Like Moths to a Flame

Like Moths to a Flame

Late-night orbiters flock to Beth’s Café.

“Order up in this motherfucker!”

That’s the call that comes back from the overloaded, overworked, overstressed short-order cook working the slit trench of a line at Beth’s Cafe during the Saturday-night bar rush. There is no kind bell, no white-jacketed expeditor enjoying a sweatless split-shift, no quiet, breathy, “Service, please…”

There is just one man in a T-shirt, its bottom ringed with grease like cheap laurels, and jeans seasoned shiny and black, working the wheel completely alone—just hanging it out there on the edge of something, working to weird rhythms and music playing in his head alone. He is buried in checks, in egg orders and bacon sides and cakes stacked up and stretching ’til morning. He spins like a top—reaching and grabbing and turning and flipping and folding—and seems to have been gifted, maybe just for this moment, with more arms than the standard complement. A Shiva of toast and hotcakes. A midnight apparition that speaks deeply to anyone who has ever stood a shift on the hot side of any kitchen.

But when he calls for a pickup of the plates stacked precariously on what passes for his rail, on the countertop, on what I think is a bend of one of the ventilation ducts that suck all that grill char and smoke and sweet, waffle-scented air up and out into the Green Lake night, he says it almost sweetly, singing it in a high, clear, and mocking voice like music: “O’duh upinthis mutha-fuckaaahhh…”

And the waitresses descend like clockwork, like bangbangbang—stacking plates up their arms and weaving like Balinese dancers past the jammed host’s position where drunken kids and blue-haired punk-rock angels and douchebags in motorcycle leathers and jittery night creatures with blown-out methedrine eyes all fight and beg and whine and shout for tables; out onto the shattered floor awash in 2 a.m. refugees, swinging through and around knots of bodies like they were straddling a greased pole mounted hip-high as they walked; then down again at the heads of tables already a wreck of coffee spoons and wet napkins, paper, crayons, hand stamps, cell phones, car keys, and the heads of those no longer capable of keeping up the fight against liquor and gravity—bringing pancakes and bagel sandwiches and bacon to the shitfaced masses.

The servers here take no crap off anybody. Can’t. No time, less patience. They are sweet as hummingbirds most of the time. Right up until they aren’t anymore. And then they might just kill you. Or want to, anyway. Real bad. So you come in, wait for your seat, take it, sit, order what you want, eat what you’re given, pay at the door, and get the fuck out. Those are the rules, simple and plain. Beth’s is home to some reasonably bad behavior on a good night—a kind of late-night repository for libertines of every stripe. It’s the kind of place where you can show up in a bathrobe and bedroom slippers like The Dude on the back end of a Caucasian bender, and no one gives you more than a third quizzical glance. But there is a line. You cross it at your peril.

“Sit THE FUCK down!”

Everyone hears the yelling and bends to look. One of the waitresses was only gently cajoling a group of tiny girls into maybe not dancing in the narrow aisle between tables just at the moment, to maybe take their shiny happy attitudes out-fucking-side and shake it where there’s space.

And the girls, they listen. They sit the fuck down. The waitress comes back to the service end of the short-order line, looking for plates, talking to no one in particular.

“What are you doing being vegan in a place like this anyway…”

Last week I wrote about watching the hammer of the church rush come down at the Silver Fork. This week it’s the crushing, line-out-the-door, last-call hit as bars all over the city disgorge their moths into the night and Beth’s, like a flame, draws them in. Last week I listened to a woman with a voice like honey and iron sing about love and Jesus while the breakfast crowd sat stunned. This week I sat in a half booth under a speaker, something from the weird end of the Tubeway Army’s playlist pounding into my soft spot, and watched the chastened dancers bend like reeds and slip, giggling, back into their seats.

The Silver Fork and Beth’s Cafe are related across a strange helix of culinary DNA. Both are diners. Their menus, at their cores, are essentially identical, and uniquely American in their influence. Both have history like Coke and Pepsi do, and serve unique, irreplaceable roles in their disparate neighborhoods. To a grubnik, the Silver Fork is where you go to atone for the sins you committed the night before at Beth’s. Both places are vital. Both serve very different purposes.

The Silver Fork is all soulful sweetness, Southern hospitality, and gospel-fired breakfast rushes full of eggs and waffles and biscuits with gravy. Beth’s is its darkside cousin, operating 24/7, 363 days a year (it’s closed on Christmas and Thanksgiving, never otherwise), and catering to a somewhat less wholesome aspect of the human character. It is best after the sun goes down, even better in those soft, magical moments just before dawn. You can eat at Beth’s in daylight, but I’m not sure why anyone ever would. To step inside the cramped space while the sun is up is kind of like seeing your favorite dive bar with natural light streaming through the windows or a tranny hooker on the morning after—disturbing, and revelatory in ways discomfiting to the spirit. Beth’s in daylight makes you wonder what you ever found charming about it in the first place, why you have spent so many nights and so many hours slumped in this weird hole, the walls covered with layers of customer art flapping in the fitful breeze, the blackened and battered galley, corners and rails and flat surfaces all stuck with taped-up bits of headlines clipped from magazines, like the lair of a hyperactive ransom-note writer.

But then the night comes again. The bartender tells you it’s time to go. And you start to wonder what else there is for a man of small means and strange appetites to do at 2:15 on a Sunday morning. On the street outside, waiting for the host to step out and shout your name, you get in an argument with someone over whether a lap dance ought to be cheaper for someone in a wheelchair because they’ve brought their own chair, and you wonder if there is any place for you other than Beth’s.

I’m not generally one to quote from Yelp reviews, but one about Beth’s is just too perfect. It’s from Greg T.: “Beth’s is a mountain. It was here before you and will be here after you are dead. You can’t write a bad review about Beth’s. I mean, you can, but Beth’s doesn’t care. Imagine shouting insults at Mount Rainier. Beth’s is unchanging and immovable. Beth’s just does not give a fuck.”

Beautiful, right? And probably truer in 51 words than anything I could say in 2,000.

But let’s be honest here. Beth’s is not good by any stretch of the imagination. It is the archetypal greasy spoon. A Peter Pan restaurant that opened in 1954 and never grew up. More than 50 years in business? That means, if you’ve got some generational history in the area, your grandmother probably behaved badly at Beth’s back in her day—tooled up on corn mash, running with a rough crowd, climbing on the tables, and showing bikers her lady business. It survived a fire 10 years ago. Every night is like a riot on the floor. Nothing will ever kill Beth’s, despite the fact that the menu seems, in certain places, custom-made to kill you.

It’s a place famous for making 12-egg omelets, for serving bottomless plates of hash browns and doing nothing whatsoever small. You want to get in tight with your cardiologist? Order the Triple Bypass. You want to make friends with a local mortician? Order two. It comes with bacon, sausage, ham, double Swiss cheese, double American cheese, and 12 eggs folded around all that goodness like an envelope. On the plate, it looks like a football made of eggs. The waitress has to carry it with two hands. Everyone who orders one does so out of some kind of misguided sense of needing to prove something to themselves or to strangers, and announces it like that to the staff. The staff doesn’t care. There are no prizes for finishing. It’s just fucking breakfast.

Late on a Saturday night, I faced down a plate of damp corned-beef hash, three eggs over, hash browns that were too pale, and two biscuits (not, mind you, one of the menu’s particularly big breakfasts), and barely made it halfway through. On what was technically a Sunday morning, I ate a short stack of blonde, rather gummy pancakes with two eggs bleeding golden yolk over the top and four thick-cut slices of bacon cooked so hard it was like they’d said something nasty about the cook’s mother, and when I walked out again with the sun pinking the sky, I felt like I was about to give breech birth to a pancake baby.

Beth’s does a breakfast burrito the size of a cat. The kitchen can do sandwiches and chili dogs, a breakfast burger topped with a fried egg, and a six-dollar milkshake that tastes like eating 15 Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups run through a blender. One night, while working my way methodically through a plate of scrambled eggs with ham and cheese and a dry biscuit dragged repeatedly through a lump of slowly melting butter, I decided to count the number of egg flats the cook with the greasy shirt and Shiva arms had gone through during his rush. He was taking the empty cardboard containers and shoving them up above his grill, stacking them when things were quiet, then just shoving them up there once things got hectic. At around 1:30 in the morning, he had 33 flats. By 2:15 it was 40, then 42, and 44 when I stood to pay my ridiculously small bill and step out into the still-crowded night.

A flat is 36 eggs—three dozen. Which means that the empty flats jammed above the grills, stacked to the hole that’d been cut in the ceiling to accommodate the HVAC ductwork, represented 1,584 eggs, cracked, flipped, scrambled, and served. Conservatively estimating three eggs to a plate, that was 528 egg orders cooked since the flats had last been pulled down and walked to the dumpsters—probably sometime that afternoon.

A good chef can teach anyone to make coq au vin, wrap the tournedos Rossini, or mount a proper sauce. Any thumb-fingered jerkoff with the ink still wet on his C-school diploma can be shown how to plate the slip of foie over the artful little puddle of gastrique. But 528 egg plates? Those are some serious numbers. Chops like that you gotta earn. And if I were still in the trade and looking to staff some positions in whatever bistro or brasserie I was working for, Johnny Six-Arms there? He’d be my boy.

After every meal I ate at Beth’s—whether huddled at the short, dirty counter, stuck between the howling old punk from the dining-room radio and the droning sad-bastard rock blowing out from the dish room, or tucked away among the tables, going slowly cross-eyed from the crawling strobe effect of the drawings fluttering on the walls—I felt like crap for hours afterward.

Then I got better.

Then I went back to Beth’s.

I didn’t do it because I had to. There wasn’t any deep, journalistic revelation I was chasing. In the realm of one-note restaurants, Beth’s is the one-note-iest: You can know nearly everything there is to know about the place after 30 seconds inside.

I went back because I loved the place. And that’s the thing—the rub, so to speak: While most restaurants are about want, Beth’s is about need. You’re either the kind of person who needs Beth’s in your life or you aren’t.

So you make your decision. You take your chances. You live with the consequences. And come morning, you look at the wreck of yourself in the mirror and ask again: Do I ever need to go back to Beth’s?

If you’re like me, eventually the answer will come back yes. And when it does, Beth’s will be there waiting.

Price Check 12-egg Triple Bypass   $19.50 Ham scramble  $8.75 Breakfast burrito  $9.50 Hash and eggs   $8.75 Pancakes, eggs, and bacon  $8.75 Short stack  $4.95 

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