City Cafe Diner | Chattanooga, TN

January 23, 2008

City Cafe Diner
901 Carter Street
Chattanooga, TN 37402
(423) 634-9191
Open 24 hours, 7 days
Accepts cash and credit card

Date of Visit: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 9:30 p.m.

IMPRESSIONS: Beth and I took a weekend vacation to Chattanooga, Tennessee recently. Chattanooga is a fine town – reminds me of my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, but with mountains. Anyway, we hopped a Skybus flight from Columbus on a Friday night. The plane was an hour late, so we arrived at our hotel (the excellent Read House Sheraton) starving. The friendly guy behind the counter recommended this place across the street from the hotel, saying it was “Always a good place to go after a night out with your friends.” Uh oh.

We went anyway, and didn’t necessarily regret it. That weekend there was a cheer team convention happening in town, so the hotel and nearly every restaurant was swamped with under-dressed, over-made-up adolescent cheerleaders and their rather intense parents. We narrowly beat a group of 14 waiting to be seated at City Cafe.

And about the name: is it redundant? The City Cafe Diner. We joked that it should be called the City Cafe Diner Drive-In Greasy Spoon Dive Restaurant.

ATMOSPHERE: City Cafe Diner Drive-In, et al. is NOT the place for a quiet conversation. The night we went, the diner was packed, bright, and noisy. There are bright lights, neon signs, and mirrors all over. Tables are full of families with kids, or as the night gets later, groups of high school and college students looking for a 1 a.m. hangout. A flashy jukebox pumps out hip-hop music (and of course all the cheerleaders start dancing to it). Autographed pictures of obscure celebrities hang in one corner. In the back, the kitchen hisses and sizzles with action, while servers and busboys sometimes literally run around with plates and drinks. I asked the woman at the counter if the weekend was particularly crazy for them, and she casually replied, “No, we actually expected it to be busier.”

The whole process of putting your name in and waiting to get seated is a little confusing. The main entrance to the diner drops you at the counter, where no one tells you to put your name in. Once you do, you’re supposed to go wait in the lobby of the Days Inn to which the diner is attached. You access this through an unmarked door that nobody points out and that’s in the back, out of sight. The “waiting room” is just the under-sized lobby of the hotel, with about four chairs total. We waited for about 10 minutes before I went and asked where we were in the line-up. You see, when the server comes to seat you, they don’t call your name. They just poke their head through the unmarked door and say, “2” or “14,” as in, the size of your party. No names. And the actual waiting area is down a short hallway, so no one can hear them. Once I asked when it was our turn, they seated us immediately in a booth in the middle of the restaurant. It was crazy to the point of ridiculous – half the line of people waiting to pay was standing next to our table, basically watching us eat. Fortunately, we were hungry and amused enough that we just laughed.

FOOD: City Cafe Diner serves decent diner food that’s just a step or two above average. It’s all quite tasty, as diner food usually is, and not particularly healthy. I read another review that said their food was just expensive Denny’s food. While it may be $1 or so more than Denny’s, I don’t think it’s that bad. It wasn’t a total grease-bomb like Denny’s fare tends to be.

Beth ordered the French Dip with fries, which turned out to be pretty good. I went with a breakfast option (served all day!). Since I was in the South (or, at least, further south than Ohio), I decided to try something we don’t see all the time up in Columbus. So I tried the Country-Fried Steak with Gravy for the first time in my life. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s a slim steak that’s breaded and fried, much like fried chicken. And, indeed, that’s pretty much what it tasted like. The steak is so thin that they can’t even ask you how you want it done. The meal was certainly flavorful: how can a fried steak with gravy taste bad? It was peppery and salty, and I was hungry, so it went down easily.

It came with two eggs (over-easy, my new favorite preparation), wheat toast, and potatoes. When I chose the potatoes over the grits, the woman gave me a strange look, and Beth said I had probably just identified myself as a Northerner. The eggs and toast were just fine – the toast was lightly buttered and soft without being floppy, and the eggs were done just right. The potatoes were disappointing. I took a few bites and then left them. They were cooked with onions and peppers (another Southern thing, I think), but they were pretty much flavorless. Even dumping some table salt on them didn’t help. They should have been cooked longer until they browned a bit.

One final note about City Cafe’s food: their menu boasts that they serve “over 360 items,” which means that there’s something to please everyone: breakfast selections, Greek food, Italian fare, Southern specialties, and ALL the diner standards like burgers, reubens, etc. But that also means, in my experience, that the specialties are generic. I mean, are the guys in the back really cooking a fresh breakfast AND preparing a fresh piece of Moussaka, all the while baking cakes and boiling some fresh Italian pasta? I’m willing to bet that there’s a fair amount of microwaving and/or heating up of frozen items involved.

Okay, I lied. I have two more notes about the food. When you enter the restaurant, you are greeted with two HUGE display cases of delicious, delicious looking cakes. The guy from our hotel said City Cafe is known for their cakes, and they get points just for presentation. Your mouth will begin watering immediately at the wide selection. While we didn’t get cake our first night in town, we picked up two slices the following evening. I tried the Canoli Cake, while Beth sampled the Red Velvet cake. The slices were massive, at least six inches tall, and unbelievably thick (and cheap: $4.50 each). We ate on those pieces for the next two days, and yes, they were very, very good. So City Cafe has cake going for it.

SERVICE: Our server was nice, although clearly in a hurry and not in the mood to chat. Same with the woman behind the counter, who was pounding down her own meal in between customers (she told me she had ordered food 2 hours prior, and the kitchen was so busy they had just gotten it to her then). If you come here, expect to get a little bit of friendly attitude along with your meal. But they’ll take care of you.

They also have a 24-hour delivery service. The night we arrived in Chattanooga, we saw two (2!) guys dedicated to delivery, and they were heading out the door with armloads of food.

OVERALL: City Cafe Diner is a fun stop that serves the basic purpose of entertaining you and filling you up with decent food. It’s a local joint that seems to be favored by locals and tourists alike in Chattanooga, so to me it’s automatically a step up from a greasy breakfast chain like Perkin’s or Denny’s. While it’s not the top eats in Chattanooga (nor the top breakfast, as you shall soon see), you could end up in worse places, especially if you’re hungry for something that will taste good and fill you up, in a place that can seat a sizable group and offer a taste of everything. Plus, there’s that cake. I could go back just for that.

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I go by Dr. Breakfast, but in addition to restaurants and recipes, I write about family travel, breweries and distilleries, the arts, outdoor fun, and so much more.

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