“We make our syrup in house,” said Sugar ‘n Spice owner Steven Frankel. “Here’s the recipe: sugar, water, sugar, more sugar, some brown sugar, maple flavoring, sugar, and some more sugar. We cook it till it’s almost booze, then back it up.” My friend Teri ate spoonfuls of it when her whispy pancake was gone.
When I was a kid, I knew without asking that we wouldn’t eat at Sugar and Spice Restaurant. I don’t imagine I saw this restaurant that often, as we were from Finneytown and Sugar ‘n Spice was in the Paddock Hills area of Avondale.
Maybe I saw it on the way to Great Grandma Meinking’s house, or when we went on our annual trip to the Cincinnati Zoo. Perhaps when we had doctor appointments on Burnet Avenue. But how could a little girl not remember a bubble gum colored eatery that looked like it came from the pages of The Gingerbread House?
I knew my family wouldn’t eat there, mostly because we almost never ate anywhere but at our house. Boring cottage ham or meatloaf off Melmac plates. And to drink? Milk, always milk.
But sometimes Mootsie and Grandpa Gil took me out to lunch after church, usually to McIntosh’s on Reading Road or Century Inn Tavern in Woodlawn. Neither of these places was far from St. Matthew United Church of Christ, but Sugar ‘n Spice wasn’t either. It seems Sugar ‘n Spice just wasn’t a restaurant our family would frequent.
When I was a little girl, Avondale was 60% Jewish. The homes on tree-lined streets were mansions by the standards of the day. But by 1967, when I was invited for lunch by a girl in my acting class to her Avondale home near Sugar ‘n Spice, my mother was worried about driving me there, maybe because of her poor sense of direction, but maybe something else. Maybe because by then Avondale was a predominantly black neighborhood.
I was impressed with my girlfriend’s old home, three stories filled with polished mahogany furniture, porcelain figurines, and cut crystal vases, and it may have been my first exposure to old money. It looked nothing like our contemporary house with its Danish modern furniture and Marimekko prints.
People my age remember the race riots in Avondale in the late sixties. It truly was a dangerous place, a neighborhood in transition, a place where National Guardsman were called in to contain the violence. In the aftermath of the riots, Avondale’s flourishing business district languished.
Yet Sugar ‘n Spice remained, an institution since 1941. A pink icon. A place where my family never ate.
As an adult, I’ve often passed Sugar ‘n Spice, on the way to classes at Xavier and the now-defunct Cincinnati multi-plex. I recently found myself in the neighborhood for an engagement party in the most gorgeous green-tiled house.
Now I go to a writing class in the charming home of Cincinnati’s poet laureate, Pauletta Hansel (if I may drop names), right around the corner from Sugar ‘n Spice. Every week when I passed by, I’d think, “I am going there to eat the whispy pancakes their sign advertises.”
So a couple of Saturdays ago I told my husband we were going to Sugar ‘n Spice for brunch. I didn’t have to give him directions; most Cincinnatians know where this pink confection is. When we pulled up at 10:30, the parking lot was full and the line was ten people deep out the door. We ended up at the anodyne First Watch.
We decided to try again Sunday. We got up early and made it there by 8:00
AM. There were no tables left, so we squeezed in at the counter. Chan (pronounced “Shan”) took our order, and Rick snapped open the newspaper. I don’t know how he could read when there was so much color and noise and stuff. Everything inside is pink—unless it is yellow or red or lavender or aqua. Pink tumblers. Pink mugs. While we waited, one of the waitresses went around the restaurant, spraying the tiny pink-edged plants. My waitress, and other waitresses, topped off my coffee. It’s a team effort. Everyone serves, everyone cleans, every busses, everyone pours coffee.
By the time we finished our breakfast, the line was out the door. You don’t linger when there are so many hungry people waiting to be fed, but I felt rushed and sad to leave. I really hadn’t had time to absorb the full impact of the kitsch.
And I’d had the “Breakfast Special,” an ordinary eggs, sausage, pancake combination. The menu is huge,, and I wanted to come back and try the “Cuddlin Puppy” or the “Ole’ Henry,” or the “Slaughterhouse Five.”
So I decided to return the next day. (Dear Readers, I hope you appreciate the effort and cash it takes for me to turn out thoroughly researched blogposts.) I invited my friend Teri along. She likes dives and diners as much as I do.
“We better get there by 11:00 to avoid the rush,” I told Teri. When we arrived, we found the parking lot full. As promised on the Sugar ‘n Spice website, “On any given day you might see a new or old BMW, Ford Truck, Cadillac, and maybe even a Pinto in the parking lot. Throw in the occasional Jaguar, Honda and a Chevy and you’ll get some idea of the diversity represented in this restaurant’s patrons.”
We squeezed in past the crowd to give our names to the cashier for what turned out to be a 30-minute wait.
At least half of the seats are at the counter. We sidled behind a line of stools to play with the impressive collection of moving, singing stuffed animals and to take in the ambiance. It has the aroma of bacon and sausage and toast and creamy fat. The smell of a well-seasoned cast iron skillet. It’s loud, not with Muzak, but with conversation and silverware and brewing coffee.
We read the day’s specials from a blackboard: corned beef and Swiss cheese omelet and Prime Rib (Prime Rib?). I took pictures of the wall art and the crazy, cozy booths shoehorned into the space.
We slithered back past the stools to the front where there was a line of a half dozen chairs. Teri and I wedged ourselves into the two middle seats flanked by two cheerful, robust ladies on our right and a mother and hungry toddler on our left. I asked the four, “Is it always this crowded?” but it turned out that they couldn’t answer because they were Sugar ‘n Spice virgins.
Then the cashier called out, “Sandy?” I raised my hand. She took a look at Teri and me. “No. You don’t want that table. It’s really small.” For some reason, we weren’t insulted. In fact, we laughed. Then the cashier called the
party to our right, looked them over, and declared the table wouldn’t be a good fit for them, either. Then all four of us dissolved into peals of laughter.
Finally the cashier found two spaces at the counter for us that were, in the parlance of three bears, “Just right.” Teri ordered the corned beef omelet and I choose the “Cock-a-Doodle,” an 8 oz. chicken breast sandwich.
Our seats were right in front of the stack of toys on the service island. The owner selected a musical toy and took it to a tiny, crying patron. “I want to play Operation,” Teri said, but I was too weak from hunger to amputate a funny bone.
As we waited, I took in the crowd and concluded that this was the most diverse group of diners in any restaurant I’ve ever patronized. College kids with ear buds; moms with diaper bags; businessmen with Blackberries. Families, singles, couples, colleagues. Asians; African Americans; Middle Easterners; boring WASPs like Teri and me.
Then our meals were delivered. What’s not to love about an omelet as big as
your head? My grilled chicken sandwich was delicious, not at all like the flabby white disks that usually land on my buns (pun intended). This chicken breast was piping hot and toothsome. It delivered a satisfying fat-fried crunch with each bite.
While we ate, Steve, the fifth owner of Sugar ‘n Spice, swung by our counter brandishing a platter of brownies and a bucket of rubber duckies. On the website, he describes himself as a “caretaker of an historic icon than a restaurateur”.
I asked him, “Does the Health Department have a problem with all these tchotchkes, the stuffed animals and such?”
“No, they love this place. They eat here all the time!”
Perhaps you’ve watched one of my favorite shows, Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives (3D), on the Food Network. Chef Guy Fieri visits 3Ds all over the country and watches how they cook their specialties. All the dishes featured are heart-stopping, artery-clogging, fat-dripping masterpieces. Think: lard, bacon, meatloaf, ribs, sunny-side-up eggs. He has visited Blue Ash Chili, Virgil’s Café, and Terry’s Turf Club, all joints that earn the label, “diners,” “drive-ins,” or “dives.”
When I Iearned that Guy was going to swing by OTR in his cool car to sample the cuisine at Taste of Belgium, Bakersfield, and Senate, I scratched my head. These are great restaurants, no question. But they definitely are not any of the 3Ds. Sugar ‘n Spice is a diner.
A diner is a restaurant that is not a chain. It has a vibe that is inviting, casual, and unique, but impossible to describe. The owner is on the premises, often slinging hash with the rest of his/her cook staff. There is a huge menu with stick-to-your-ribs dishes made mostly from ordinary what’s-on-your-shelf ingredients. The portions are big and the prices are reasonable. You will not see duck confit or $20 frankfurters on a diner’s menu.
Diners have their folks, the patrons who return again and again, ordering their favorite grub from their favorite servers. They appreciate the familiarity, the invariability.
At Sugar ‘n Spice, folks are happy to rub elbows with strangers, no matter their race, ethnicity, age, or status. It’s just so doggone homey having company as you tuck into a stack of whispy, thin pancakes and a darned good cup of joe.
It’s not that the Sugar ‘n Spice patrons don’t see color.
I mean, who could miss the frothy pink, the lemon yellow, the ruby red, the lavender and aqua.
Copyright © 2016 Sandy Lingo, All Rights Reserved
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