Thursday, January 05, 2012

Franks Diner, Kenosha, Wisconsin

I've been to a diner or two in the Upper Midwest. But none quite like Franks Diner in Kenosha, Wisconsin. We were there recently, as a side trip to another southern Wisconsin destination. It's one of those places whose charms are not visible from the sidewalk.

Enter through the unremarkable front door and inside you find something much more remarkable: a genuine rail car-style diner dating from the 1920s surrounded by that brick exterior, which was added later (but probably not too much later). The main room, long and narrow -- narrow as a rail car -- features a stone-top counter with 18 stools and a narrow food-service area behind the counter, complete with a large griddle given over mostly to the preparation of Franks' specialty, the Garbage Plate, more about which later.

The place had that diner smell: eggs and meats and hash browns and coffee. It also had that diner sound: the murmur of conversation, workers calling to each other, silverware scraping plates, metal clinking metal, the hiss of the griddle.

It was packed. A row of people sat at the counter, while others were at booths in the small rooms added to the counter room. A line of people waited for their seats in a long row behind the people at the counter. When seating was free, the people at the front of the line squeezed between the people sitting at the counter and the people behind them in line to reach either empty counter seats, or a small door that went to the rooms with the booths.

Franks Diner has a history. The Jerry O'Mahony Diner Co., a corporation whose specialty is long lost, built the original rail car-style diner in 1926 in Bayonne, NJ. Taken to Kenosha by flatcar, "there was some real excitement in downtown Kenosha when six horses pulled Franks Diner to the spot where it stands today," notes the Franks Diner web site. "Anthony Franks, who first learned of the unique restaurant opportunity through a magazine article, paid $7,500 plus $325 in shipping charges to launch his business. He added a dining room in 1935 and a larger kitchen in the mid 1940s."

I have to add that $7,825 in 1926 dollars was quite a risk, totaling more than $95,500 in current dollars. Mr. Franks must have really wanted to make a go of it, and I'm glad to say that the Franks family owned the joint until 2001. The current owners have only had it for about a year, and apparently have not meddled with success. At one point, an enormous man -- large of height, large of stomach, bald and wearing a white apron with food stains -- emerged from the back kitchen, and by his conversation with someone else, I knew he was one of the co-owners. "Did you have a good year?" I asked him. "It's been great," he said.

Diner authenticity is one thing, but without Franks' great food, the restaurant would have vanished long ago. The star of the show is its Garbage Plate, a concoction of hash-brown potatoes, eggs, green peppers, onions, jalapeƱos (if you want them), and a choice of three or fewer meats (or including no meat). The thing is seriously large. The standard Garbage Plate has five eggs, while the half plate has three. Most of the people I saw leaving Franks were carrying to-go boxes probably full of garbage, so to speak. Yuriko and Lilly split a full Garbage Plate, and I was able to sample some. Wow. My own meal, a couple of large pancakes, was superb, but not as good as garbage.

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