Life and Death and Denny’s: A Visit to the First New York Outpost of America’s Diner

The $300 Grand Cru Slam.

The $300 Grand Cru Slam.

On Saturday morning, two men went to Denny’s. The restaurant chain opened its first New York City location this week, touted as America’s first “fancy” Denny’s, complete with tin ceilings, Edison bulbs, craft cocktails shaken by a bearded guy surely imported from Williamsburg, and a much-publicized $300 special that involves a bottle of Dom Perignon.

The food, it turns out, is basically the same as at any Denny’s, and there weren’t many takers for the Dom. I went with a fellow Denny’s-deprived New Yorker. We sat at a booth.

“This lunch stuff looks pretty good,” I said.

“I think it would be such a mistake to get lunch. I want to note that a Grand Slam Breakfast is $10.79. You know, it started as $2.99, like in the ’90s. The last time I was in Denny’s it was $6.99. It was $6.99, and I was on drugs, and you could smoke inside. You could smoke inside the Denny’s!”

“So when was that, when you were last at Denny’s on drugs, smoking cigarettes…”

“This was June 2005 at the Denny’s on Telegraph Road and 12 Mile. My girlfriend at the time organized a brunch.”

“As one does.”

“For teenagers in southwest Michigan, that’s what brunch is. I believe I ordered the same order I’m about to get right now, the All-American Slam. The question is, have I ever come to Denny’s and not ordered an All-American Slam?”

“The Grand Slamwich seems like another appropriate option. It’s basically the All-American Slam, but in sandwich form.”

“I’d rather make that on my own,” said my friend. “Part of the joy of eating breakfast is constructing something. It’s architectural. You become a master builder. The side of toast is similar to a kind of Middle Eastern style of eating, particularly Lebanese, where the bread acts as a delivery system for the other sustenance. So this goes back pre-Christ, essentially.”

The waitress approached the table.

I ordered: “Can I have an All-American Slam? Hash Browns would be great, extra crispy.”

“With cheese?”

“Cheese on the hash browns?”

“On the hash browns. It’s delicious.”

“Sure, I guess.

“I’ll have an All-American Slam, too,” my friend said.

“Cheese on the hash browns?”

“You’ve talked me into the cheese at this point.

She walked away.

“Cheese on hash browns?” I asked my friend.

“This is not a thing that I remember.”

“How many people here just came from the 9/11 Memorial Museum?”

“Wow, that’s a good question.”

“It’s right next door.”

“If we’re working percentages,” said my friend, “I’d say 25 percent are coming from the 9/11 Museum. Twenty-five percent are just regular tourists, 25 percent are assholes like you and me who think it’s really funny to be here, and then the other 25 percent are old people who found the Denny’s. If you’re over 55 years old, you find the Denny’s, wherever you are. But, like, those people,” he gestured to a guy with glasses and a woman wearing a trucker hat, “they’re assholes like us, the girl in the trucker hat. They’re like, ‘Oh, Denny’s.’ But you know what? You come for the irony, you stay for the food. There’s nothing ironic about my appreciation of the Grand Slam Breakfast.”

The waitress approached with two All-American Slams, each plate covered in a mound of thin crispy cheese-topped hash browns, a tower of scrambled eggs, two sausage links, two bacon strips, and four well-buttered pieces of toast.

“So, let’s do this,” I said. “What are you feeling right now? Where are you? Who are you?”

“This is a really fucking Proustian moment for me. It’s so fucking delicious. It makes me feel like I’m 17, with my whole life ahead of me. I was still very aware of my mortality then and I had frequent panic attacks, but I did feel like I was going to be great. I didn’t think I would sitting in a Denny’s 10 years later, waxing philosophical on Denny’s.”

“Things could be worse.”

“They could be a lot better, too.”

“When I was 17,” I said, “my band and I stopped at a Denny’s on the way to Bedford, Virginia, for some music festival.”

“Probably a great festival.”

“It was the most horrific place I’d ever played. The band that put this together in this terrifying hick town was called That Band With The Fat Kids, and they played this terrible ska-punk…—”

“I’m just interrupting to say that we have to eat this slowly, we have to savor this. Let’s take our time. O.K., continue?”

“So we stopped at this Denny’s, and I didn’t know—I was going to college, the band was breaking up, I had no idea what I was doing.”

“I would say, when I was 17 and eating at that Denny’s, I would have rather been any place else than at a Denny’s in Michigan. I really wanted out. And now, I would say I regret not appreciating more of that. Because life is a miserable pile of shit. And it’s the little moments.”

“It is a miserable pile of shit, but sometimes, you have the option to put cheese on top.”