Have you ever spent an evening at a diner? No, not an hour or two in the afternoon—an entire evening, from post-lunch lull to after-dinner cleanup. If it's a true, hometown diner, it's worth the time spent. Diners aren't just places for weekend brunch with friends or a quirky first date—they're the hearts and souls of communities, the watering holes for modern-day yentas.
I've grown up in Miami, but I wouldn't have guessed that we had anything like hometown diner. That's until I spent the evening at Wagons West, a home cooking, country style restaurant in Pinecrest. Though the city's expanded since the diner opened in 1981, the diner's remained the same. Sure, its hours are longer and its menu more varied, but it's the people that make this diner great. From the customers who come in every day to the owner's kids (who know the regulars), it's as homey and friendly a diner I've ever been to. Oh—and the food's pretty excellent, too.
I'd imagine that after five or ten years of working at a restaurant, you might get tired of their food. You might not want to eat it at all. I'd be wrong. There were two waitresses working during my time there. Laura and Joan were all you could want in food servers—knowledgeable, friendly, and caring, they made sure that their customers were happy, and they'd eaten enough of the food to recommend the restaurant's best (the burgers and the ribs). Laura's been working there five years, and Joan for a decade—and she told me that they were some of the new wait staff. One waitress has been working there when she was fourteen. She's now 30 with three kids.
When I first arrived and there weren't many people to serve, Laura and Joan hung out together, Joan rolling napkins around utensils and Laura eating eggs and a bagel behind the counter. They half watched the TV, mostly talked to each other, and often entertained my questions. Once it got crowded, they were amazing—dancing around one another and the cooks to prepare and serve the food while finding time to chat with their favorite customers. They knew people's names and orders, and somehow were also able to check on me throughout the night.
When I asked them what their favorite item on the menu is, Joan said, "I want to eat everything I serve. When I retire, I want to have enough money and come here to eat the best pancakes every day. And the best ribs at night." How's that for in-house advertising?
Wade Langley has been coming to this diner since he was in high school at nearby Palmetto Senior High School. Back then it wasn't Wagons West, it was the Sunniland Luncheonette. Wade can tell you all about the history of the location, even citing the year that current owners Walter and Steven Muench bought the place. He used to work at Wagons West as a line cook, comes to eat dinner and watch Jeopardy here every night (and also comes for breakfast Sunday morning), and will show you pictures on his phone of some of his favorite meals (skirt steak and the waffle sundae, FYI).
When I arrived to Wagons West around 5 pm, Wade was already in his usual spot—at the end of the bar, away from most of the patrons and right in front of the grill. He had headphones on, but took them off as soon as the waitresses sat me down to talk to him. After we'd talked for a while (we're basically best friends now), I asked him what he was listening to on the headphones. I'd noticed that though he had an iPhone, the headphones weren't plugged into it. "I used to turn the volume on the TV up to watch Jeopardy at night, and when Walter [the owner] would come in, he didn't like the sound of the TV. Before Christmas, he saw these at Marshalls, bought them, and plugged them into the TV. They stay here, and anybody can use them—they just have to know where to find them." For the record, you'd find them hidden away in a cabinet at the back of the restaurant—right next to Wade's seat. That's right, the owner of Wagons West bought his customer a pair of wireless headphone so he could watch Jeopardy while he eats his dinner.
That would be Walter and Steven Muench, brothers who came from New York to Miami in the early 1970s. Before buying this restaurant in 1981, they owned a sandwich shop in Coconut Grove, a hot dog place on Bird Road, and an ice cream shop. When they bought this restaurant, it was kitschy and dated. They wanted to make an all-American diner, so went with a Western theme for their new restaurant. Over the first year, they made small changes to the restaurant and big changes to the decoration. Everything is wooden, there are cowboy hats galore, and knick knacks covering every surface that isn't for eating or cooking. Not that they've found all of those decorations themselves—customers bring in things they find to match the décor. (Wade gave the restaurant his late grandfather's cowboy hat.)
Wade informed me that Steven is a morning person, so Walter was the only brother I met. He was out running errands when I arrived, but quickly made up for his absence. When I tried asking him questions, he led me around the restaurant, showing me the piles of business cards he lets people put in the restaurant's entrance ("some places charge for that" he told me disapprovingly), the bull's horns mounted at the front of the restaurant (from when a local lounge decided to change their Western decorations to disco décor), and other knick knacks decorating the restaurant. That was before the dinner rush arrived. Once they did, he was off—welcoming customers, ringing up bills, and chatting with his friends.
As I watched the staff handle the dinner crowd, it became apparent that almost everyone who walked into the restaurant that night was a regular customer. I'd been told that weekends were the really busy time, but I didn't understand what nights were like. It wasn't relaxing—the restaurant wasn't packed, but it was busy. There was always work to be done. But instead of anonymous, hurried service, customers got conversation with their meal. One little girl shouted, "Hi, Walter!" when she walked in, and proceeded to introduce her friend to the waitresses and owner. Joan sat at a table for at least 10 minutes to catch up, while Laura made sure her food went out. Laura wasn't angry—it's just what happens at Wagons West. The people there aren't simply employees and customers, they're friends. If you go to a restaurant once a week (or more!) every week, every year, for years, you're bound to form connections. The difference here was that everyone who came in had that connection. They were all loyal customers.
Three separate people told me that this was the real life (not so alcoholic) version of Cheers—the place where everybody knows your name. And when I walked out at the end of the night, I knew that the people I met did know my name. So I'll be back to say hello to my new friends . . . and to try that waffle sundae.
— Sara Faber
[Photo via miamihal.com]