Tuesday, November 23, 2010

No Diner Finer

Blast from the past: E and I at Prince Al's in 2006

I am a sucker for diners. You know the type: those kitschy, old-school, greasy-spoon establishments with vinyl booths, jukeboxes, malt milkshakes, 1950s paraphernalia on the walls and Elvis playing in the background. The food is simple and unapologetic - just good ol' burgers and fries, with maybe some Dad's Famous Root Beer in a bottle or Stewart's Orange Creamsicle Soda. There's a great diner in my university town that I frequented a lot in my four years away at school. It was the scene of many late-night coming-home-from-the-bar "Hey, I could really go for some fries right now" pit stops (Prince Al's knew who their main audience was and catered to us uni students, staying open until 3am) as well as several dates (what is more romantic than sharing a milkshake with your loved one, a la Lady and the Tramp?) and family lunches. Their slogan was "No diner finer" and I have to say that this boast still holds true for me, although Moscow's Starlite Diner comes a close second.

On Sunday, a bunch of us went out to this Russian version of an American diner for Colleen (my flatmate and fellow teacher)'s 25th birthday. To be fair, Starlite Diner was started by five American guys, so there is that element of legitimacy (although a Russian-created American-style diner based on their notions of 1950s Americana would be kind of hilarious). The first restaurant opened in 1994, and it has since grown into a bit of a franchise here, with four additional Starlite Diners here in Moscow. They're open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and boast all the usual (and welcome!) trappings of a true diner - red vinyl booths, nostalgic black-and-white photos, a jukebox (!), black and white tile floor, and bright pink neon lights running along the wall. Plus - the menus and service are in English!!! Definitely a bonus for tourists in Moscow, although I know it might seem like a bit of a sell-out to be in Russia but choose an American diner. But there's something to be said for the familiarity of home when you're in a strange place, I think. Either way, at least it wasn't McDonalds!

We went to the Starlite Diner that is about a 10 minute walk from Tretyakovskaya station. It was already dark by the time we got off the metro, and this area of Moscow looked absolutely gorgeous by night, the ground covered with snow and the buildings lit up by spotlights.

The Tretyakov Gallery

We had to cross a bridge to get to the diner, so we stopped for a few minutes to fool around, slide on the ice, and take some photos.

Here I am with two of my fellow ESL teacher friends, Hannah and Jon. In the centre of this bridge are several "love trees", metal trees where couples have attached locks with their names written on them. The key to the lock is then thrown into the river. I think I've mentioned this before, how it's a wedding tradition here - so romantic!

I've heard that there are similar traditions in both Austria and Italy, so maybe it's a European thing. Either way, can we please make it a Canadian thing too? I love it!

Jon and Hannah sliding down the icy bridge

Next to a statue of the famous artist Ilya Repin, who was
the first artist to actually use the serfs as subjects in his paintings,
rather than just aristocrats

In front of Starlite Diner! So hungry and excited!

One of our Russian friends had called ahead and made reservations; there were about 16 or 18 of us expected so that was nice. When we got there, a big long table in the middle was set aside for us, and there was also complimentary cake (for Colleen) and champagne (for all of us!). The waitresses took our orders almost immediately and the food was ready very quickly. I did my usual "go to the bathroom" trick where you go the bathroom and then when you come back the food is magically there on the table, and even though it wasn't quite ready when I returned, our food came a few minutes later so that was great!

However, when it came to my own meal, I have to say I wasn't too impressed. As soon as I saw that they had chili on the menu, I knew that's what I wanted. I LOVE chili, and a big bowl of hot, spicy chili was exactly what I wanted after traipsing around snowy Moscow. I also ordered a side dish of broccoli (I know, I know, not exactly "diner food" but I haven't tasted broccoli in almost three months and I was sorely missing it). The chili was decent, but I wasn't a fan of the massive, melted, gelatinous mass of congealing cheese on the surface. Cheese on top of chili can be a good thing, but only if it was just sprinkled on top and is slowly melting...this cheese looked like it had had quite a while to melt. And then form a solid blob. Yuck.

Not to toot my own horn here, (although I guess this is my blog, so personal horn-tooting may be more acceptable here than elsewhere) but my own homemade chili is a LOT better. Nevertheless, this was passable. The broccoli was a very odd, vibrant shade of unnatural green, and it tasted like it had been microwaved. I really should have just followed the crowd and ordered burgers like everybody else, because they all seemed very pleased with their choices. Hannah got a burger with guacamole and loved it, and Jon ordered...the infamous Really Big Shawn Burger!! I had heard about this legendary burger from Nate's blog, so I convinced Jon to attempt to master this monstrously large piece of meat. It's three patties with cheese, bacon, and chili, as well as fries piled up around it. Check it out:

I don't have a beef with this burger, but its definitely not something I'd order. Kudos to Jon though for attempting to take it on; sadly, he failed but it was a valiant effort nonetheless! :)

So in terms of a comparison between Starlite Diner and the Prince Al's of my university life (which seems so long ago...*tear), I'd have to say Prince Al's wins out. At least for now. I plan on going back to Starlite as soon as possible and trying something else on the menu - perhaps the lamb burger in the pita? It sounds intriguing! One thing that Prince Al's offers that Starlite doesn't are more vegetarian options. Besides a few salad choices, Starlite didn't have any veggie burgers or falafel like Prince Al's. It does, however, have some of the most amazing milkshake flavours ever, and just may beat out Prince Al's for that. Snickers? Blueberry? Peanut butter? Check, check, and check.

It was an awesome night out with people who are truly becoming close friends of mine, and was a great way to wind down the weekend. On the walk back to the metro, the only thought running in my head was "I love my life, I love my life, I love my life..." Nauseating, right? haha but it's true. I am so happy here and sometimes I just have to pinch myself that I'm actually walking around Moscow. This city is gorgeous and I am falling in love with it more and more every day. I've got plans to try out more restaurants (around Mytishi though this time) so I'll try my hand at restaurant reviewing again. Although my meal wasn't the greatest at Starlite, I do definitely recommend the restaurant for its kitschy atmosphere, its delish milkshakes, and, of course, the English menus - such a nice change from all that Cyrillic! :)


  1. This post should elicit a few good memories from so many people. Remember going to Prince Al's with Stephanie when she was in uni? Love the picture of you at the bar. It looks like you are at Grampa's bar.

  2. I know! That's why I took that picture, in the hopes that Gramma will show it to him! :)

    I can't believe it's been that long since the first time we went to Prince Al's...2001? 2002? Wow!