John's Diner in Lakewood still thriving in old railroad car

Diner is throwback to days of yesteryear

LAKEWOOD, Ohio - Long before there was fast food as we have come to know it, there were other types of food served in a rapid manner although it was not handed to the customer by way of a drive-thru window.  Still, it was brought to the hungry customer in quick fashion, and usually with a shout from the server at the counter to a cook who labored over a hot stove only inches away. 

It was the roadside diner where automobile drivers and truckers bellied up to the counter, looked briefly at a menu, and placed an order which they consumed often on stools which lined the counter. 

"Hey, Joe," the counter server, usually wearing a pastel-colored dress with an apron tied around the waist, would shout to a sure-handed cook who stood over a hot grill. "Lemme have a ham with three eggs sunny-side up and a side or grits, and buttered toast," she would shout.

"Comin' up," would bark the cook, through an open window in the wall separating the counter from the kitchen. This was the world of the diner. Many of these roadside eateries were former railroad passenger cars which had been converted to restaurants. There were thousands of them in America, coast to coast.

John's Diner in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland, is still hanging on. The business is brisk in the restaurant which John Pasalis has run for 40 years. "When people come in here," said Pasalis, his Greek heritage evident with every word, "they always ask, 'Hey, John; whatcha got t'eat?"

Pasalis can rustle up breakfast, lunch or dinner. He has served food most of his adult life. When he immigrated to Cleveland from his native Greece in the early 1960s, he quickly moved into the food business, learning how to prepare a quick meal while he also learned the English language.

When an old diner, long pulled from the railroad line, became available for purchase Pasalis jumped on the deal as quickly as it takes to fry an egg.  What he bought was not only a place where food was prepared and served, but he also bought a bit of nostalgia.

John's Diner, on Detroit Avenue in Lakewood, feels like a train. Its narrow confines and its passenger windows give the illusion of riding the train again.  

There are far fewer diners these days than during the heyday of the restaurants when they peppered highways across this country.  Long before the Interstate highway system became a part of the American landscape, motorists traveled roads which were known for small motels, independent gasoline stations, and diners where a river could get a cup of coffee and a burger for just a few cents.

At John's Diner, it will cost a little more than a few cents, but the nostalgia and the fast-paced talk between the server and the cook is still there. So is the nostalgia. 

"Hey, Cookie!  Gimme a burger ... and make it cry.," shouted the server.  That meant a customer wanted a hamburger with onions.  The lingo of the diner.  Tell John I sent you.  He will keep the light on for you.  And, he'll keep the coffee hot.

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