Unusually chilly weather this winter coupled with cautionary spending is driving the need for solid, satisfying and inexpensive comfort food. But conventional wisdom would dictate that foods like these should be consumed in small doses, like time spent watching reality television shows.
Diners have traditionally been a place of refuge during hard times, offering inexpensive home cooking with breakfast served round the clock. When The Athens — a Charlotte institution — closed in Elizabeth a few years ago, the late-night crowd eventually found other nearby 24/7 venues. Then a shiny, stainless steel, 3,000-foot diner moved into position on the non-leafy corner of South Tryon and East Carson Boulevard. Co-owner Brian Dominick, who also owns the Uptown Cabaret, opened the Midnight Diner last September.
The 127-seat interior is spacious for a diner while the mood is egalitarian. Midnight has the requisite Guitar Hero music playing vaguely in the background and, during the day, newspapers spread out on counters in a sun-flooded room. At night, a thin pink neon light details the long walls, one punctuated with an open space allowing the curious to peer into a busy kitchen.
While Midnight has all the elements of a diner, it's still developing that ineffable quality: personality. The menu is predictable: eggs, waffles, burgers and hot dogs. Entrées range from $6.99 for chicken and dumplings to $14.99 for an eight-ounce New York Strip steak.
Recently, the management added fried chicken wings and waffles to the menu. "It's a West Coast thing," General Manager Mark Deane says.
In fact, the menu contains many fried items, including deep-fried chicken, country fried steak and fried shrimp. Of the fried items, the onion rings, battered and flaky, are standouts.
Although I understand that chili cheese fries have a devoted following, I question why. Is it like a moth to a flame? Individually, I like chili, and cheese — well, not this processed cheese — and French fries, but when they come together and are then slathered with ranch dressing, the result is ghastly. This dish is not flavorful: It's palate suicide.
The one-third pound burgers, on the other hand, set the right tone, and the Nathan's hot dogs arrive with a Coney Island-styled chili. A few entrées now on the menu began life as a daily special. Shrimp and grits and spaghetti are now mainstays. Specials, though, are not assigned to a day and have a tendency to rotate. On some nights, the special is a uniquely prepared burger, on others a regular item with a better price. The meatloaf special was bland and needed more beef. But the side of collards was good — although they would have been better if drained a bit — and the slaw suitably rustic. Portions tend to be large here. Fluffy biscuits accompany many of the dishes at Midnight, and although both Deane and the menu say they are made in house, their taste is familiar.
Longtime diner fans will seek their roster of milkshakes; all are pleasing and are presented in the traditional glass, creating an element of fun at the table. Alcohol is served here as well.
Deane says that on some early weekend mornings (from 2 a.m. until 4:30 a.m.), customers have waited for a table for as long as 30 to 40 minutes — standing outside in the cold. That says a lot.