From the Kitchen

The Gem Diner brings a throwback vibe to classic diner food

Kelli Mosher | Staff Photographer

The interior walls of the Gem Diner are covered with classic 20th century memorabilia, including guitars, images of Frank Sinatra and PepsiCola ads.

The central New York region certainly boasts its fair share of diners. A rich diner tradition has continued in the area throughout the century. I’d love to try all of the popular diners in the area, but thus far, The Gem Diner is my favorite. It really is a “gem” precious enough to merit such a hideous and cliché pun. I’m sorry, I just really couldn’t resist.

The Gem is located on Spencer Street, slightly removed from downtown and the Syracuse restaurant scene. However, it’s only two exits from Syracuse University’s main campus down Interstate 690 West, an easy 10-minute drive. Unfortunately, the area of town it is in is not easily accessible via the Centro bus system, so car-less students will have to bum a ride off someone or book a Zipcar.

Chains like Sonic and Johnny Rockets’ may be the modern incarnation of the neighborhood grease-pool diner (grease-pool here used as a term of endearment), and even eating at those joints is like time travelling. However, getting out of my Hyundai Elantra Zipcar in The Gem’s parking lot made me feel like Marty McFly stepping out of the DeLorean and into Lou’s Café.

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Kelli Mosher | Staff Photographer

The whole exterior of the building was a shiny and well-kept chrome. The windows were wide, and the whole thing was dripping in mid-century awesomeness. The pinup cherry red street sign was adorable, especially with a small black-and-white checkerboard pattern. An old black Cadillac was perched outside the entrance, decorated with The Gem’s logo. There was also an outdoor ice cream window.

The time travel got even more real when I walked in the restaurant at the same time as an actual pinup girl. She had Bettie Page bangs, strong eyebrows and perfectly winged eyeliner. She was wearing a fitted, knee-length leopard print skirt, as though she really belonged in 1956 instead of 2016.

Walking in the door could have been like stepping into the set of “Pulp Fiction,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Little Miss Sunshine” or even “Jimmy Neutron.” It was the perfectly real actualization of the stereotypical American diner, complete with a bar counter, window booths, a cake display and a miniature jukebox. There was 20th century memorabilia all over the walls, from guitars and cars to Frank Sinatra and PepsiCola.

I sat at a counter seat and the waitress handed me a large trifold menu. Her ’80s throwback-in-a-good-way blue eyeliner and bubblegum lipstick was totally hip and groovy and perfect for the atmosphere of the restaurant. There was a long list of breakfast specials in addition to a standard diner breakfast menu, as well as a sizeable lunch menu. Its selection of burgers was extensive, offering the classic favorites as well as a Jalapeño Cheddar, Chili Cheese and even a Reuben burger. There were also plenty of other lunch choices, though I didn’t find the selection overwhelming. I knew what I wanted before I even got in the restaurant: a nice stack of fresh, off-the-griddle pancakes.

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Kelli Mosher | Staff Photographer

My short stack of wheat pancakes was served in about 10 minutes. The short stack was more than enough, because the pancakes themselves were about 10 inches in diameter. The cake itself was light, soft and airy, and really hit the spot with the perfect amount of maple syrup and butter.

For good measure, I also tried some savory breakfast foods: over-easy eggs, bacon, hash browns and Italian toast. The toast was thick and warm, made with a nice loaf and not just sliced Wonder Bread. Tastefully buttered, it might have been my favorite. The bacon was perfectly cooked at the cusp of chewy and crispy. The eggs and potatoes were a bit greasy, but that is to be expected at a traditional American diner.

Those two plates cost $14.85 not including the tip. As the end of the semester approaches, student checking accounts are more than likely in dire need of a paycheck or birthday money. Nevertheless, all the options are inexpensive, and the quality of the food for the price paid is better than average.

Overall, I was impressed with The Gem’s food and I would love to return and try other items on its large menu. However, what I enjoyed most about the restaurant was the atmosphere and the experience of eating in a real, old-world diner. Sure, I’ve eaten in plenty of diners before, but none so authentic and mid-century as The Gem.

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