Column: A fake diner is wrong for Riverhead

Denny’s and I started out on the right foot, but that was only because they bribed me.

I was about 10 years old when my mother decided it would be a good idea for her and me and my uncle and his four kids and mother-in-law to pack into a Ford Econoline van and head to Florida together in August. It took only until the first New Jersey rest stop for my mom to get so aggravated she started chasing me around the van with a shoe in her hand. In a cartoonish sort of manner, I scurried up the Econoline’s rear ladder and onto the roof for safety. I forget what happened when I got down; just another repressed memory, I guess.

During that interminable trip it seemed we ate at Denny’s at least once each day, sometimes more. And I loved it. Not so much for the food — I’m sure a grilled cheese sandwich tastes the same everywhere — but for the Flintstones toy figures, which were top-quality, not that flimsy Happy Meal stuff. The toys were good for the parents, too, as they kept all us kids quiet for a few minutes after returning to the van. Denny’s: Good with kids. But bad with food, I would later find.

My next Denny’s experience came some 11 years later, after college and at the end of a bad date in Maryland, during which the young woman ­— a colleague of mine at the time — drank too much, said too much, and somehow got me to agree to go with her to a Mormon wedding six weeks later in Salt Lake City. (I thought she would forget the conversation but she booked the tickets the next morning!)

Things were going uncomfortably wrong that whole night, but I was expecting some decent food at Denny’s for some reason, given my positive associations with the place from childhood. Plus, it was 2 a.m., after several hours out that involved a Capitals hockey game and beer. What could taste bad at that point?

What I got was an omelette that looked exactly as it did in the picture, like a piece of plastic. It was as if the thing had been prepared — supposedly grilled, though I didn’t see any flaky brown evidence of a grill — on an assembly line hundreds of miles away, then reheated here in 40 seconds. This way-too-yellow-to-be-a-real-egg concoction was seriously horrendous. Indeed, the whole place was awful for anyone accustomed to eating in a Greek or Turkish diner. And it was in a Denny’s booth that I idiotically agreed to go to this person’s cousin’s wedding. I thought she would flip or burst into tears if I said no, and I was about an hour from my home. (I actually went to the wedding; but that column is for another day.) I haven’t thought much about Denny’s since.

Fast-forward 11 more years. Now comes news from a government source that Denny’s wants to come to Riverhead. I’m not sure if the corporation has noticed, but Long Island is the diner capital of the world. And right here we have some really good ones, the Peconic Bay and Greek Island diners. I actually can’t imagine any Denny’s doing well anywhere in Suffolk or Nassau, but then again, Long Island is home to three Olive Gardens.

Here is my own selfish reason for not wanting a Denny’s here, aside from my dislike of the food and atmosphere: The place just isn’t any fun.

I’m not completely averse to corporately run restaurants, but I’ve been opining for years that Riverhead, mainly downtown, needs some fun and some action. Even on Route 58, Denny’s would just be stealing space from a possible Miller Ale House or Buffalo Wild Wings or even a Texas Roadhouse. Sure, these places also have that manufactured feel to them, but they’re always abuzz, seem to strive for top-quality food and good prices and are great meeting places for sports and birthdays and other friend- and family-oriented events. Denny’s? Snoooozer!

And it could be catastrophic if such a place should come downtown. It would fly in the face of everything being envisioned for Main Street, which is an eclectic mix of family-run mom-and-pop shops and restaurants. The anti-Route 58, if you will. Denny’s could stifle such a movement.

Ed Tuccio, owner of Tweed’s downtown, even told the News-Review he’s heard Denny’s could be looking for tax abatements from the town — as if such a restaurant could offer some one-of-a-kind, job-creating and blight-busting boon to the area. To me, Denny’s is a blight. If representatives of the Spartanburg, S.C.-based Denny’s Corporation actually come to ask for tax breaks, town officials shouldn’t think twice about giving them an old-fashioned fuggedaboudit! (They won’t know the difference between Brooklyn and Riverhead.) And tell them to pay up, or get lost.

Denny’s bribes us. We don’t bribe Denny’s.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-298-3200, ext. 152. Or at [email protected].