KARACHI: Diners occupy a place in mankind’s collective unconscious, one populated by waitresses in poodle-skirts with beehive hairdos and unending pots of black coffee; of big-bellied truckers forking their way through slabs of apple pie. Grease made diners into teeny-bopper hangouts with burgers, fries and milkshakes: sanctums of junk food to (in today’s day and age, quite literally) die for, and if you were fortunate enough to be exposed to the ‘70s, roller skates, disco balls, and jukeboxes.
Recently opened in Karachi, The Diner, however, eschews vinyl (musical and decorative) and chrome in favour of dark wood and minimalist design, textured slate-grey walls and staff in buttoned-up button-down black. It looks and feels more like a lounge or upscale restaurant than an actual diner, and the schizophrenia of four random pop-art posters referencing burgers and Coca-Cola doesn’t help matters any. You can show up in jeans and a T-shirt (or in some memorable cases Whinersfrom history, your pyjamas), but be prepared to feel massively out of place, despite the decidedly not haute cuisine.
This sense of cognitive dissonance is probably what The Diner does best. With a menu ranging from wood-fired brick-oven pizzas to pasta and main courses that are entirely too elaborate to fit into the category of “comfort food” (because let’s be honest, that’s what traditional diners are all about: food that’s bad for your body but oh-so-good for your soul), this brainchild from the owners of neighbouring Sawasdee is slightly odd. But oddness, much like atmosphere, can be compensated for with great food; that’s the standard get-out-of-jail-free card for all restaurants. As long as the food is good, they will come. The Diner manages to deliver on a couple of things, but falls miserably short on others. The good stuff? The burgers and the pizzas (yay!). The not-so-good stuff? Pretty much everything else.
The French fries are, in particular, a raging disaster, because let’s face it — if you can’t do a good small plate of deep-fried potatoes at over 200 rupees a pop, there’s a problem. While the menu is extensive, a random sampling of appetisers, mains and desserts demonstrated that while the intentions behind The Diner are good, the finished product still requires some work. The high and low-lights include a spinach-and-artichoke dip with good flavour, but uneven heating and temperature extremes in almost every bite, not to mention greasy crostini. The Diner salad has a lovely, light, citrus-infused vinaigrette with great bursts of orange on the tongue, but an uninspired choice of ingredients. On the other hand, the burgers will blow you away: the Ultimate Burger is juicy and grilled perfectly, with enough earthiness in the sauteed mushrooms to really set off the flavour of the meat. They’re perhaps the best reason to return to The Diner. While the option of ordering a reasonably priced thin-crust pizza is great, the dough and cheese involved are inconsistent, with the occasional soggy crusts and chemical tinges. Desserts such as the apple crumble and chocolate cake are standard; save on the calories and go elsewhere. The Diner would be a far more satisfactory culinary experience if one didn’t feel the lingering dissatisfaction of it not being able to justify its price tag.