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[Photographs: Allison Hemler]

None of us grew up drinking coffee from the womb. In fact, I'll bet most of our parents kept us away from the slodgy brown stuff until high school, when we required caffeine to keep us up writing those godawful five page papers on Of Mice and Men and Dead Poets Society.

Some probably snuck in cups on camping trips or dinner parties, and others just stuck to International Selects, or the "French Vanilla" button at the local 7-Eleven. This was the suburban coffee life.

Working in an upscale neighborhood in Manhattan introduced me to a whole new breed of youngun' coffee consumption: ten-year olds asking for an actual cappuccino or mocha—double shot, please, and a little less chocolate—and parents who think nothing of it. Is this what I have to accept now in New York City? Teenagers who aren't familiar with corner store press-button coffee machines?

I crave a real suburban coffee experience, one that takes me back to growing up in Jersey—a diner every mile, a neon sign glistening with the promise of eggs and toast and a hot cup of watered-down coffee no matter what time of day. There's no pretension in coffee here; no one's asking for a latte. The greatest luxury I ever see is asking for a packet of raw sugar, and you're lucky if they offer it.

It feels good to reminisce about my student days, when ten refills of black coffee for a whopping $1.50 was the norm. Occasionally, on weekends, I'll trek down to my hometown on the Jersey shore for a weekend breakfast of eggs over-easy with buttered toast and slightly burnt potatoes, waiting for that first pour of diner coffee—milkless with the first sip, and multiple creamers on each subsequent sip, depending on how terrible the coffee is.

Let's be honest: diner coffee is terrible. It comes prepackaged and pre-ground, it's not made in strong proportions, doesn't come along with any sustainable practices, and lacks body. You'll never see a diner waitress indicating the coffee of the day is a single origin Ethiopian with hints of ripe berries and chocolate. It exists as a side dish to the greasy and gigantic meal slammed down by an overworked waitress who survives off two-dollar tips.

But we love it, because diner coffee arrives with a purpose: inspiration to a lonely meal, more storytelling for a table of friends. Diner coffee makes us weepy and nostalgic, and makes us angrier when we already have a temper. It's one of the elements that defines a diner, and is guaranteed to always be freshly brewed.

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[Photograph: ethomsen on Flickr]

According to my diner education, here are the basics of diner coffee:

  • A thick-walled ceramic mug, no more than ten ounces
  • Instantaneous steam when poured
  • Comes from a clear glass pot—and better not be in the orange rimmed pot indicating Decaf
  • No more than $1.50
  • Free refills, usually automatically served by a waitress
  • Watered-down
  • Generally tastes like nothing when you add milk and sugar
  • Pairs equally well with a BLT, cup of cream of potato soup, and a Belgian waffle

Turns out, there are some classic diners in New York serving up some of the brown liquid with no pretense. My qualifications are well-cooked eggs and pancakes served with overflowing syrup on the side, and oozy grilled cheese along with homemade coleslaw and well-done French fries. Here are the New York-area diners to start off the list, with suggestions—or disdain—welcome:

Waverly Diner, 385 Sixth Avenue (at Waverly Place), Manhattan
Square Diner, 33 Leonard Street (at Varick), Manhattan
Empire Diner, 210 10th Avenue (at West 22nd Street), Manhattan
Cup & Saucer, 89 Canal Street (at Eldridge Street), Manhattan
Skylight Diner, 402 West 34th Street (at Ninth Avenue), Manhattan
Cosmic Diner, 888 8th Avenue (at West 53rd Street), Manhattan
Mike's Coffee Shop, 328 Dekalb Avenue (at Hall Street), Brooklyn
Daisy's Diner, 452 Fifth Avenue (at 9th Street), Brooklyn
Tom's Diner, 782 Washington Avenue (at Sterling Place), Brooklyn
Brownstone Diner, 426 Jersey Avenue (at Grand Street), Jersey City, NJ

Related:

What's Your Go-To Neighborhood Diner?

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