Right up front I need to say it: I am no food snob.
I much prefer diners to so-called “fancy” or “upscale” restaurants. My experience with diners across the United States has been remarkably consistent. You can get eggs and hash browns; or get burgers and fries – and the typical diner will come through and satisfy you.
No, I have never eaten at a diner and then said “wow! That was the best meal I have ever had.” Likewise, until recently I would have never said, “the food in that diner is so bad that people should be arrested.” But a couple of days ago I ate at a diner so grotesque that I am petitioning the U.S. Department of State to classify the entire restaurant as a terrorist organization.
Let’s set the mood. I had spent a day in Sedona AZ. A quaint town of cowboys and hippies nestled in the Northern Arizona wilderness. It was a remarkably hot day, but that hadn’t prevented our family from executing a morning hike to Devil’s Bridge, an afternoon of shopping, and wrapping up with a late afternoon jeep excursion into Sedona back-country. The jeep excursion wrapped up at about 8pm.
We were all a little hot and tired – so the family agreed: “let’s go quick, cheap, and easy” for dinner before returning to our hotel.
Burger King, the ever steady quick, cheap, and easy solution raised his big paw and said, “Hey Cheethams – I’ve got you covered.” But I drove right on by. There had to be a better option. And of course, there was – because on route 89A South in West Sedona, we all saw the same thing: The Red Planet Diner. Glistening in the street lights in front of the diner was a hovering flying saucer. The lights inside the diner were on and the parking lot was full – everything seemed perfect. I was ready to explore the Red Planet. Little did I know that I would end up like Kane (played by John Hurt) in the original Alien film.
Diners, generally speaking.
Diners are a great and safe pick 99.9% of the time. It is really hard to screw up scrambled eggs; or fries; or a BLT. In fact, if I was forced to name THE safest thing to order at any restaurant in the entire nation – I would go with a BLT. Not only that – but a crowded diner is the closest you will ever get to a sure thing. Big crowds at a diner equal safe choice. Or so I thought.
Therefore, I was confident that I was about to get some decent diner-fare; some comfort food at the Red Planet Diner; it would certainly never be something bad. But, then again – Kane never expected an alien to impregnate his stomach with a lizard, did he?
Red Planet or Death Star?
As I walked into the Red Planet Diner, I was surprised to find myself in a bar room. Not just any bar room – but a full-fledged dive bar. Here are some key indicators of a dive bar: if it is dark, creepy and more than 50% of the patrons have facial tattoos? You are in a dive bar. I don’t particularly hate dive bars – but I certainly don’t take my kids and wife to a dive bar to grab an omelet and a smiley-faced pancake.
I immediately began to check myself. Had I walked in the wrong door? Maybe. As I considered turning back I was greeted by an overwhelmed “host” who asked “would you like to sit at the bar?” I immediately pictured my 8-year old sitting next to the bald guy with the eagle-claw tat guzzling tequila. Just as I was about to say “you must be nuts” – the host gestured to the other side of the diner where there were five empty seats at “the bar” also known in diners as a “counter.”
As we walked to our seats I checked the customers’ faces in the packed diner. What I saw screamed “turn back now!” But I denied my instinct. The diner customers were a combination of sour faces, anxiety, nausea, and despair.
We took our seats at the horseshoe shaped counter. The surface of the counter was filthy – covered with some kind of sticky slime. At my place there was a carton of yellow mustard bottles. Next to the box was a dirty dish rag emanating a sour-milk fragrance that tends to kill your appetite and break your heart.
Then I got a good look around the Red Planet. It was filthy from top to bottom. Discarded fries on the floor, brown liquid stains splattered the floors, walls, and amazingly, the ceiling. I had a very bad feeling about the entire operation. Should I have left? Absolutely. But I was just too tired – or perhaps too confident in the American diner, to believe that this wouldn’t turn out just fine.
We placed our order with the host who was now acting as the waiter (he also appeared to be the dish-washer and cashier). The kids ordered burgers and my wife playing it extra safe went for a BLT. I was even more cautious. I ordered the “Space Dog” figuring that even an orangutan could cook a dog and not screw it up. You can’t go to a diner without getting milkshakes, so four of those were ordered as well.
I watched as the sweaty staff moved about in a confused manner – like zombies or perhaps stroke-victims, the staff was constantly mumbling and bumping into one another. I had to avert my eyes. I had a great view behind the counters, and I could see inside the cabinets below the counter-level. The cabinets were all empty, save one. There was one cabinet full with about forty bottles of hot sauce. My son saw the same thing. Something was desperately wrong at the Red Planet Diner.
The walls were adorned with grubby rubber aliens. At the counter, beneath the filthy, sticky plexi-glass, there were photos of UFO sightings. Interesting fact: Sedona Arizona has the second most UFO sightings of any city in the USA. Not so interesting fact: I couldn’t read any of the captions of the UFO photos on display because someone had typed the captions in Brush Script MT Number-Four-Font; I couldn’t have read those captions with the Hubble telescope.
Our waiter returned with our milkshakes and announced “I don’t have any clean glasses guys” as he plopped down four metal mixing cups and four straws. I know what you are saying right now. You are saying “Leave. For God’s sake, why won’t he leave?!” Because this is a horror story, that’s why.
We dutifully picked up our shakes that were in the mixing cups and began to drink. (Aside: if the glasses were all dirty in this joint, tell me – do you think the mixing cups were clean?) I began to feel queasy and had to put my shake down. To my left was a green rubber alien head that had the top of its skull cut off (YOU CUT OUT HIS BRAIN YOU LOUSY APES!).
I thought, “That might be a tip jar. But it is so filthy with blackened goop; it could also be what they use to change the oil on their cars.”
Behind me two men were standing demanding, no pleading, for a check as zombie waiters passed them by. Desperate, they ultimately threw cash on their table and sprinted to the door. Sadly they went out the wrong door which leads to an outdoor seating area – completely fenced in. (Aside: what kind of diner has fenced-in outdoor seating? Answer: the worst diner in America.). The two men had no way out. They glanced back at the door and saw mumbling, zombie waiters approaching. They had no choice. They had to climb. I watched as two men in their early fifties summoned long-forgotten strength and scaled the fence. Freedom. I had tears in my eyes.
Our food arrived and the waiter announced: “I don’t have any clean silverware guys.” My “Space Dog” was a vivisected mess on a stale bun. It was charred and disgusting. Amazingly, the waiter couldn’t find any mustard, after having finally moved the box that had been in front of me most of the evening. (Aside: Why couldn’t they let the orangutan cook just this once?!) I gagged down about four bites. My kids were struggling with their burgers that looked like Wookie-Scat on wonder-bread. My wife, was having the easiest go of it (God bless the BLT) but her coleslaw resembled a wet disintegrating softball and it had become a solid mass.
I lost control. I found myself shaking and uncontrollably shouting “Check! Check! For the love of God! Someone bring me a CHECK!!”
It cost a small fortune. I began to hate the Red Planet – to hate all Martians for that matter. We escaped through the bar. I smiled at the cross-eyes guy with the python tattooed on his forehead; he raised his glass to me as we slipped out the door.
We all immediately began to feel sick. The hot dog, churned in my belly for hours. As of this posting, it has yet to develop into an Alien Lizard and rip my living guts out – so there is a chance I may yet avoid Kane’s fate.
Worst. Diner. Ever.
Watch Kane get the alien treatment here: http://youtu.be/vJD0kXVdM7c
In all seriousness – never eat at the Red Planet Diner in Sedona AZ. It was the worst experience of my life.