In an effort to thumb my nose at my journalism training, I'm going to do something I was never allowed to do in college: I'm going to quote Wikipedia.
According to good old Wiki, comfort food is often characterized as "inexpensive, uncomplicated, and easy to prepare. Many people turn to comfort food for familiarity, emotional security, or as a special reward." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comfort_food)
Personally, I'm of the opinion that comfort food is anything that creates a layer of fat between me and the nasty, brutish, Hobbes-style world. Yesterday certainly fit that category, with cold rain whipping and thrashing at me and my broken, pathetic umbrella. I was already in a bad mood and I was already in Queens (which could put anyone in a bad mood), and I couldn't think of anything I needed more than my own personal comfort food, the kind only an all-night diner specializing in everything from pancakes to pasta can provide.
So, we headed to the Bel-Aire Diner in Long Island City, Queens (31-91 21ST St. at Broadway). An attempt to find a copy of the menu online proved fruitless, probably because there is simply too much to cram onto one Web page (it barely fits on one beat-up leather-bound menu with many pages). Trust me when I tell you that the place has anything you could ever want, especially when your stomach is rumbling and storm clouds are rolling overhead (literally and figuratively).
The first and most important thing to note is that the building itself makes it fairly obvious what kind of delightful cliche you're in for. Standing alone in the corner of a shopping center parking lot on Broadway, the entire exterior is paneled in chrome, with large windows to create the typical diner-style fishbowl effect. The concrete ramp leading to the entrance a few feet above the ground feels like a stairway to heaven.
The wood-paneled inside is just as traditional as the outside. Fresh fish sneer from a pit full of ice just inside the door, and the place is sprawling, with booths upon booths (all upholstered in wonderful, hideous plastic fabric, alternating between stripes of florals and solids). and a long counter piled high with wrapped baked goods. The swinging kitchen doors are just beyond it, where men in white aprons dash around yelling frantically to one another. Of course, there are also mints at the register just inside, and the added bonus of shortbread cookies half-covered in plastic wrap.
The perk of this diner (something that my favorite Queens diner, Neptune Diner at 31-05 Astoria Blvd., fails to recognize as important) is that they will seat you before the rest of your party has arrived. I waited for my friend L in a comfy booth, annoyed at the rain falling outside the aquarium windows. When she arrived, they brought the standard mix of beets in one bowl and chickpeas with onions in another. Apparently this is traditional diner fare, and while I generally prefer a hunk of bread as a starter, the chickpeas and beets are always delicious enough to prompt me to take a few heaping spoonfuls as I peruse the menu.
I have to agree with the Wiki on the point that comfort food needs to feel familiar. Diner food, and comfort food, generally hold no surprises. In these scenarios, it's always a no-frills kind of meal, where you know exactly what you're getting before you even read the description. I've never met a burger I didn't like, so when I need to be comforted by gobs of greasy grub, it's always where my eyes go first. Has anyone ever been comforted by a salad? If you plan to crunch away your blues with carrot sticks and lettuce, Bel-Aire (and certainly any other diner) is probably not for you.
A burger with mozzarella for me, complemented by my most frequent and favorite side order: sweet potato fries. Much like sweet potato friends, sweet potato fries just make a person feel good about life. My friend L ordered a breaded fish sandwich and requested exactly two of my fries rather than ordering her own side. It was heart-wrenching, but after a few beats of silent panic I agreed to share a few.
It's pretty hard to ruin a hamburger, but it's equally difficult to make a good one. A child of the Midwest, I thought Burger King was just about as good as it got for the first 18 years of my life. Needless to say, one can only describe my state of mind during this period of my life as "juvenile" and "ignorant." If they're feeling charitable. Thanks to places like Manhattan's Paul's Place (131 2nd Ave., where my friend N claims he once got a "bad batch," although I'm not sure I believe it) and Bel-Aire, I now understand what a real burger tastes like.
Bel-Aire burgers are big. And by big I mean BIG. Not the kind of big where they serve it on a teeny plate to make you THINK it's big. The kind of big where it's on a plate fit for royalty, and you're the king or queen. Springy lettuce, tomatoes, two onion rings for garnish, and the blessed sweet potato fries. My appreciation for life begins to return.
There isn't much to say about a burger that you haven't heard before, but this particular one was meaty, thick, delicious, and cooked just as I'd requested (medium well-done). The bun wasn't soggy, which is often a dealbreaker for a hamburger connoisseur such as myself. Because diner food is so inexpensive, the quality is sometimes sacrificed. Not so at the reliable Bel-Aire, which I've visited many times since moving to the neighborhood over a year ago.
As for the sweet potato fries...fewer things in life are better (even if they needed a bit of salt, as most fries tend to need). Although Manhattan's Curly's Vegetarian Lunch (328 E. 14th St.) easily has some of the best SPFs in the city (with Manhattan's Silver Spurs at 771 Broadway also receiving an honorable mention), the SPFs at this diner have always satisfied me immensely. I had to keep slapping L's hand away, if that gives you any indication of how good they were (and how possessive I am of my SPFs). The waitress mentioned she'd never had this particular variation of fried goodness, and I looked at her like she's sprouted another head, or perhaps at least a few hairy facial warts. If she hadn't been so jolly I would have expected that she might spit in our sundae.
Ah, the sundae, another comfort food staple. I'm not generally a lover of ice cream, unless it's Ben and Jerry's Cinnamon Buns (I know, I know, it's sinful), but when L suggested sharing a sundae, it sounded like the perfect choice for a freezing, rainy day at a diner in the middle of Queens. When our waitress claimed that she makes "a mean banana split," the decision was made for us.
One scoop of vanilla ice cream flanked by a scoop of chocolate and another of strawberry. The next layer was nuts, probably cashews, although we were eating too quickly to find out. Chocolate sauce. Whipped cream. Three cherries (which L let me eat because she hates maraschinos...crazy woman). It was a gigantic, sugary hug, and every second of it was familiar, comforting, and amazing.
We sat chatting for almost an hour afterward, occasionally scooping up delicious, melty, choco-straw-nilla ice cream swirled with chocolate sauce goo and whipped cream. Our plates were collected at intervals by smiling busboys, and we weren't rushed to leave or hustled out the door. The waitress finally came over and asked us sweetly if we could do her a favor and let her take our check to the counter because she needed to cash out. We could stay as long as we wanted, she assured us, whisking the check away for us with a smile.
At this point, it's time to stop for a minute and talk about our waitress. She was pretty enthusiastic from the get-go, really pushing the traditional family-style diner love on us. We hadn't even spoken yet and she was already calling me "sweetheart" and "darling." Lady, I know you're trying to make the place seem welcoming, but you don't know me at all. I might be a heinous, non-tipping bitch. Give it a minute and find out before you assume that I'm such a lovely person.
Okay, I'll grudgingly admit that I love the kitsch of perky diner waitresses and busboys. She was great, and as she returned our bill she thanked us again and told us that next time our sundae would be on her. As L exclaimed, "we are SO coming back here." Yes, we are.
The Mmm rating: About a MMMM out of MMMMM in the diner food category. You have to take diner food for what it is. It's no Spigolo (1561 2nd Ave in Manhattan, one of my favorites), but sometimes a caloric embrace is just what you need.