I believe in dive restaurants

Author: Charlotte Hogg, PHD, Professor, TCU English Department, Published Fall 2012

In a culture where being a food lover means being able to separate the quinoa from the spelt, I find myself gravitating to places tucked away or popular with the locals but eschewed by foodies. This might be because I’m an academic where potlucks don’t mean casseroles but endive or soft cheeses I can’t name. But when I got my first job as an assistant professor, I was thrilled when two of the snobbiest in my department invited me to dinner, then took me not to a ritzy place but a cheap pizza buffet–that served tater tots as a side!–on the west edge of town. “We come here when we want to gossip and want to make sure we won’t see anyone we know,” they confided before biting into their greasy pizza slices. I liked them right away.

I once took my now-husband to that same pizza buffet, a small space brimming with decorations for an upcoming holiday, and he loved it. As he went to order his specialty toppings and load his cheap, metal plate with more tots and ketchup, I thought: he’s a keeper. The pizza buffet is filled with regulars and waiters who are quick on the draw with refills and smiles. Some of our best conversations have happened there after a long work day as we hunker over our thin crusts and settle in, TVs, chatter, and dingy holiday d├ęcor as the backdrop. Other patrons say hello as we graciously step aside to share the pizza line for plate number two.

A year or so ago, we befriended a new couple, and I realized that I had made a litmus test of our compatibility by where we decided to eat dinner. Rather than suggesting restaurants in the burgeoning hip part of town, I sheepishly suggested we head to the Mexican restaurant in the suburb not far in miles but far in lifestyle from the private university where I work. They instantly agreed, and it became a regular place for us to talk about our toddlers’ milestones as we shared chips and salsa and our boys smashed and chewed their cheese quesadillas.

Dive restaurants are almost always local and almost always familiar, where one can feel like they are Norm on the sitcom Cheers when walking through the door. When I first moved to Fort Worth, feeling unmoored by its huge population and ropes of interstates, these restaurants warmly took in a stranger and a new friend, inviting us to get past the small talk and get to the nitty gritty. While sitting at a wobbly table, shaking malt vinegar on fish and chips as a chatty waitress refilled our drinks, creating companionship suddenly seemed not only possible but easy, and this is why I believe in dive restaurants.