Life goes on in Flavortown.

The enduring appeal of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, where life is still beautiful.

It was a night recently, maybe last night? Maybe it was a week ago.

The calendar doesn’t seem to have much meaning these days, although I need a haircut, so I guess time has been passing. We finished watching whatever we were watching — a movie, or a re-run through a TV series we’ve already seen. The end of the 11pm local news, which was the same as the 10pm news?

(We’ve been watching a lot of TV. My plans to write the Great American Novel during quarantine haven’t progressed as smoothly as initially intended, but hey, it seems like I’ve got time. Next week, it’ll really get going.)

Regardless, those nights, every night, tomorrow night, the same thing happens. The show ends, and without even thinking about it, I flip over to the same show.

I put on Diners, Drive-Ins, And Dives.

The 91 NorCal Restaurants Featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives ...

I think we’ve already mostly completed the overdue cultural reassessment of Guy Fieri?

There was a time, not too long ago, when it was de rigueur to mock Fieri as a cartoonish avatar of everything wrong with food, television and the intersection of the two. The man wears sunglasses on the back of his head, bowling shirts with flames on them, and is a walking soundboard of nonsense catchphrases liable to dub a simple sandwich a bomb-dot-com off the hook festival of funk. When he opened a tourist-friendly restaurant in New York City in 2012, the New York Times’ Pete Wells unleashed a vitriolic one-star review, the kind of screed designed more to provide in-crowd laughs to readers who’d never consider eating at such a place than to actually influence dining decisions. (My wife did eat at the restaurant for a business meeting once, and she did say the food was quite bad, but that’s beside the point.)

At some point in the last few years, though, people have realized that despite the outlandish appearance, free-flowing catchphrases and frankenfood menus, Fieri’s done quite a bit of good in his decade-plus in the spotlight. Aside from using his flagship show to boost the profile of countless independent, family-owned restaurants — a life-changing event for many of them — he’s also been an active philanthropist, helping with wildfire relief in California and more recently relief for restaurant workers displaced by our current public-health-driven shutdowns. A few snobs might remain skeptical, but at least in the parts of The Discourse that I hang around in, the verdict has shifted: Fieri, for all his silliness, is good.

That’s not what brings me back to the show so many nights, though. There’s something else.

Surely you’ve watched it, right? You’ve lived on this Earth for enough time to have an email address and sign up for a newsletter where a guy sends you weird food, you’ve probably watched Triple D. Every episode, Fieri rolls out to a handful of restaurants, talks to the chefs and owners — often the same person — and gushes over the food in over-the-top terms. He’s generous enough to do this even when you can sometimes tell that he’s not exactly enamored of the food (“so, your Grandpa never put salt in this, and you don’t either? Wild!”), but he plays the dutiful cheerleader every time. 

These restaurants are scattered all over the country, and they’re all kinds of different cuisines. Greasy-spoon breakfast counters to late-night burger joints. Southern California burrito stands to New England clam shacks. Upstart places with a concept and a dream to multi-generational immigrant-owned stalwarts. The Food Network’s website lists over 1,200 individual restaurants that have been profiled on the show over its fourteen-years-and-counting run; there are fans who devote their leisure time and disposable income to visiting as many of these establishments as possible, an ongoing pilgrimage organized around the single loose theme of Guy Ate Here.

Look closer, and there’s another thread, though. 

Presumably much of the food at these restaurants is quite good. I’ve eaten at a few of them and quite enjoyed it. They’re probably not all worth traveling for — some of the food looks fairly ordinary even during a restaurant’s highly-produced six minutes in the sun. Maybe that’s not the point. A key part of each segment is when the camera comes out of the kitchen and talks to the customers. They’re regular people, the everyday patrons of everyday establishments, and they’re there for a familiar experience:

We come here every Wednesday.

I always get the patty melt.

I’ve been coming here for thirty years.

We came here when I was a kid. 

When I was seven years old, my family had a big flood at our house; a heavy overnight rain and an inadequate municipal storm sewer system teamed up to leave three feet of murky water in the basement. For decades afterwards, the flood of 1989 was a marker. My parents had stored a lot of things down there, the things you’d accrue through the first seventeen years of marriage and two sons. Whenever something couldn’t be located, there was always the possibility that, well, we might’ve lost it in the flood. 

That flood is here for the restaurant industry, and we’re going to lose a lot. The biggest names will be fine: the Michelin-starred celebrity chef restaurants will hunker down on their piles of cash, laying off employees but staying solvent, then throw open their doors with hardly a blink as soon as they’re able to. At the other end of the spectrum, chain restaurants will do the same, carried by their robust infrastructure and economy of scale. You have no need to worry about the availability of an Escoffier-influenced white-tablecloth experience or a Filet O’Fish in 2021. They will still be there.

What’s going to disappear is many of these family-run restaurants, the plucky upstarts and the enduring stalwarts, the places Guy goes to gush about the chili dog or the French toast or the piri-piri chicken. The places that you could always count on; the places that were worth traveling to because you got to feel like a regular even if you just arrived from another state or country. The places that patrons didn’t speak of out of awe or wonder, but of familiarity, comfort, and of love. What we lose won’t just be dining options, but unique parts of our culture that won’t be easily replaced.

After midnight in the quiet, endless doldrums of a self-imposed quarantine, long after I should’ve gone to bed, there’s another episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network. (There always is.) People are lined up outside the breakfast joint, waiting for eggs and bacon just like they have for decades. They’re already smiling while in line, because they know they can count on this place to be there for them even if they haven’t been back in a while.

For a moment, you can sit back and think that we’ll get through this without losing these places, these experiences, and these people. 

In Flavortown, life goes on.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)