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The Sad Cafe - thoughts on THAT diner.

I'm not talking about the classic downEast Diner, all chrome and red leatherette seats, or the current re-enactments or even re-built diners. I'm talking about the Sad Cafe, the place you go when you wake up the day after a breakup, or alone with the worst hangover of your life and not enough memory of just exactly what transpired last night. I'm talking about the place where NOBODY knows your name, or cares. I'm talking sweats, and a hat to cover Bad Hair day.
My personal Sad Cafe has one counter, pitted and stained formica. There are cigarette burns and coffee-mug rings. It slopes towards the middle where it's riveted, and is actually no color at all anymore. It seats, I think, 16 people. There are, along one wall, four small booths which will seat four if you're all real good friends. I prefer one to myself so I can put my legs up rudely on the bench on the other side while I read the paper and sip bad coffee which is perfect for the time and place. Somehow, fresh bean coffee just doesn't work here. And the breakfast is cheap, good and consistent. What I love about my own sad cafe is that the Asian proprieters have some off-the-map specials that you won't find in your usual joint: Kimchi fried rice, turkey congee. My favorite breakfast there is coffee, a large orange juice, and a hamburger patty, topped w/ a medium fried egg, with a side of kimchi fried rice. And then I have to have one of their pancakes with whipped butter and "maple" syrup. I get out for a fiver and change, tip included.
Although nobody has smoked for years in my Sad Cafe, it still smells vaguely of smoke. If you close your eyes and vibe, you can see the ghosts of old Berkeleyites floating through in their Birkenstocks.
Anybody? Got a Sad Cafe of your own?

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  1. That ballad sounds familiar. I pass by there often and always wonder how they stay in business. Do they always have the congee?

    1 Reply
    1. re: chocolatetartguy

      Always, they have the congee on - and a warm welcoming smile and a thanks for coming in. Lovely, and really the only words exchanged. It's a private little world, that Sad Cafe. And they have always been there, and so will it always be. The owners may change, but will look and sound vaguely familiar. And the dishwasher will always be a slightly hunchbacked man who is perhaps 1,000 years old. Or 50. And the ghosts will continue to come, and be fed and welcomed.

    2. Mamachef,
      I don't actually have a Sad Cafe, but I love the word picture you painted for us of yours. Thanks for sharing.

      2 Replies
      1. re: sunflwrsdh

        The beauty of it all is that my Sad Cafe actually exists - and I thoroughly enjoyed trying to evoke an emotional picture as well as the physical one. It's at the corner of University and Shattuck, in Berkeley California - and I couldn't tell you the name, because the awning is lettered in Asian.

        1. re: mamachef

          Jesus, anyone who can write like that deserves a book deal. I need to go lie down. And I am not kidding. I am gobsmacked.

      2. I tend to empty my refrigerator aka the Human Vacuum and don't want to go to a restaurant when I'm that sad.

        2 Replies
        1. re: EWSflash

          I hear ya, EWSflash. Been known to do the same thing my ownself. But you don't have to be actually sad to go there; it's just my name for the place, and Cafe Apathy didn't cut the mustard. :)

          1. re: mamachef

            LOL! Thanks for the clarification

        2. I love this! I don't have my own sad cafe but now I suddenly want one.

          1 Reply
          1. re: TheHuntress

            acgold17, Huntress: Thank you so much. I'm glad you saw the painting.

          2. I don't have one specifically, but in my mind, it has fluorescent bulbs with at least a couple of them flickering.

            I loved this, mama. I don't know if you have other writing outlets, but how lucky are we that CH is one of them?

            1 Reply
            1. re: inaplasticcup

              You're there! Despite the lights, it's very dark in there. The fluorescents are two types: the long rectangles set into the ceiling. By the door, it's the long skinny tubular ones, and they're the ones that flicker everytime the door opens and the bell jangles. They haven't got sensors that beep you through the door. That's WAY too modern for the Sad Cafe.

              1. re: beevod

                beevod, if the bathroom were "in-house" I'd probably never know that it is, indeed spotlessly clean, because the interior of the diner proper looks grody even though it's sanitary enough. One day there was no waiting to get home to pee (sorry if TMI) and I was directed through the kitchen by a series of paint footprints on the floor that led out the aluminum screen door out to the back where there's a freestanding cement-floored shed complete with a drain in the center of the slightly slanted floor - and a clean toilet and sink and plenty of hot water and paper towels too. Slightly incongruent in its' evident cleanliness (though most welcome, of course!) - and totally industrial. Windows painted over with cream whitewash. ;P

                1. re: mamachef

                  And I'm sure they have Bach's Goldberg Variations (goes well with kimchi fried rice) on their jukebox. (What's TMI?)

                  1. re: beevod

                    TMI = too much information, beevod. But they have no jukebox there. There's a transistor radio, square, sitting above the handsink by the kitchen door. It has a foil-wrapped hanger as an antenna extender, and you can never quite figure out what's playing because the volume is low, and scratchy and tinny, and skips between two stations close on the dial. :)

                2. re: beevod

                  And do they try to flush old lettuce down the toilet? ;-P

                3. I have a Sad Cafe, Mamachef. It never closes...it's dark and the waitresses are a bit "put-out" when taking my order, I would go there with my dad for a slice of pie when he and my mother were separated, to talk. I would go there when I was designated drinker, and when I was designated driver. They curiously have a full bar which helped the former. It's called the Saugus Cafe and I would order the Saugus special. An omelette with sausage, avocado and onions topped with sour cream all perfectly overcooked to sop up the demon rum. I make very little eye contact with the other patrons as my mascara is invariably under my eyes. But hey, so is theirs. It's a great place. If you ever want to experience it's dankness from afar, it's the cafe they meet at on the original CSI, that is supposed to be in Vegas, but is really in the Santa Clarita Valley.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: LA Buckeye Fan

                    I can literally see and smell and feel the place, LA Buckeye Fan! And I can see the mascara dappled under your burning eyes, as you attempt to undo the damage from your stint as designated drinker.

                  2. Mine would have been Sandolino's, on Barrow Street near 4th, in Greenwich Village. It is now an Asian restaurant, too--Japanese, I think. It was open after the bars closed, until 6 am, I think, and what kind of broken heart isn't a little more broken between those two hours? I mostly remember omelettes and coffee. There was another one called Jeanne's Patio, on Greenwich Avenue, but I was far too likely to run into people I knew there, and that just wasn't what I wanted when I went looking for the comfort of my Sad Cafe. So, Sandolino's.

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: Jay F

                      Jay F! That is a GREAT LINE: "What kind of broken heart isn't a little more broken between those two hours?"
                      I know mine always hurt more in the wee hours, that limbo between the insomniacs going finally to sleep and the rest of the world waking up....

                      1. re: Jay F

                        I remember these places well, Jay F. And there was an alley of a place on W4th between 6th and 7th whose name escapes me at the moment, that was my Sad Cafe for years. It was across the street from my college boyfriend's apartment, and we would land there together -- or separately after another night of arguing. And the Cookie Bar, though that was for later in the day libations...

                        1. re: roxlet

                          roxlet, the way you identified is wonderful. Doesn't it kinda take you right back there? The way you categorized which Sad Cafe works for certain times of day. Ahahahaha. We had different bars for different situations too. You would NEVER go to so and so at 7 a. m. !!

                          1. re: roxlet

                            Roxlet, you will undoubtedly remember the Jefferson Market, which was my first "nice" grocery store. One of my favorite things to get there -- much in keeping with the Sad Cafe theme, Mama Chef -- was the rotisserie chicken, which I named the "Lonely Chicken," because I and, I assumed, everyone else who bought one would take it home and eat it by themselves.

                            Lonely Chicken, strawberry Dannon yogurt, and the occasional slice of Ray's Pizza (the only one that matters, at 6th and 11th) were my staples after I became a member of the Sad Cafe.

                            Anyway, back to the Jefferson Market and the 21st century. I just read a couple of weeks ago that it closed in January. Now that is reason for a Sad Cafe sit-in if ever I've heard one. "New York, I don't know about you" (thanks, Peter Allen). There is officially no reason to live in Greenwich Village anymore.

                            1. re: Jay F

                              I lived in the West Village for 30 years and I miss it every day, though it is so gentrified between the High Line and the Meat Market that I hardly recognize it when I go back. The Meat Market was dangerous (except for Frank's), and MY high line was the abandoned elevated West Side Highway that I would jog on from 14th Street to the World Trade Center and back. Along the way, I'd look at the abandoned buildings in what became Tribeca, and dream about fixing them up.

                              Jefferson Market and Balduccis were across from the Woman's House of Detention, where the amoratas of the detainees would stand and try to get messages to their lady loves. My village is gone, but I remember it all!

                              1. re: roxlet

                                roxlet and Jay F: these are just so wonderful. It proves that the real magic is in the fine details.

                          2. re: Jay F

                            I remember the restaurant VERY well. The specialty was omelets. And the list was active and growing. Some of my favorites [not together of course] were peanut butter, boursin, chicken liver, and morel with onion.

                          3. Mine would have to be the old Oriental drugstore lunch counter in Milwaukee. I don't think I ever ate anything other than grilled cheese or pancakes. 4 horse shoe counters in pharmacy/hardware store/whatever shop. 3 counters were smoking and 1 wasn't (not that you could tell the difference. Favorite waitress had 4 inch long finger nails with bitch meticulously painted on each one. People from every walk of life. Unfortunately, the times caught up with them - I think the last time I went by it was a liquor store (although that was probably 7 - 10 years ago.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: corneygirl

                              Awesome. So un-PC, but so sweetly naive, the name; back in the day when nobody knew better. I may need to go get me some of those nails, next time I feel like making a strong statement.

                              1. re: mamachef

                                Un PC, but it was on the east side of town. There is(was) a movie theatre with the 'Oriental' moniker next door. That is still there (gorgeous). And now that I think about it the bowling alley on that block may have the same name...

                            2. My town's version of this is a small hole in the wall named 'Pete's Place'. Pete serves up greasy spoon breakfast/lunch fare. I've never been to the place when there was a game going, but the walls are cluttered with framed cribbage '21' hands and pictures of those souls who played them. I'm no longer a smoker, and neither is Pete's. . . but it's just not the same without the ashtrays and the perpetual haze. . .

                              "Pete" still works the flat-top, and there's a garage in the back where you're welcome to work your breakfast off on an home gym machine he himself invented.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Ninevah

                                It's the details.....the home gym machines, the pictures of long-past cribbage games....that make a sad cafe what it is. Yes indeed.

                              2. When I worked on Fremont Street in the City, in what then seemed like a high-pressure job, the café in the East Bay Bus Terminal was our aid and succor. The place was fluorescent-lit and painted a sort of penitentiary gray. It had a swoopy long formica counter with the stools you could twirl around on (if you were so rash as to do so) and a place for your purse under the counter where you sat. They served American and Cantonese dishes, gruffly and somewhat begrudgingly. If you wanted, you could smoke your head off (everybody else did, including the waiters and I bet the cooks). Any work problems or crazy personal misadventures or other woes were soothed away by a nice big plate of their scrambled eggs with tomatoes for lunch.
                                (A good friend made a special point of going back to see it before it was torn down and kept those of us expatriated from the Bay Area supplied with links to SF Gate. It was a virtual reunion of the old gang - all of whom are still friends over 25 years later.)

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: buttertart

                                  That may win the award for saddest Cafe of all, bt. I so remember it. The walls were gray, and so, skinwise, were many of the patrons. I had a bread veal cutlet there once, after reading about it at the age of 13 or so and being thoroughly enchanted by the description, because breaded meats and gravied things were really not to be found in our home.
                                  I left thoroughly disenchanted with Breaded Veal, and disabused of the concept that all things in books are romantic, and good food.

                                  1. re: mamachef

                                    Their beef with tofu was killer, though. It and the cruddy (lingerie-show-holding) bar (known to us as the feeder bar) next to the building on Fremont sustained us all.

                                2. There was an old Dirty Diner
                                  With lots of good food to be had
                                  Provided you were comfortably sad
                                  And had something to hide
                                  In that Sad Old Dirty Diner

                                  1. Cool Thread.

                                    Olathe, Kansas (Long O, Long A, Short e, Oh-LAY-the) is about 30 miles Southwest of downtown Kansas City. It used to be a semi rural farm town, but the city has encroached upon and enveloped it. The core remains mostly unchanged. In the middle of the core is Mom's Kitchen, a white standalone building in the middle of a crumbling parking lot. I only go in the morning, and its best when its bone numbing cold outside. The windows are steamed up and the ceiling tiles are yellowed by decades of smoke. The vinyl booths are faded and cracked, there's rice in the salt shakers. The brown tabletops match the fake wood paneling of the walls.

                                    Coffee is hot and strong, the waitresses are busy and you better have your order ready when they come by. They only do the basics at Mom's but they do them well. Biscuits and gravy, pancakes, waffles, eggs and hash browns, the frozen shredded kind. They occasionally have chicken fried steak and eggs.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: chileheadmike

                                      Wow. My hair stood up when I read this. You put me right there, right now, Mikey. It's freezing cold, all I want is strong hot domestic coffee, and I am pulling on mittens and adjusting my muffler as we walk through the parking lot to Mom's Kitchen and open the door w/ clumsy wool-clad hands; the relief when the door (it sticks slightly, right? because of the gray weatherstripping?). Warm air comes out in a gush. I can see an empty cracked vinyl booth.
                                      It needs wiping. And here comes the busboy, wet kitchen towel in hand. He wipes it down and give us a nod.
                                      We take our table.
                                      Thank you dude.

                                    2. My favorite musician, Tom Waits, provides the soundtrack for this thread:


                                      That clip transitions directly into this one:


                                      6 Replies
                                      1. re: Big Bad Voodoo Lou

                                        Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen are gods, IMO. Thank you so much for sending this. I used to see Tom Waits at the local large you-pack-it grocery store in Sonoma County, and he was really protective of his privacy. In NY nobody would've known who he was, but SoCo is a small place and everyone knows he lives there. Cool stuff, dude. Thank you.

                                        1. re: mamachef

                                          He is notoriously private, and I like to think I would have just smiled and nodded his way if I saw him out and about, but who knows. At least I got to see him live in 2006, and I was pretty close to him then. The man knows "sad cafes," dingy diners, boozy bars, and depressing dives better than anyone!

                                          1. re: Big Bad Voodoo Lou

                                            Oh so true. He can really draw you in. I'm glad you got to see him. I had a girlfriend who, when she wanted to get really really depressed, she'd proceed to put on a Waits album, get totally drunk, and call an old boyfriend. :)

                                        2. re: Big Bad Voodoo Lou

                                          I'm glad I didn't know about Tom Waits when I lived in NY. I might have killed myself. My heartbreak music was Linda Ronstadt's mid-70s records. Just over and over and over, I listened to Linda singing "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me," "Hasten down the Wind," and especially "Carmelita." Warren Zevon's music, that was the best of it.

                                          1. re: Jay F

                                            Joni Mitchell wins hands down for me, the lyrics of The Last Time I Saw Richard, perfectly describe the Sad Cafe.

                                        3. That place would be Angels Diner in Palatka, Fl. It's been there since 1932 and it looks like it. They say they are the first diner in Fl. I am not sure about that.. don't care either.. Good handmade burgers, real onion rings and a great breakfast. Plus, they have a drink that my husband likes..Chocholate milk ,vanilla syrup with crushed ice.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: Robinez

                                            Isn't it an old converted train car? I know I've been by it, but I honestly can't remember if we were able to stop there for lunch. I think I would have remembered if we did.

                                            1. re: Big Bad Voodoo Lou

                                              Yes, it is ! And I am sorry that you didn't get a chance to stop there. Because you are right, you would have remembered.

                                              They also have old fashioned vanilla/cherry cokes. Real shakes.

                                              My hubby used to go there as a kid with his father after fishing on the St.Johns. They didn't have 2 go cups back then of course, so 4 smelly boys and their dad would get a float or shake at the counter. It was a treat.

                                              Fast forward over 50 yrs. I have been going there over 20 yrs, but the best indicator is my husband, who said it hasn't changed since he was a boy at the counter drinking a shake.

                                          2. Not-to-be-missed novel for those touched by the Sad Café bug - "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo.


                                            15 Replies
                                              1. re: mamachef

                                                Have you read it? It's very good (but I like his prescreenwriting novels better).

                                                1. re: buttertart

                                                  Yes, is why I loved your suggestion. Man can make you feel the blues and see the layered smoke-strata; can make you physically understand how his broken heart feels.

                                                  1. re: mamachef

                                                    Another good restaurant-centered one is "Last Night at the Lobster", by Stuart O'Nan (about just that, the last night at a Red Lobster that's being closed). I need to read more of his books.

                                                    1. re: buttertart

                                                      Seems I need read THAT one. Love the topic. Did he do the book in a way such as interviewing individual people from each echelon?

                                                      1. re: mamachef

                                                        It's a novel with beautifully-realized characters. A more subtle Russo.

                                                      2. re: buttertart

                                                        Surprised no one has mentioned Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. I was a big Anne Tyler fan back in the day, but haven't read her for quite a while. I do remember liking this one though. I found Empire Falls to be hugely depressing...

                                                        1. re: roxlet

                                                          His (Russo's) pre-screenwriting novels are his better ones, it seems to me. Have you read any O'Nan? Loved that book. Anne Tyler too, she should be coming out with something fairly soon, I'd think.

                                                          1. re: roxlet

                                                            I loved "Dinner" - also used to be a huge Tyler fan, but then she got too...something for me. But if you haven't read it, check out "The Accidental Tourist" and "Ladder of Years", which I found especially good.

                                                            1. re: mamachef

                                                              Welcome back mama :) I was just debating e-mailing you but thought maybe we were just on different threads. But I know sometimes a month or two later is worse than the weeks immediately following.

                                                              And you're right, Tyler was at her best at "The Accidental Tourist," but then just went over the bend. I'm personally rediscovering Pat Conroy--"Beach Music" has some fabulous food scenes.

                                                              1. re: gaffk

                                                                Love and adore Pat Conroy - especially his n/f, "Conrack," which'll tear your heart out.

                                                  2. re: buttertart

                                                    EMPIRE FALLS is one of my favorite books.

                                                    1. re: Jay F

                                                      That O'Nan should be up your street too.

                                                      1. re: buttertart

                                                        Literally. He's from Pittsburgh, where I live, and one of his recent novels, EMILY ALONE, takes place one right turn off my street, about a mile away. I've just ordered the LOBSTER book.

                                                        1. re: Jay F

                                                          Too funny. I must read that and the previous novel, had samples on Kindle and liked them both a lot.

                                                  3. My husband had a Sad Cafe in college - the Texas Inn, aka "the T" where you could get a glass of the glass of the James (River), and a cheesy western all the way - a cheeseburger with a fried egg, onions and a mustardy relish on it. He tells me it is the perfect place to cure those late night drunken-munchies or that late morning post-party hangover. According to college student legend, the counterman keeps a shotgun close to hand for rowdy students and local thugs.

                                                    4 Replies
                                                    1. re: jujuthomas

                                                      I bet he does too, juju: a .22 caliber, loaded w/ rock salt, for their rowdy asses. I am convicted of the belief that All Good Rumors Start From Somewhere.
                                                      For some reason it's the mustardy relish that makes me want one for my next hungover morning.

                                                      1. re: mamachef

                                                        i bet he does, lol! I was a little more snobby in the early days of our relationship, I didn't want to touch or eat anything in the place. these days I love a good dive and could probably wolf a couple cheesies down easy (don't tell DH, it's a long freaking drive down there!)

                                                        1. re: mamachef

                                                          mamachef: Just loved your original post -- great writing.

                                                          A bit OT, but where do you find the rosepetal soda you mention in your profile?

                                                          1. re: Steve Green

                                                            Steve: gotcha back on your private e-mail. And thanks so much for the comment; it means a lot to me when others enjoy my writing.

                                                      2. I had a coffee there the other day - and was deeply gratified and relieved to see and feel that not one thing has changed. :)

                                                        1. Our sad cafe is an Italian family run restaurant/bar in the middle of an urban neighborhood where nothing has changed in the five plus decades my family treks to enjoy the food. It's dark paneling, dingy lighting, wooden booths against dark walls too small for most bodies and the tables in the center situated neck and neck to the next. The soda pop glasses are tiny tiny. One bathroom for the entire building situated in a closet in the middle of the dining room.

                                                          Their Mamachef's portrait is hanging behind the mini cashier desk (also located in the same dining room space). Tight, tiny, dark....and on a Fri/Sat/Sunday you best leave an hour before you plan to eat to get a table! The food is marvelous. The printed menu items haven't changed at all...except all the crossed out price updates! You leave so happy to have made it to a table and you know you'll return.

                                                          Our sad cafe is an Italian restaurant in northern NJ. Bar pie, garlic salad, ravioli the size of your hand, chicken parm, baked ziti-no frills, no BS waitresses..and don't ask for butter!

                                                          2 Replies
                                                          1. re: HillJ

                                                            I LOVE this!! I can see and smell the place....a whiff of smoke, from years ago; a hint of burnt wax, tomato and yeast in the air. Now I must know: what is bar pie? And the tables: are they truly wood, or are they laminated, wood-looking tabletops?
                                                            Thank you for sharing this. I believe everybody needs a Sad Cafe. :)

                                                            1. re: mamachef

                                                              Bar pie is pizza sold at the bar and made in the bar kitchen. This joint shares a very small kitchen (think big pots of sauce simmering away, one long worn out wood plank prep counter) for food served in the resto & bar.

                                                              Truly wood. Wood panel walls, wood booths, wood chairs and greasy, sticky vinyl floors. Glorious!

                                                          2. Loved your post but, where I live, "diner" and "congee" just wouldn't be found under the same roof. Not that it doesn't sound really appealing.

                                                            1. I used to have one, but the thing that will make it lose a bit of character is the simple fact that it was a Waffle House, but it was MY Waffle House.
                                                              Years ago, I was a worker bee in professional sports. When you leave at midnight after the noise, after the lights, the blur of happy chattering faces, you can not just go home and sleep. Something has to happen in between. Usually it was a simple waffle and mug of hot chocolate. If I was hungrier, hash brown with cheese on the side, well done. The same woman with garish lipstick and spider leg eyelashes would wait on me, but something must have indicated to her that I wasn't there to chat. The counter was an ungodly pumpkin orange, and clean, yet somehow sticky. Cash only, bathroom filthy. The smell was heavy smoke, and if someone was close to you, stale booze.
                                                              It's a certain kind of crowd that populates a Waffles House in the middle of a city with myriad better options. Depressed, angry, drunk, confused, and then me, the girl who just couldn't sleep yet.