Review: Joe’s Diner on Sycamore

Do you ever really want to like a restaurant? Do you keep trying and trying, hoping that one day you’ll have some overwhelming, call-all-your-friends-and-tell-them-how-awesome-it-is experience, and it just never happens?

This has been my experience with Joe’s Diner.

Now, let me be clear.  I have a reputation for liking the higher end stuff, but I also love diner food done well.  It doesn’t have to be a “twist” on diner food;  straightforward is perfectly fine.   I love hamburgers, waffles, and all of the things that one thinks of when someone says “diner”.   The building istself is a favorite of mine, empty since late 2007, and previously home to Vinyl and the Diner on Sycamore.   Though Vinyl wasn’t successful (I had a soft spot in my heart for it and its chicken and waffles, though), The Diner on Sycamore was, and anyone who is capitalizing on that name and signage has some big shoes to fill.

The employees couldn’t be friendlier and more welcoming.  We went during their soft opening as well as several times since then, and always our servers were kind and gracious, and the manager really seemed to care about the customers, walking around to each table and asking for suggestions during their first week of business.

The atmosphere is great, too– classic diner up front, and some more mod remnants of Vinyl in back.  I love that they have classic TV (usually “I Love Lucy”, whenever I’ve been there) and that they’ve kept many of the classic elements of the restaurant.  There are some points that could use a bit of polish:  I wish they’d use actual dishes instead of paper trays that often don’t fit the burger, and the mason jars, while cute, don’t hold a lot of beverage.  This isn’t a problem if they’re refilled promptly, but read further for comments on service.

The menu might be what’s throwing them off– it’s entirely too big.  It’s one thing when a diner has a menu that are variations on a theme (i.e. multiple burgers, multiple presentations of pancakes, omelets, etc) but another when the menu is overwhelming to both guests and the kitchen.

We’ve had a variety of meals at Joe’s, mostly falling into the burger category.  Terry’s had the Joe’s Burger a couple of times, which he has said “was okay”– but nothing to write home about.

I’ve had the turkey burger, which, while a bit on the overly done side, wasn’t bad.  The menu says that it includes a chutney mayonnaise, but it doesn’t– there was just a gigantic piece of chutneyed mango on top of the burger, which honestly didn’t work (and had no mayonnaise).   The first time I ordered it, I also ordered fries, which were okay except they had been mixed with their funnel fries, which was disconcerting, as every bite was oddly sweet.  Later fry experiences were better (and not sugary), but the fries aren’t anything to write home about.

We’ve three times and gotten some variation of the above meal.  One time, though, we shook things up and Terry got shrimp and grits, which is a favorite dish of his.  This is a dish that can be done exceptionally well by a diner– see Tucker’s for reference– but fell short, as the shrimp weren’t terribly flavorful, and the grits had the appearance of being instant.  It’s a dish that could be great with just a couple of upgrades, but I think this falls under the “too broad of a menu” problem.

I’ve had many people complain to me about service, and I’ve experienced some slow service as well.  I’m not sure if this is because the servers are inexperience or because the kitchen is overwhelmed, but outside of the soft opening, the wait for food was long, and refills on drinks were nowhere to be found until our check was delivered.  We’ve never been there when it was packed, so there wasn’t much of an excuse as to why both the kitchen and service was slow.

Will I still go to Joe’s? Definitely.  It’s open late, and I want to try breakfast (which is available all day long, something that is not readily available downtown).  It’s convenient, and I can tell they’re trying (did I mention they were as nice as can be?) to be a great addition to the downtown community.   There’s a market in the neighborhood (and, indeed, all of downtown) for their kind of generally fast, honest, inexpensive food.    I really, really want them to be successful, but they’re going to have to reconsider their expansive menu, up their service, and focus on what they do well.

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