Starliner Diner: It’s All About Potato Crispiness

While we’re on the subject of Hilliard, the beloved Starliner Diner recently reopened in a new spot, basically around the corner in this quaint suburb’s “old downtown” area. I haven’t had a chance to check out the latest digs just yet, though I certainly intend to. They turned this process around with admirable haste, when you consider the establishment only closed its doors at 5240 Cemetery Road on May 8, and patrons were left jonesing for their fabled huevos rancheros not even a month before the downtown spot – at 4121 Main Street, the site of Hilliard’s post office many a decade ago – was fully operational.

I’m sure they will import the menu and most of the fanbase, but its legendary charm is a dicier topic. “Is it me, or is this one of these fucked up places that only seem to exist in Columbus?” a friend once remarked, when I brought him to Starliner for the first time, and you would be hard pressed to summarize it better. Where to even begin describing this establishment, at least as it existed until May 2016? The fare is considered mostly Cuban, yet the décor is outer space themed kitsch with, like, a scoop of Elvis and then some other bizarre relics thrown into the blender. Some would call it Americana, but that’s just plain laziness – if anything, it reminds me of someone’s house you’d see in a British movie from the 60s, except with a bunch of crazy American and Mexican decorations thrown in, from the space exploration mural with the free floating astronaut painted along the top half of one wall, a paper machier (I’m guessing?) spaceship dangling from the ceiling, lime green, with a bunch of other futuristic designs painted on it in purple. Hanging elsewhere from the rafters, in a line from the front, plate glass window wall back to a small counter with a refrigerator behind it, there’s lamps, disco balls, and giant Xmas decorations of varying sizes and styles; on one wall, an enormous assortment of clocks, except not a normal looking timepiece in the bunch – we’re talking ten and twenty point stars, or branching off other weird shaped tentacles. With, quite naturally, an Elvis painting smack dab in the middle, as if to break up the monotony. One huge, thin, striped rug covers the entire floor on this half of the room, mostly a dull grey cover, and my favorite artifact of all might be this demented portrait of a dad and two kids seated at this dinner table while mom serves these ingrates with a crazed smile. Walls colored the most incongruous colors imaginable, visibly abutting and clashing with one another, weird furniture, and a window where you can watch the chefs in action further dot this landscape. These surreal touches extend even down to the presentation of your check, which is quite naturally brought to you on a Las Vegas tray depicting that city’s famous strip skyline at night, poker chips superimposed upon one of the corners.

But of course, nobody would really care about any of this if the food wasn’t awesome, and as would befit a restaurant that has been named “best breakfast in Columbus” on countless occasions, the Starliner never disappoints. Still, having been here enough times to notice a few key differences and catalog the patterns, I must say you would be slightly better off in choosing your spots wisely, attempting to drop in when this always popular landmark is maybe not quite so busy. Because it all comes down to potato crispiness.

Our last two visits, I must admit, while leaving satisfied overall with the experience – even the lengthy wait by now is an expected part and parcel of every meal here – something nagged at me after the fact, a disquiet I couldn’t initially identify. Eventually, I realized that what was slightly off about these recent Starliner excursions was that the potatoes were not quite as crispy as I’d grown to expect. And as the potatoes were a treasured centerpiece of many a breakfast on the menu, this was a central failing which might possibly serve to undermine the entire operation. Don’t get me wrong, these potatoes were not bad by any stretch of the imagination, it was only that the texture didn’t pop like it should. Furthermore, I concluded that the reason for this, most likely, was that the cooks were rushing the tickets slightly to accommodate these masses, who’d flooded the place in large part specifically for these potatoes.

History will someday document whether this shift in location proves beneficial to the Starliner or otherwise. But for now, I would like to go on record urging you to choose less busy hours for reasons that have nothing to do with wait time – and the cooks to slow down a little bit, because we’re not in that big of a hurry, and another thirty seconds for these potatoes might mean the world.

 

 

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Ruminations On Trueman Boulevard

Bummed out as I’m sitting at the Starbucks inside this newly constructed Target, on Trueman Boulevard in Hilliard. Just watching the traffic zip up and down this fairly inconsequential street is enough to give me a bad case of the blues, thinking how it was deserted just a handful of months ago, and that the relentless march of progress cannot be stopped.

Before wrongly accused of hypocrisy – I’m guilty of biting the hand from which my food is delivered, sure, but not hypocrisy – let me state for the record that I work here. I sit at one of these tables every morning that I’m scheduled, for breaks and lunch, at these windows facing the street. And while watching interiors of cities as they are transformed and repurposed can be a thing of beauty, a marvel to hold up to the light and admire, something about plowing that which was formerly frontier will always bring out the inner treehugger, somehow, even when one wasn’t entirely sure such an inner voice existed.

Since the Target went up, they’ve built another strip mall on this road already, in between the Home Depot and Cheeseburgers In Paradise. A Radio Shack sits there, who knows what else. And of course this line of concrete shopping options will likely extend north clear up to Davidson Road, soon enough, where Trueman truly ends. In time, who knows, I can see Trueman being expanded until at least Hayden Run. As will Britton someday, too, Trueman’s vaguely parallel counterpart on the other side of the I-270 outerbelt.

Such developments are tolerable when population and lack of space demands it. But sometimes you can’t escape feeling certain acres are bulldozed specifically because they are new, because formerly occupied plots are considered passe. Such as, one other restaurant sitting across the outerbelt, one of those carbon copy “western” steakhouses (I can’t keep them straight, can’t remember which franchises I’ve frequented and which I haven’t as they all look exactly the same), sits deserted, it has been for a couple of years now. Texas Roadhouse was lined out the building when I was dating a girl in this neck of the woods eight years ago, but at present there’s nary a soul dining there. And a Chili’s just closed at this exit as well, demolished and replaced by another goddamn CVS – a development which would otherwise be deplorable, except that I happen to kind of respect that they at least used an existing retail space rather than dropping a bomb in some field on the edge of town. All of these establishments existed along a busy corridor, Cemetery Road, which is itself an exit off of I-270, yet none of those could survive. And even so, they’re still building a bunch of new restaurants along this stretch? I guess the failure of past tenants explains why movers and shakers involved with some of these newer companies declined to take over shuttered locations, but I wonder what makes them feel so confident about their own demographic studies and carefully razed coordinates.

Cooper Stadium

The place had no personality, not even after they yanked out the artificial rug, and yet you tended to admire that it was placed in that neighborhood at all – in the rundown, semi-residential district of Franklinton, just west of downtown proper. Built in 1931 to house a St. Louis Cardinals farm team, it once served (and presumably continues to serve) a litany of teams, sports, and events, and yet it will most likely always be known as the home of the Columbus Clippers minor league squad for over 30 years.

They used to send me free tickets 3-4 times per season, although I never figured out why. Was this a normal occurrence for anyone else? Then again, these were usually accompanied by coupons for additional cut-rate seats, so perhaps it was all some zany marketing ploy. At any rate, I attended my first game in 1988, the last in 2006, one of their final summers in the stadium before moving uptown to the much more opulent digs found in Huntington Park. The ’88 affair was a treat our little league coach sprung on the whole team, at a time when the big stars on the roster – Columbus’s, that is, not our own basement dwelling club – were Turner Ward and Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens, a night where I was considered a tremendous dork by pretty much everyone for scoring the game in my program.

Not much had changed by opening day 2006. Though still the kind of dork who will score the game in his program, and prone to attending games alone if nothing else is going on, this time around I do manage to rope in a couple of friends, Kyle and Jim. Another contest for which they had mailed me free tickets, and found the club giving out small, inferior cowbells at the gate, along with fridge magnets with the team schedule, Sean Henn was considered their ace and would take the hill. The only players on the roster I’ve heard of before, aside from Henn, are Eric Duncan and Melky Cabrera, although in recently completed seasons we were all treated to the likes of future breakout stars Chien-Ming Wang and Robinson Cano on a regular basis.

We down hot dogs and cheap beer before the game even starts, then settle into our seats. I had forgotten all about my previous visit, however, a night where I drank just two draft Michelob Amber Bocks here at the game, yet somehow ended up barfing my brains out – and an identical dosage of the same toxic potion nearly has the same effect on me this otherwise fine night. Maybe they are being sent leftover dregs from the Budweiser plant across town, or maybe they suffer storage issues at this site. Maybe I am the only person drinking Amber Bock (well, no, Jim also partakes, and voices no complaints) and as a result it is spoiling. But something funky is certainly going on with this draft – and only here, for I don’t have any problems downing it at, say, Studio 35. As a result, I’m bolted to my seat like a seasick landlubber for what turns into a 13-1 blowout in the Clippers’ favor, against the Scranton Red Barons.

As far as routs are concerned, it’s interesting enough, for the offense is scattered liberally throughout the frames. But really, the most compelling aspect of this particular outing might have been the hot dog race, or at least that and its attendant juvenile humor. A familiar sight at many a baseball field, this race featured three characters dressed up as wieners, although in a somewhat inspired twist, two nice looking females, attired as ketchup and mustard bottles, respectively, are holding the finish line tape.

“If I was one of those hot dogs, I’d be working on either ketchup or mustard, one of the two,” Kyle notes.

“Both!” I say, “I’d have ketchup on one side, mustard on the other!”

“You have to leave your costumes on, though,” Jim elaborates with a laugh, “that’s my fetish.”

“You can take your spouts off, that’s it,” I suggest.

 

 

 

January 8, 2003

Very odd. Walking home from work and I get about halfway up my road, almost make it to the house, and I look up to see this strange light in the night sky. It resembles a spotlight and appears to be originating from somewhere over in Grandview, from the land as opposed to the air. But for one, it’s much more powerful than any spotlight I’ve ever seen – the light, which remains steady as opposed to sweeping, nearly spans the entire horizon from west to east – but also, as bizarre as this seems, it bends at about a forty-five degree angle. In other words, from wherever it’s originating, this beam climbs at a perfect diagonal, then bends at this forty five degree angle and continues overhead straight across town to the east side. To put it more clearly, it’s shaped like a rainbow, except the rainbow isn’t curved, it kinks inward at a sharp angle. Also, this band is monochromatic, the vaguely bluish white of a flashlight.

Once home, I first run upstairs, but can’t get a good look and return to the front yard. By now the angular rainbow shaped beam is falling toward the south at a slow but constant clip. To put it another way, it’s like the St. Louis arch had been directly overhead, then slowly toppled over, toward the southern horizon. Whatever the case, this bizarre spectacle eventually disappears from my line of sight behind some buildings, and I retreat indoors.