A minute after opening the menu, it would hit me. I'd turn to the side of booth where all the condiments huddled together and mutter to myself, of course there's no maple syrup.
I couldn't get mad, because of course the diner's not stocking real maple syrup. Almost none do. If you want to eat in a place where the waiters insist on wearing tux shirts that never fit, where your eggs are perfectly greasy for all of $4, that's the pact you make. You get your Aunt Jemima, you pour it over your not-that-fluffy pancakes, and you like it.
There's no restaurant easier to romanticize than a diner, and honestly no restaurant where I feel happier. The stuffy scripts and decorum of dining out don't apply within its chrome walls. In New York City, where the public gaze is on you no matter where you go, you're never more anonymous than when you're camping out at a diner booth. These are the public spaces where I feel most free to let my guard down.
So I'm unabashedly predisposed towards loving whatever meal I have at a diner, and assuming that I'll have a good time at any new diner I visit. The irrational correlative is assuming the food itself will be good—that the crusty short order cook has as fanatical feelings about omelets as I do, that the manager will take care to stock proper Mexican hot sauce and real maple syrup in the condiment caddy.
Of course this is not the case. So a few years ago, after finding myself with nothing but faple syrup once again, I took action to change things. I started smuggling in my own maple syrup.
"Pull a stunt like this at another restaurant and you'll get sour looks. You don't take Parmesan to a pizza joint. The white tablecloth restaurant will not appreciate your dime bag of finishing salt."
I can't overstate how much better doing so has made every diner meal I've had since. Pancakes and French toast taste more homemade. Thin, salt-lick bacon is suddenly a beautiful treat. Have you ever dashed real-deal maple syrup on your bacon-egg-and-cheese? You should. It does wonders for the coffee, too.
Pull a stunt like this at another restaurant and you'll get sour looks. You don't take Parmesan to a pizza joint. The white tablecloth restaurant will not appreciate your dime bag of finishing salt. But one of the other pacts you make with a diner is that as long as you don't set the place on fire, you're pretty much free to do whatever you want; order off-menu, order nothing but coffee for three hours, you name it. To my mind that pact includes bringing in a mini Jameson bottle full of maple syrup that, yes, I keep around for just such purposes. No one's ever given me trouble.
I realize there are diners that will offer you a wee bottle of real maple syrup for a small fee. This comes from good intentions, but the idea of paying a maple supplement—any kind of supplement—seems as un-diner a practice as you can get. Where are we, Per Se? Plus, the wisps of whiskey from the Jameson bottle don't hurt the maple one bit.
Of all the reasons to love diners, this may be my favorite. Sure, the food is comforting, the service is warm, and the prices are low. But beyond all that, nowhere but a diner are so you permitted to make a meal completely your own without anyone giving a damn. It's not like they haven't seen someone whip out a mini of whiskey before.