What is it that distinguishes a good diner from an ordinary restaurant? Well, first of all, you have to have some smarty- pants waitresses — a little world weary, with sore feet, and an ability to banter with regulars who tell the same joke every morning. Then you need the right 1950s art deco ambience, either contrived or genuine, and simple, familiar fare that patrons feel comfortable eating in shamelessly over-sized portions.
Western North Carolina is blessed with three great examples of this honored culinary tradition: Mike’s on Main and Pop’s Diner in Hendersonville and Ward’s grill in nearby Saluda. We took it upon ourselves to thoroughly research these establishments.
Mike’s on Main, Hendersonville
The sign over the cook’s window says it all: “Try our delicious sandwiches… nobody likes a coward.” The building in which Mike’s on Main resides was, until 1993, the Justus Pharmacy, which gave four generations of uncles and nephews employment as drug dispensers. It is the longest continuously operating business site in Hendersonville. Many of the old signs, nostrum bottles (some hinting at what are now controlled substances), and other memorabilia still decorate Mike’s on Main. Many area residents can remember getting prescriptions filled at the window that now sports the sassy sandwich sign.
Authentic soda fountain décor abounds under the slowly turning paddle fans. Wire-backed chairs, the original ceiling panels, and an old-looking-but- perfectly-modern jukebox complete the retro effect. Sock-hop music dating as far back as the ‘50s fills the air. The menu contains all of the usual suspects, with the notable additions of a daily breakfast special for under $3.50 and an authentic Brooklyn-style egg cream…almost certainly the only place within 100 miles (or more) offering this enigmatic (no eggs, no cream, just seltzer water, milk, and flavoring) treat made so popular in New York City.
Mike’s on Main hosts the occasional sock hop or motorcycle night and has an upstairs dining area for groups of about 40. Summer sees the place packed with tourists and locals filling up on banana splits, malted milks, and old-fashioned ambience.
Ward’s Grill, Saluda
When we stopped by Ward’s Grill around lunchtime recently, we asked the waitress about the history of the place. “Let me get Cindy,” she said. “I don’t really know much of the history; I’ve only been here about 22 years.” Cindy Ledbetter, who works at the tiny grocery store that is next door and part of the overall Ward culinary empire, told us that the store had been around since the early 1900s, but the grill was relatively new, having been around only since the early ‘50s. During the hundred or so years the place has been operating, the Ward family has owned it except for one recent 3-year period. The Ward family descendents reclaimed it and now all is right with the world.
We also asked the waitress to recommend something from the menu and, after the thoroughly predictable, “It’s all good,” she confessed that the hamburgers were the stars of the grill.
The store next door has a surprisingly well-stocked meat department, the kind where you grew up with the butcher and he knows exactly how thick you like your New York strips. They grind the burger meat right at the store and flop it on the grill free of additives, hormones, dyes, pink slime, or any of the things we can only hope aren’t served elsewhere.
Pop’s Diner, Hendersonville
Pop’s Diner, the oldest continually operating food establishment in Hendersonville, has been a Greek diner, a Mexican restaurant, and several other eateries in its 50-plus-year history. A gentleman named Zogzas started the parade of ownership back in the ‘50s with the help of his two daughters. For a while it was known simply as Five Points, so named because of its location at the confluence of five roads. Before becoming Pop’s Diner, it was known as the Carolina Diner. When owner Kim Burrell’s father, David Seelig (aka Pop), passed away last year, she decided to redo the restaurant in the tradition of the 1950s era and name it after her dad, who loved the restaurant and spent many hours there. “He loved it as much as I do,” she says.
It took a family effort of about a week to turn the Carolina Diner into Pop’s, complete with a new neon (definitely not digital) sign, art deco flamingos, shiny chrome, and waitresses wearing bowling-shirt uniforms. It was quite a task, Burrell will tell you, even with the help of several of her siblings. “It was a lot of work,” she says. “There were a couple of nights when we didn’t even get to go home. But it was worth it. Sometimes you have to do something just because it feels right in your gut.”
And speaking of gut feelings, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Pop’s Coca Cola Cake, peanut butter milk shakes, and plate-crowding breakfasts. And as for the requisite smart-aleck waitresses, when we sat down to eat, one of our party looked at the menu and quipped, “But I can’t read.”
“There’s pictures,” the waitress said without missing a beat.
3 Classic Diners
Mike’s on Main, 303 North Main Street, Hendersonville, 828-698-1616 Ward’s Grill, East Main Street, Saluda, 828-749-2321 Pop’s Diner, 860 North Main Street, Hendersonville, 828-693-1035