The best diner in the known universe is a place called the Modern Diner, a wood-paneled, neon-signed, time-battered Sterling Streamliner that's been stationed since 1941 on a slow stretch of Main Street in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. At the Modern, every person is a "hon" or a "sweetie" and every portion is extra-large. The air is thick with grease and the floor sometimes sticky with spilled syrup; the coffee is a little burnt but still, somehow, magically, bone-warming; the bar has only the basics and exactly nothing more. Like the best diners, it is wholly competent but totally, willfully unexceptional. In college, friends and I — hungry, hung-over, tired — piled into a Zipcar and drove there and back, twenty minutes each way through the industrial, early-morning grayness of New England, for fried eggs and coffee and company before morning classes; to this day, I miss it fiercely.
Hopscotch has brown-and-tan checkered tile floors and red pleather stools and a steak-and-eggs breakfast entrée, but it is not a diner, not really. The counter is marble instead of linoleum and the wings come with chili-miso sauce and the blog buzz is deafening and the food and drinks are really, really good; there is a certain ambition, a willful exceptional-ness on display here, one that runs completely counter to the diner ethos. All of which is perfectly fine because Hopscotch is patently not trying to be a diner, not even one of those cheesy upscale ones — it's a nice bar-restaurant with cloth napkins and all that aforementioned buzz. The food is gently Japanese-inflected; the very-popular-in-its own right drinks program focuses heavily on beer and whiskey and elegant retoolings of classic cocktails. The coffee is probably never burnt and the bar has all the basics, and then some: obscure Asian scotches; Asahi on tap; shiny equipment; dapper bartenders; a menu that occasionally spells "rum" the fancy way, "rhum." It is a sleek place, a studied place, a place where cocktails run $9 to $12 apiece. It is approximately seventeen bajillion times hipper than the Modern, or, really, any place that can confidently call itself an authentic diner.
But on a freezing Sunday night, with Aretha squalling and swooning on the soundsystem and the faintest hints of condensation lacing the windows, maybe authenticity is overrated, or at least fluid. The family in the corner has just been reunited after a very long time, the little ones happily playing with their food while the grownups grouse good-naturedly about jet lag. Jenny, one of the owners, greets everyone, squeezing through the narrow space with the grace of someone who's been doing this for awhile. The Maple Old Fashioned is just rye, a splash each of maple syrup and bitters, and nothing else, served amber and autumnal over ice. It is more smoky and less sweet than a lot of Old Fashioneds, a little tannic even, in a good way — cool, but yet, somehow, bone-warming.