m just guessing at this; I assume the prices, which run roughly double those of a chain diner like Waffle House and a few bucks more than local places like the Silver Skillet or Homegrown, suggest the food is somehow improved.

I’ve yet to find the ostensible improvement.

Diner does not want for options. There are dishes here that you may recognize from Eyester’s other establishments like Rosebud and the Family Dog: a fried chicken, bacon, egg and cheese sandwich he calls the Nasty McAlister; Springer Mountain chicken wings; Point Judith fried calamari; and so on. I suppose that’s the Eyester touch.

Beyond that, the menu runs the gamut from your basic short stack of pancakes or waffles to fried chicken to stuffed grape leaves to lobster cakes to calf liver and onions to cheeseburgers to roast salmon to milkshakes. I got a stomachache just typing that, but, hey, options are part of the diner tradition, I suppose.

You want a waffle? You can get a waffle that’ll look and taste pretty much like the pale, thin one served at Waffle House, though you’ll get a nice dollop of salty butter and bittersweet peach marmalade. So, there’s that. The grits will be noticeably thicker and creamier than average, though you may find some clumps.

Perhaps the improvement here is supposed to be in the ingredients? The menu touts burgers with an “exclusive blend of ground chuck, short rib and brisket,” but the medium-rare cheeseburger I ordered came out dry and well done, as unremarkable as a burger can be. If there was a distinction to the grind, I missed it.

The fried chicken, which tops a number of the breakfast dishes in addition to being an entree, is served boneless and with a thick, crunchy batter. That’s not the style I prefer, but isn’t necessarily bad. It will please the chicken fingers crowd.

Like a number of other restaurants in town, Diner’s menu notes that it is “proud to exclusively serve local chicken from Springer Mountain Farms.” I’ve never quite understood why chefs in Atlanta feel compelled to brag that they serve the same chicken as Waffle House. In the case of Diner, it certainly doesn’t count as an improvement over the competition.

If you’re looking for a chef’s touch on more delicate diner dishes, let me describe the liver that came with my entrée of calf liver and onions: gray, grainy, cooked beyond recognition, flavor not unlike a set of house keys.

It doesn’t help that the interior design of Diner is just as incoherent as the menu. From the vantage of the main dining room, I was able to see a lime green ceiling, orange walls, giant black and white photos of classic diners, brownish booths busy with an airport-ugly pattern, blue, yellow and beige floor tiles, and, of course, reclaimed wood. It is the visual equivalent of the stomachache brought on by trying to eat stuffed grape leaves, pancakes, roast salmon and a milkshake in the same meal.

There is some pleasure here. The servers who helped me were all friendly and attentive. And, if you sit in one of the three booths at the front of the restaurant, you don’t have to look at the cavernous ugliness of the dining room.

Hypothetically, if you got sufficiently sloshed, wandered in the front door of Diner, and mumbled out an order for a platter of disco fries and spicy fried chicken and grits, you might be pleased. You probably wouldn’t notice that the brown gravy is too salty and that the melted mozzarella, while generous, has a plastic quality that keeps it from sticking to the fries. You might even like the ludicrous dousing of slightly spicy butter sauce that covers the fried chicken. You’d be lighter in the pocketbook, but somewhat sobered by the grease.

Me? I’d rather just go to Waffle House.

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