When a diner loses its soul, the meat loaf arrives welded to the plate in a brown sludge of unnaturally thick gravy. The bacon is ironed paper-flat, limp and dry. The cream of broccoli soup is lukewarm glop. The fried eggplant rounds are half raw. The coffee tastes like it was steeped through brown paper bags.
This is no figment of an imaginary Diner Apocalypse. This was my lunch last week at the recently revived Broad Street Diner, the latest half-baked kick in the knees to Philly's once-proud diner tradition. I didn't expect much better from Michael Petrogiannis, the Michael's Diner king who has snapped up our onetime down-home jewels - the Melrose, the Mayfair, and the Country Club - and presided over their dreary declines.
That fact should be helpful to remember the next time I find myself at one of the Philly diner's more energetic contemporary torchbearers, Honey's Sit 'n Eat, waiting impatiently in the long line (inevitable), or grousing that various details of the meal aren't perfect.
And I've done my share of grousing about Honey's. Over the years at Ellen Mogell and Jeb Woody's wildly popular original in Northern Liberties, I've too often found the plucky hipster vibe, the locally sourced ingredients, and the funky comfort-food spirit far more appealing than the actual flavors on the plate. A reluctance to hire a real chef in the beginning and to rely instead on family recipes and Woody as a "kitchen manager" showed to its disadvantage. Little details like seasoning left much to be desired.
But as one of the key players in our Defense of Diner Legacy League, costarring alongside Sam's Morning Glory, Sabrina's, and Green Eggs Cafe, Honey's is a place I've always rooted for. One day, I hoped, it would rise - like its majestic four-layer-high carrot cake - to the challenge of its tall promise.
With the settling-in of an experienced chef in Michael Thomas, and the long-awaited opening of Honey's Sit 'n Eat South, its second location at 21st and South, that's exactly what has begun to happen.
When I dig into a steaming plate of enfrijoladas, a hearty burrito stuffed with egg and sausage smothered in cuminy black bean puree and salsa verde, I've discovered a hearty breakfast favorite I'd eagerly return for. Then again, I may be even more partial to the huevos rancheros because the eggs, cheese, and beans have the added attraction of pickled jalapeños and a base of fried tortilla crunch. I might order the eggs Benedict simply for the Cajun-spiced hollandaise.
I can't see waiting an hour-plus for brunch here, as is the weekend norm. My early meals raised too many flags of early Honey issues - creamy gravy for the sausage and biscuits that desperately needed salt; a spaced-out kitchen that muffed the Cobb salad twice (once served without blue cheese, the other time with no turkey . . . oops; even a pot of foolproof La Colombe that didn't taste right.
But even a rare misfire pot of La Colombe is preferable to the stale joe still served at most remaining old-school diners. And so is the notion that even diner fare can be sourced locally and seasonally and made in-house, a policy Mogell has always insisted on that now seems simple common sense.
Ultimately, though, the success of a true diner depends less on whether it can make an honest turkey club sandwich (and Honey's does). More powerful is its ability to become a brunchroom hub for community life, where the locals come to kibitz and don't worry about the parking because they've walked. I lost track of the number of neighbors and colleagues I saw here. But for the blocks south and west of Rittenhouse Square, this Honey's has certainly begun to fill that void.
Considering that Honey's serves an astonishing 6,000 people a week between its two locations, neighbors are clearly not the only ones answering this diner's call.
The sunny new corner room doesn't have the natural character of the rehabbed old NoLibs space. But Woody's collection of antique signs and knickknacks from the closed Schwimmer's Hardware, as well as a steam-powered band saw repurposed as the host stand, adds local historic warmth.
This new Honey's is far from perfect. Some of the old house recipes could benefit from tweaking, including the dill-laced matzo balls (too dense), the Jewish apple cake (overspiced), and even Bubby's brisket, which, if it had been a bit more tender, would have been a crave-worthy sandwich with creamy horseradish mayo.
Thomas, formerly at Kraftwork and Bar Ferdinand, is also guilty of the occasional overkill special, like the burger with peanut butter and jelly. (No thanks!)
Mostly, though, Thomas' kitchen impressed me with some of its more ambitious plates as my meals progressed. The specials board is where seasonal flavors are featured, and I had my best fiddlehead ferns of the spring here, sauteed with the salty sparkle of nutritional yeast. Ramps were reminiscent of Thomas' Bar Ferdinand days, heat-charred and bundled around a mound of romesco sauce. Chilled pea gazpacho was vibrant with green spring sweetness and mint.
I can't remember the last time I paid just $14 for a piece of fish as plump and nicely seared as Honey's skin-crisped trout amandine. But as the menu's most expensive item, it's proof of the value here that, for the quality, competes with any classic diner. The breakfast special (two eggs, potatoes, toast, and coffee) is a very old-school $3.95.
The vegetarian Reuben is anything but old school. Built from sliced seitan pickled in beet juice to mimic corned beef (at least in look), it's among the most creative of the many veggie-friendly dishes. The tofu scrambled to a vivid curried yellow with turmeric, peppers, and garlicky cumin spice is by far the most flavorful. A refreshing sesame noodle salad, threaded with crunchy scallions and napa cabbage, becomes a meal topped with hoisin-glazed tofu.
I did not like the veggie burger, which was pasty. The guacamole, though, mashed to order and served stuck with chips like a tortilla bush, was loved by all (with just a little added salt).
The Mexican-influenced dishes, in general, were among my favorites, from the enfrijoladas to the soft taco platters layered with juicy pulled chicken in a smoky tingalike tomato salsa, or Cajun-spice tilapia drizzled with chipotle mayo.
A chicken-fried Cornish hen special, served with rice and three dips (loved the BBQ), was memorably juicy and crisp.
For dessert, those tall layer cakes are the obvious temptation. But the real delight is the deep-fried banana split. It's an old-fashioned idea reimagined with a clever hipster wink, the fruit crisped inside a golden brown jacket of sweet pancake batter, snug and hot beneath scoops of ice cream and whipped cream. Eat this nouveau diner whimsy like the indulgent celebration it is - before it melts away.
HONEY'S SIT 'N EAT SOUTH
bells (Very2101 South St.,
This Northern Liberties comfort food hit has brought its updated diner ethos to a branch in Fitler Square, a neighborhood in need of brunch and casual options. The big menu still has inconsistencies, but is strong in daily specials featuring seasonal flavors and ambitious entrees (trout amandine?), veggie-friendly dishes, and breakfast with a Mexi-twist. Add unfailingly friendly service, local antique hardware store relics for decor, and a genuine sense of a community hang-out, and it's no wonder Honey's 2.0 already has weekend lines out the door.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Breakfast: enfrijoladas, huevos rancheros, savory tofu scramble, eggs Benedict, homemade granola and Pequea Valley yogurt, French toast. Lunch-dinner: fresh guacamole, sesame peanut salad, chicken tacos, fish tacos, seared trout, country-fried Cornish hen, Bubby's brisket sandwich, vegetarian Reuben, fried cauliflower, grilled ramps (or chard) with romesco, chilled pea soup, fiddlehead ferns (seasonal), carrot cake, deep-fried banana split.
BYOB If sparkling wine for OJ mimosas doesn't appeal, bring the ultimate brunch beer: Founders Breakfast Stout.
WEEKEND NOISE A lively but pleasant 82 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Entire menu Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Entrees, $3.95 (breakfast special) to $15.
Street parking only.
See a video about Honey's Sit 'n Eat South at www.inquirer.com/labanreviews. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan will resume his online chats at 2 p.m. June 25 at www.inquirer.com/labanchats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Agricola in Princeton. Contact him on Twitter: @CraigLaBan or at email@example.com.