At 5 a.m., I push through the jagged plastic strips dangling from a tiny opening in a tucked away corner of the Cleveland Food Terminal complex at E. 40th and Woodland Ave. A flight of cement stairs leads to a set of wooden double doors below, where I'm immediately greeted with, "How did you find out about this place?"
I hand the co-owner a fluorescent green pamphlet titled "Land of a 1,000 Diners: A Guide to Greater Cleveland's Greasy Spoons, Family Restaurants, and Diners" opened to the page dedicated to the Maingate Restaurant. He looks down at the blurb, adjusts his old-fashioned white paper hat and murmurs, "Huh, next month I'll be here 19 years" before quietly going back to serving his clientele, which includes a truck loader who has worked upstairs for four decades and a cop on his usual beat.
That's exactly the type of experience Julie Gabb captures throughout the 52 diner reviews in the 26-page zine, which she self-published this March and is available at Lakewood's My Mind's Eye and Future No Future and Oberlin's Hanson Records.
"I was trying to dispel the mystery from all these places," Gabb explains. "I wanted something people could keep in their glove compartment. If you're driving around with your friends looking for a place to eat it leads you to get to know your city."
Gabb grew up going to family restaurants, so when she enters George's Kitchen near her Lakewood home she immediately recognizes the neon signs and wood-paneled interior as straight from the '80s. "In some mid-to-late '80s diners you have glittery chairs and stimuli everywhere," she fires off with uncanny expertise.
Her mission to visit 52 diners in 52 days began in early 2014 as a New Year's resolution with no real plans to document her findings, she explains between ordering her usual All-America, with two eggs, home fries, bacon and toast.
"It's an easy stand-by," she adds. "You get to know their skillsets when they make the most basic things."
Her ground rules were simple: To qualify as a diner, breakfast must be served for under $10 and there must be counter-style seating. Flipping to the front of the guide, the first line of the first review aptly describes one diner as "Where you feel right at home in your mother's living room." Another unleashes the greasy spoon battle cry, "Give me grime or give me death!"
But the best anecdotes are the stories about people – the patrons, owners and employees, like the steadfast southern charm of a server at soul food spot Annie and Earl's in the midst of a Cleveland blizzard.
"You're getting in touch with the different neighborhoods, the different people there, the regulars," she explains. "Some diners had factory workers, some diners had more business professionals on their lunch break."
Like anyone who covers the world of greasy spoons and 24-hour diners, Gabb isn't without her tales of debauchery. One of the most storied destinations, of course, was Steve's Lunch, which Gabb affectionately memorializes in the guide for some profanity-laced wisdom bestowed on her by a whip-smart waitress.
As luck would have it, Gabb gave the go-ahead to print the guides just three hours before the beloved joint caught on fire this St. Patrick's Day.
"I had this review but felt like I should have done a tribute," Gabb says. "When people get the guide they immediately want to see the Steve's Lunch review and say, yes, that's exactly what Steve's was."
From deep-seated late-night-to-early-morning memories to the eclectic immigrant influences spotted on the menus of countless Cleveland eateries, "Land of 1,000 Diners," like the city it covers, captures a melting pot.
"By going to all these different places you're seeing an aspect of Cleveland you don't always get to see without even trying."
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