Three days after our dinner at the Denny’s in the Financial District, my roommate Felix went to the Bellevue emergency room for gastric pains later diagnosed as pancreatitis, and our friend Nick’s home was visited by FBI agents, who unconvincingly tried to assure his landlords that he was “not in trouble.” I cannot definitively prove a causal connection between these incidents and the Denny’s restaurant chain, but it would be naive to rule it out.
In the summer of 2014, a brand new Denny’s opened up at 150 Nassau St., just a short walk from City Hall, in the Financial District of New York City. Chain restaurants have been creeping into New York for some time now, and while they’re still generally met with resistance from locals, they’re hardly a shock. But the first Denny’s in New York was different, and not just because of the Wall Street neighborhood or the strangely manufactured Middle American wholesomeness that woos patrons into consuming 2,000 calories in a sitting.
First of all, 150 Nassau Street is the American Tract Society Building, an absolutely beautiful 23-story Beaux-Arts historical landmark—if you’re in the market, you can snag a two bedroom condo for around $2.4 million. Or perhaps you’d like to rent a studio for a mere $2,500 a month? In keeping with the opulent architecture, the Financial District Denny’s offered a promotional “Grand Cru Slam” special on its opening day, which consisted of two Grand Slam breakfasts, a bottle of Dom Perignon, and—I’m not kidding here—a high-five from the bartender. Unlike the Denny’s in, say, Dubai (yes, there is a Denny’s in Dubai), the marketing behind the new location diverged from the traditional Denny’s brand: yes, it’s all the same comfort food of a down-home Denny’s, but with a ritzy aesthetic, craft cocktails and Prosecco on tap.
As a fan of diner food and breakfast food in particular, I was intrigued by the idea of a Denny’s in the heart of the only part of New York where the prevalence of cocaine appears to have left a dearth of decent restaurants. No one seems to eat in the Financial District, at least not beyond the purely necessary caloric intake required to live and work, which begs the question: who did they expect to patronize their establishment? Wall Street Denny’s isn’t too far from the World Trade Center, but the good people at Denny’s HQ couldn’t possibly be expecting patriotic mourners to saunter over to a chain restaurant diner for a somber and reflective plate of Moons Over My Hammy®, especially when the 9/11 Memorial and Museum Cafe was right there, ready to serve them mediocre pastries. No, Financial District Denny’s had to be for the local workforce.
I pictured 23-year-old day traders kicking in the door and demanding Grey Goose bottle service with their country fried steak, so jacked up on the stimulants they needed to get through their 70-hour work weeks that they had to set alarms on their phones to remind them to eat.
It was a non-traditional investigative story, but a friend agreed to run it on his personal blog and my fantasies ran wild: I will drink the Prosecco on tap. I will be the Seymour Hersh of American chain restaurants. I will be the Gay Talese of heartburn. I will be the Joan Didion of diarrhea.
I invited my roommate Felix Biederman and our friend Nick Mullen to come along. I didn’t want to go into the wilderness alone, and I figured a few people ordering different things would allow me to sample multiple dishes. Felix and Nick were the natural choice, as they are both, like me, more gourmand than gourmet, and I had enjoyed disgusting food with them both on prior occasions.
I got there first, and past a rather grand-looking, well-stocked bar of deep wood, I sat in a booth in an abrasively lit area by the drink machine and a roaring HVAC system. Thankfully I was soon reseated upstairs, where it was dim and quiet. Dark lighting, Edison bulbs, tufted high-backed booths in rich maroon, wrought-iron chairs at the smaller tables with a slightly blonder wood grain, and sections divided by deep brown false walls with wainscoting on the bottom and windows on top frosted in a gradual ombre, so you’d have to stand up at your table to actually identify an object or figure on the other side. They were colonial-style, of course, but homied up with false muntins arranged to make a single large sheet of glass look as if it was actually made up of many smaller panes. It was Denny’s… but instead of the traditional faux-diner aesthetic, this was a faux-bespoke eatery.
Nick and Felix soon arrived, but beyond us three, there was only a man and his teen daughter, who quickly finished their meal and left. When I pointed out that the tiled brocade pattern above our heads was actually cheap drop ceiling obscuring the otherwise industrial bones of the building, Nick mentioned that they were covering external pipes. He said that the first time he ever remembered seeing exposed pipes was in a Starbucks, where exposed pipes are a design aesthetic as fakey as the Denny’s drop ceilings. But Nick remembered thinking it was cool at the time, that “it looked like New York.”
We also noticed what had originally appeared to be wood flooring was actually a sort of wood-grain patterned tile. Probably easier to clean, but less attractive at a second glance, engendering in me an affection. (Don’t most of us look better in low lighting anyway?)
The ambiance wasn’t really bad for all the ticky-tacky attempts at swank. At least away from the HVAC section it was quiet without being stifling. The two massive TVs over the bar were turned all the way down. “The Cisco Kid” played softly on overhead speakers, and we’d be treated to the sounds of the seventies throughout our stay. Then our waiter arrived.
“They call me The Restaurant Slut,” he said, on account of his long career as a waiter, primarily at chain restaurants.
“They call me that too, but for different reasons,” I said.
He laughed, which was a relief, since you’re never sure when you’re overplaying your hand with the bon vivant floozy material. We all liked The Restaurant Slut immediately–excellent service and utterly charming. Shockingly so, really, when you remembered he was working for tips in a nearly deserted restaurant. Nonetheless, he cheerfully took our drink orders and left us to our menus. It was at this point that Felix announced that he was wrestling with a bad case of “Jew stomach,” before downing half a sleeve of Rolaids —a grim gesture for a man looking at a menu that featured something called a “Pot Roast Melt,” which is basically the same principle as a Tuna Melt, but with pot roast. Looking over the menu thoroughly, we confirmed that it was the same as any other Denny’s menu, which was an odd relief.
I decided against debasing a classic, and when our faithful Restaurant Slut returned, I just ordered the traditional pot roast — no melt necessary. Figuring I was obligated to try the Prosecco on tap, I also added an eight dollar Bellini — you know, for that classic pairing of stone fruit, sparkling wine, and beef gravy. Felix went for the club sandwich, a sandwich being the safest option in suspect establishment, and as the most daring, Nick ordered the South by Southwest skillet, a mass of greasy breakfast food featuring chorizo and lots of cheese. The Restaurant Slut took our order without judgment.
As we sat in that desolate chain restaurant, well after dinner time, amidst all the potemkin luxuries, it occurred to me what absolute fucking dirtbags we all looked like at that moment. My dining companions both wore identical black Adidas tracksuits. This unplanned wardrobe coordination plus their notable facial hair and their shared tendency to hunch over the table gave the impression of two low-rent Ukranian mobsters splitting the meager profits from the sale of fewer than 20 nearly expired vicodin. I felt the odd girl out. Normally in these situations I could pass for the slightly busted Kazakh chippie, but the day had started out too warm for my white rabbit fur coat, so I substituted a tuxedo shirt instead, leaving me a little too butch to pull off “Eurasian gun moll.”
“I’m thinking about buying padlocks in bulk and selling them outside of parking lots” said Nick.
He explained that production companies always need padlocks to keep the equipment in the trucks safe. Nick lives in Chinatown in a one bedroom apartment with a Chinese family of eight. He sleeps in a bunk bed.
“I bet you could get free shipping with Amazon Prime,” I said.
Our gracious Restaurant Slut brought our food, and — angel that he was — deigned to answer my questions about his place of employment. It turns out that the Financial District Denny’s is every bit the boondoggle anyone with a tiny bit of sense would assume. It’s essentially been empty since it opened, attracting neither Wall Street locals (they really don’t eat), nor tourists. Sometimes students from Pace University across the street pop in, but they’re hardly loyal or even repeat customers. The Restaurant Slut was quitting Denny’s to work primarily at his other job soon (Applebee’s? Chili’s? I can’t remember), but recommended to us a family-owned Dominican diner in his neighborhood before leaving us to our meals.
The food was so much worse than I remember Denny’s ever being. Massive portions of gelatinous stew with strangely textured beef on dry mashed potatoes. The bellini was made nearly impotable by vinegary, flat Prosecco. Felix’s consumed his mediocre sandwich slowly, and Nick’s ate his entire mound of food, the flavor profile of which can best be summed up as “fried.” None of the meals were what you’d call “good,” but it was clear to me that mine was the least good and that I should probably go to church or AA or something. Nick polished off the whole thing before pulling his feet upon the booth and assuming a squat position.
“Really embracing the track-suited squatting Slav thing, huh?” He replied that the position aided in digestion. “I’m worried I’m going to have diarrhea for, like, four hours,” he said seriously.
Restaurant Slut came back bearing dessert menus and for some reason we ordered pecan pie a la mode.
“I can’t eat a whole piece of pie. I’m just going to have a bite of yours. Sorry. I’m doing the girl thing.”
“Everyone hates that girl!” laughed the Restaurant Slut over his shoulder. He came back with an extra piece on the house, just for me. Out of pure Midwestern protestant obligation I cleaned my plate, simultaneously relishing the sticky-sweet pecans and fighting back the nausea. We all finished and sat with our shame, awaiting the inevitable gastric anguish. When we were sure we weren’t going to die, I paid the bill, Nick walked home and Felix and I took a cab back to Brooklyn.
All of us felt like tragic garbage, but while my own dyspepsia was not negligible, in retrospect I realize I got off light — no hospitalization or visits from the authorities, at least.
What mostly strikes me about the experience is how disenchanted I am with the bourgeoisie’s sense of identity — specifically, what tacky fools they are. How could they allow a Denny’s —already an ersatz Middle American diner—mutate into an ersatz establishment for the affluent directly under luxury condos, right next to where all the money is. I wish I had some clever Marxist bow I could wrap the moment up in — something about the nature of luxury regarding labor theory of value, or fetishization of commodity, or the affective labor of our delightful restaurant slut — but alas, my analytical brain was numbed into immobility by the grease of it all, leaving only my aesthetic brain to work through the trauma.
This piece initially appeared on Fredrik deBoer’s blog, Interfaces of the Word.