Sometimes, in spite of what conventional wisdom would have us believe, an ill-wind does bloweth a man to good. That sentiment may not have been running through Joe Goller’s mind as he huddled inside his restaurant’s walk-in cooler on April 16, 1998, waiting out the tornado.
And it was certainly not his first thought when he opened the door and cautiously stepped out into the remains of what had been Joe’s Diner on Eastland Avenue. All that was left of the building that Goller had spent two years renovating on nights and weekends were walls, sky, and cooler.
In fact, the pile of rubble became a popular photo-op, with world-wide distribution of Vice President Al Gore standing in what had previously been the front window, Goller directly behind him in a Forrest Gumpian pose.
Between all the free publicity and a major insurance settlement, it soon became clear to Goller that the tornado had perhaps been the best thing that could have happened to his fledgling business. The new Joe’s Diner, re-opened on Aug. 17, was redesigned and rebuilt with the help of a construction crew and, while it is not any larger, the interior is less broken up than it was; there is plenty of room for billiards and a large stage in one corner. There, an eclectic roster of entertainers performs on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. (Beginning Sunday, February 7th, Joe’s Diner will present a Swing Brunch from 12-3 p.m. with music from the 12-piece Blue Tones.)
To the relief of even his best friends and neighborhood residents who want the never-say-die Goller and his stand-by-her-man wife Barbara Brown to succeed, he also re-vamped the menu and hired a new cook, Tim Lawrence. In his typically frank fashion, he admits the food at the old place was ”slop.“ I never tried the old menu, but the new fare is many levels above slop.
Joe’s may not put you on the diner set of Happy Days with Fonzie, Richie, and the gangthere are no cozy little booths to snuggle in or table-top jukeboxes, but it is a happy place, cheerfully painted with nostalgic diner elements. Framed photos and memorabilia of the good old days decorate the walls and there is a counter to prop your elbows on against one wall, with stools to park your bottom upon. Formica-topped tables will remind you of your grandma’s kitchen.
The pool tables, where you can shoot while waiting for your burger, are around the corner from the dining area, set just in front of the cooler that no doubt saved Goller’s life. (If you ask, he’ll pull out a photo album that chronicles the rise, the fall, and the resurrection of Joe’s.)
Prices won’t make you think it’s 1955 either, but they won’t cause sticker shock. A family of four can easily eat a decent dinner here for around $30. Particularly if they, as I will in the future, skip past the appetizers, which feature the usual suspects of cheese sticks, chicken fingers, buffalo wings, and stuffed jalapeño peppers, cooked and served no better, but no worse, than you’ll find anywhere else. I was not familiar with chicken fryz until I tried them at Joe’s but wasn’t surprised to find that they were battered, deep-fried sticks of processed chicken meat cut like french fries.
Sandwiches are definitely of the diner mode. You can get a BLT, club, grilled ham and cheese, grilled cheese, patty melt, or hot dog. And here, that’s a good thing. The Philly, while it wouldn’t pass muster in the City of Brotherly Love, was a generous and well-seasoned pile of shaved steak, cooked on the flat grill with onions, peppers, and Provolone cheese, on a bun that was fresh, if a little too soft. With the exception of the hot dog, none of the plates came with chips or any other accoutrement, which seemed stingy. You could, as we did, order a basket of regular fries, curly fries, or onion rings on the side, and be glad you did. The spicy curly fries were especially good.
Dinners are served with a house saladfresh out of the bagand one or two veggies. One wouldn’t expect to find salmon fillet in a diner, and we decided not to try it. We did like the fried catfish though, with two sides for just $6.95 and the ribeye steak, also with two veggies, for just $9.95.
The children among us gave thumbs up to the spaghetti and meatball platter ($6.95), the chicken fingers, the hot dog, and the grilled cheese. Ice cream treats also went unsampled, but Joe’s past life as owner of the Moonbeams Dairy store on Woodland and 16th Street in the same neighborhood bodes well for anyone interested in root beer floats ($2), milkshakes ($2.50), or banana splits ($3.50).
Adult beverages are also available from a small selection of domestic and imported draft beer by the mug or pitcher, or in the bottle. Breakfast featuring omelets, eggs, hotcakes, and the like is served on Saturday and Sunday mornings only.
Joe Goller has been around the block a few times, but it seems that at Joe’s Diner, he has found a home. And the neighborhood that has seen many of its blocks blown to bits more than once is the better for such a welcoming place to call its own.
MOVING ON UP
People who live, work or travel in the newly-named 12South neighborhood are easily identified by the layer of chalky dust that covers their cars, clothing, and unprotected skin. For months, the big trucks have been digging up large holes on 12th Avenue between Sweetbriar and Paris, filling them in, covering them up, then inexplicably digging them up again.
That’s the price one pays for being in an area designated by the city for improvement and a fancy name.
One bright spot through the mayhem has been the glowing facade of a bright yellow building on the east side of 12th undergoing renovation. With a cool sign in place that conjures one of those moving Elvis clocks, The Clean Plate Club is just a week away from moving into its new location. That’s just in time for Monica Holmes to celebrate the 12th anniversary of her catering company, particularly popular on Music Row and in arty circles.
The 1,500 square-foot building, which dates back to the ’50s, was a laundromat, then a bar, and most recently a junk store. Now, painted in bright colors with sheet-metal cutouts attached to the front, the Clean Plate Club is an eye-catching addition to the business district which stretches from Ashwood Avenue on the north to Sevier Park on the south.
Other 12South pioneers include Laurell’s Central Market, Trim, Cattails Florist and Third Coast Clay in the Paris Building, where Holmes will maintain her office. The Clean Plate Club building will serve strictly as a catering kitchen, though Holmes pondersin moments of complete irrationalityopening the front of the store for take-out and retail.