The last time I went to Denny’s, I was nine years old. I remember seeing a server pick up a crispy chicken tender, bite into it, and stealthily put it back on a customer’s plate. Fourteen years later, I am walking to the grand opening of New York City’s self-proclaimed “upscale” Denny’s with a zeal I can’t explain. I mean, a fancy Denny’s in lower Manhattan? It seems unfathomable. Believe it, because it exists -- with a whopping $300 champagne brunch called the Grand Cru Slam, if you and your pocketbook are so inclined.
Denny’s has come a long way from the dilapidated rest stop you might remember from your hometown. For me, it was a fluorescent blur forever glimmering alongside the Texas highways of my childhood. The food wasn’t fantastic, but that didn’t matter. It was reliable. Denny’s was a familiar place in an unfamiliar world. That’s perhaps why Denny’s has outsized cultural cred along with its grimier younger brother Waffle House and its disaffected teen sister International House of Pancakes. The chain diner’s torn-up booths and familiar signs represent America as it once was, all linoleum checkered floors and endless stacks of hotcakes.
But America is changing and so is Denny’s.
New York sensibilities are shifting, too. Another middle-America staple, the Sonic Drive-in, still hasn’t been made it to Manhattan, but residents are gunning for its launch. IHOP opened at a prime East Village location just a few years ago. Denny’s is hoping to cash in on New York’s appetite for suburban kitsch, but not without a struggle. In June, residents in the luxury condo building above the restaurant’s current location, 150 Nassau Street, filed a $10 million lawsuit trying to stop its opening in fear that it would attract "rowdy youngsters and criminals,” according to Eater.
Yet on this gorgeous August day, all is well in Denny-land. When I arrive around 10 a.m. the restaurant is bustling, but not packed. I never thought I would describe a Denny’s as airy, but this one is. The ceilings are high and sweeping. This Denny’s even has a theme within its New York theme, which might be described as “outtakes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” A sepia photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge covers a back wall and the rest of the restaurant flashes some sultry exposed brick. The entire restaurant is pristine.
My server, Eboni, comes over to my table with a stack of menus. “Hi there. Did you bring your appetite?” she asks. Eboni is polite and attentive, but as I study the menu, I realize I am afraid of making any choices at this avant-garde Denny’s. Despite its upscale surface makeover, the Denny’s menu is still laminated in plastic and overwhelming. There are 14 pages of endless culinary options boasting names like the “Ultimate Skillet” and the “Peanut Butter Cup Pancake Breakfast." I decide to stall and see what other people are ordering.
Eboni leaves. Another server comes by about 90 seconds later and asks if I’ve seen the “very special specials.” I say no. She pulls out a single sheet and explains that they’re using today’s launch to test out some never-been-eaten menu items, like the Philly Cheesesteak Bake (which strikes me as a missed opportunity for a Philly Cheesebake pun). She tells me the NYC Denny’s is the only one so far to feature these sinful concoctions. This is smart marketing.
I nurse a “bold” roast cup of coffee for about half an hour and just observe. The first Denny’s customers seem to all be ordering variations of the same thing they’d order in Omaha or Scranton: scrambled eggs with crispy bacon, toast and pancakes, hash browns.
But I know the adventurous eaters have to be here, somewhere. I start chatting with two girls sitting in one of the red booths. Megan and Nicole heard about the grand opening through Twitter and had to check it out, for the same reason that we’re all here, I suppose -- to see if this place really exists, and if so, to absorb its weirdness. Nicole mentions that on their cab ride over, the video monitor chirping out local news featured an anchor who pronounced Denny’s as “Denise,” a faux highbrow pronunciation not unlike Target’s “Tar-jay.”
“At first I thought, there’s no way this is a Denny’s. It looks like a brunch spot in Brooklyn -- is someone going to come out with a banjo and start playing soon?” Megan asks, then quips that she’s ordered “pancakes with a side of bearded hipster.” Seeing how the elaborate cocktail menu features a concoction called the “fixed gear” (aviation gin, aperol, grapefruit and a Hefewiezen), her estimation of Denny’s outreach to uber-hip clientele is not off-base. Still, this Denny’s remains, well, very Denny-esque. “It’s just...the face of America,” Nicole says.
Megan has not ordered a bearded man – she instead opted for the egg-white laden “fit slam,” with a side of pancake puppies. What are pancake puppies?
“They’re like donut balls, but filled with pancake and covered with cinnamon sugar,” Nicole says. Megan nods, adding: “I saw it on the menu and I didn’t even know what it was, but I had to get it. I want to put it in my mouth right now.”
The fried pancake puppies soon arrive coated in a dense layer of browned sugar. They are swathed in Denny’s-branded tissue paper and stuffed inside a cocktail glass. This dish is so nu-Denny’s: pastiche and highbrow wrapped together. Nicole offers me one, but I can't bring myself to eat anything yet.
Next, I sit with two fellows. The pair tell me they met up from opposite sides of the city for a late Denny’s breakfast. Jon and David are both New Yorkers and seem, like most people here, highly bemused and not that hungry. We talk about the possible clientele Denny’s is reaching out to -- is it Wall Street banker types who can shell out hundreds for a champagne brunch? Thrifty college students from nearby Pace University seeking a bite between classes? Tourists who escape their hometowns for New York and need a comforting dose of Denny’s?
The odd thing about this Denny’s is that, unlike every other Denny’s in the nation, it is not open 24 hours a day. That would seem to be an appealing feature for Manhattanites. But this establishment shuts its doors at midnight and re-opens at 5 a.m. daily. My guess is that it’s to avoid the late-night drunk crowd spilling over from Tribeca and the sad stragglers who left work late in the financial district. Or maybe it’s an experiment -- the first of future Denny’s with sleek mahogany finishes and cocktails garnished with crystallized ginger.
Jon is a little dismayed. “The whole point of Denny’s is being open 24 hours. You’re in Florida, it’s spring break, you go at 3 a.m. Breakfast for dinner, it’s the best thing ever.” He takes a sip of his orange juice. “Oh God, this is awful.”
I ask Jon what he ordered, and he beams with that wide, easy, just-got-to-Denny’s grin. “The classic TV breakfast. Pancakes, eggs scrambled soft, crispy bacon. When in Rome, err, Denny’s… ”
On that note, I decide to move to a different part of the restaurant to see what other people are drinking and eating. It’s now about 11:15 and the place is starting to fill up. There is a line of people waiting for tables. It is a diverse group comprised of families with young children, business casual-clad people, three tour guides from the Big Bus Tours and a teen donning a “I Heart Jugs” t-shirt.
I sit at the bar, which is this Denny’s piece de resistance. There is a bonafide specialty drink maker, or a mixologist, shaking up cocktails behind the sleek counter. No less than eight reporters are doing some kind of photo-op next to me, of a man and a woman clinking of bellinis, the first-ever drinks served at Denny’s. I order what might be the second-ever served drink at Denny’s, an extra spicy vodka Bloody Mary. It's a damn good Bloody Mary, and hot! It’s peppery, tasty and I can’t finish it. Later, I will read a scribble in my notebook that says: “Jesus, deliver me from this Bloody Mary.”
A lady in a blazer sitting next to me eyes my drink and says, “Man, I wish I could get one.” Like me, her office is near Denny’s and she’s scouting out a new lunch spot. She’s from New York, but had been to two of the franchises before, one in Puerto Rico and another in Virginia. I have yet to run into a tourist at this Denny’s.
I finally order food at the bar but I decide to play it safe. A veggie omelette and a black coffee, please. Pancake puppies next time. Maybe.
The food arrives alarmingly quickly. My vegetable and cheese omelette is more like a deluxe platter, with a side of buttered toast and crunchy hash browns. I take a bite of the eggs. Not bad! Like most times I’ve been to diners, I don’t realize how hungry I am until I look down and my plate is empty. I feel content even though my tongue is in agony from the spicy Mary.
The lady next to me finishes her food not long after. She turns to me and says earnestly: “This is like Denny’s, but not.” I can’t tell if this makes her happy or sad. Soon she gets up and leaves. Now I am sitting at the bar, alone, swilling my coffee with a red straw and watching football on the big screen. This is America, I think. Like America Denny’s often confounds you, but it can also pleasantly surprise you.