What’s a diner? This question would be easy to answer in New York, New Jersey, and across much of the Northeastern U.S., where diners abound. In Louisville, not so much.
There’s a fine line between a diner and a family restaurant. If it’s located in an old railroad dining car or a building made to look like one, it’s definitely a diner; but this is by no means a necessity, and in fact I don’t know of any railroad-style diners in or around this town. (If you know of one, please let me know.)
This much is certain: A diner serves breakfast any time it’s open. It serves traditional American fare. Even if it’s run by Greek-Americans and offers Greek dishes, too, as many diners in the Northeast do, it will invariably offer eggs any way you like them, pancakes and bacon and sausage and biscuits, and all the strong dark coffee you can drink. If you’re in the South, grits will unfailingly be on the menu; in the north, hash browns. Here in the happy in-between, we get both.
A diner must serve grilled cheese sandwiches, patty melts, and burgers, of course, and probably a Reuben. Hearty, home-style side dishes are mandatory, to the extent that just a bit farther south, the moniker “diner” shifts seamlessly to “meat-and-three,” denoting an eatery that offers a main course plus three side veggies … or two veggies and bread, whatever.
So, what’s a diner? Louisville’s Twig & Leaf arguably makes the cut, and you could make an argument for Lynn’s Paradise Cafe. I would submit, though, that it is well worth the trip out wide, wide Dixie Highway to Frontier Diner to enjoy about as good a sample of the diner genre as the Derby City has to offer.
Frontier is no dining car, but its rectangular floor plan with comfortable booths opening toward a diner counter makes a fair approximation. The decor is an eclectic mix of Coca-Cola memorabilia, collectible china plates and cowboys, and the servers are friendly and rarely short on suggestions or smiles.
Breakfast is indeed served all day (until 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays but it closes at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays), and it includes all the diner basics at attractive prices. Portions are generous, and nary a thing, as cowboys say, tops $6.95 on the breakfast menu, and the lunch and “supper” menu peaks at $5.95 for the daily special, a meat-and-three combo of two veggies and bread.
I chose breakfast for lunch and was very happy. The veggie omelet ($6) was rich and fluffy, rolled around crisp-tender sauteed onion and bell pepper, sliced button mushrooms and unfortunately pale winter tomato, and sprinkled with shredded white cheese. Hash browns were grated into long shreds and grilled with crunchy bits, just the way I like them. A biscuit was first-rate, so good that I didn’t bother to spread it with Country Crock, although real butter might have swayed me.
The grilled chicken salad ($5.75) consisted of iceberg lettuce topped with sliced onion and cucumber, bell pepper, mushrooms and a generous portion of spice-rubbed bites of grilled boneless chicken breast, with ranch dressing on the side. It was okay but may have been oversold to us; the server’s enthusiastic recommendation had us expecting something higher up the “wow” scale.
A bowl of pinto beans and two sweet yellow cornbreads ($2.75) was improved with a shot of Tabasco and a shake of salt; and moist chocolate cake ($2.25) met the diner standard.
Frontier lives up to its motto, “Good homemade cookin’ for good hometown folks.” It’s well worth the stop if you’re out Dixie way. Our very filling meal rang up at $20.94, plus a $4 tip.