Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Michael's Diner at Shaker Square

13051 Shaker Blvd
Cleveland, OH 44120
(216) 752-0052

by Scarlet Pumpernickel

That place in the Rapid stop. That's what I always ended up saying. I would always try the name first, Michael's Dinner, then the location second, in Shaker Square. Even my friends who lived in the apartments surrounding Shaker Square would give me blank looks. Then I would mention the Rapid stop. Everyone in Cleveland seems to get it then. Yes, the 24 hour diner in the Rapid stop at Shaker Square.

No one had ever been there, but they all knew of the place. I was really surprised that being in the Rapid stop was somehow the defining characteristic of the place. In most people's minds that was everything you needed to know about the place; it summed up the location, ambiance, and food in one nice little thought.

Except I never understood what that thought was. The first thing I noticed about Michael's was its neon signs. At that point, they had me. Neon signs are only used by two kinds of establishments these days, very fancy restaurants that can pay for expensive custom neon built into their exterior d├ęcor and diners.

I think the neons and the location are carryovers from a bygone era. Before cars took over America, a dinner in a train stop would not have seemed so strange. Before the household refrigerator and microwave, where did young single men eat on their way to and from work? Locating a diner right at a public transit hub made perfect sense. Maybe with the resurgence of public transit we'll see more establishments like Michael's and then a diner in a Rapid stop won't seem so strange anymore.

The main reason I wanted to go to Michael's was because it was open 24 hours. Eating food after midnight has special rules, and after reviewing a few 6pm burgers, I was eager to review a 3am burger. I was hoping for an especially surreal experience, so I decided to go on Halloween night.

I put together a group of friends to go with me. My friend Frank insisted on wearing a trench coat and fedora. Alcohol was consumed. We were ready to go. Which is why, in a way, the experience was a little disappointing. Michael's is just a diner. It was filled with normal people having a bite to eat at 2 in the morning.

We ordered our food and settled in at the corner booth. We chatted as we waited for our food, and I was having a good time, but something was off. The food came out and we dug in. I enjoyed my burger immensely (my drinking earlier in the evening may have been a factor); the beef was fine, and the lettuce, onion, and tomato were nice and crisp, but something about the experience was still off. It wasn't Michael's. What was wrong was us. We were all so tired, holding on to eat this meal before we went to bed.

Back in college in California, there were many 24 hour establishments to eat at, which was good because my friends and I seemed to be up at all hours 3 or 4 nights a week. We would weep if it was too late for delivery Thai food (2am) and argue burgers or burritos at 3. It isn't just the food that makes late night dinning so special, it the people and the nervous unfocused energy that you can have at that hour.

Michael's has it right: basic, easy comfort food a little on the greasy side, a non-assuming atmosphere, and a nice staff. But that scene's so unusual to me now. I get up early to go to work; I don't have the energy to stay up anymore. I had to try three consecutive weeks before I was able to stay up late enough on a Friday to do the review.

Putting a diner in a Rapid stop makes as much sense today as it ever did, and eating dinner there in the wee hours of the morning is the same as it always was. We're the ones who changed, driving cars to work and going to eat somewhere based on the logo on the side of the building rather than the flashy neons in the windows and having that meal at 6pm and being in bed by 11.

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