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Greasy spoon is a term used both in the UK and the US to denote a type of restaurant that serves typically simple food, often grilled or fried. In the UK the greasy spoon would likely serve varieties of pub grub, like sausages, fish and chips, and baked beans, and would probably be located in low to middle class neighborhoods. The food is not known for its quality, but more for its relatively cheap cost and large portion size. In the US, the greasy spoon is a staple throughout much of the country and may be synonymous with the term truck stop, even if truckers don’t frequent the restaurant.
The term greasy spoon dates back to the early 20th century and has a couple of implications. First it implies that a lot of greasy and fattening food makes up most of the menu. Second, it suggests that hygiene may be an issue and things like silverware can be improperly washed. This is not always the case, especially with the advent of modern restaurant dishwashing equipment and laws governing food preparation and safety. The modern version of this type of restaurant can be very clean and nice, but prides itself on serving grease-laden types of food that are beloved by many.
You might find a greasy spoon located at a truck stop, but more often you’ll find them interspersed throughout middle class neighborhoods in cities and towns. Some are smack-dab in the middle of cities like the famous Mel’s Diner on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. They usually serve breakfast and lunch, and some, like Mel’s, also serve dinner.
Typical breakfast entrees include things like eggs, hash browns, sausages or bacon, and hash. Lunches offer a variety of grilled sandwiches, usually accompanied by a large serving of French fries. When dinner is served emphasis is on typical American food like meatloaf and chicken potpie. A diner that is open all day usually serves any type of food, breakfast, lunch or dinner, at any time of the day. Some in large cities stay open at night to catch people who want a snack after a night’s partying.
Cuisine in a greasy spoon may differ by region. In the American Southwest, you might find a variety of Mexican inspired dishes. In the Deep South, you’re likely to find grits, and biscuits and gravy. Hawaiian greasy spoons wouldn’t be the same without offering Spam®.
There are many chain restaurants that specialize in offering greasy spoon fare. Restaurants like Dennys®, Lyons® and IHOP® are chains that tend to serve familiar items prepared quickly. Many think they should tip less at greasy spoons since the service is usually of lesser quality, and the food may be too.
Actually, it makes sense if the service is decent to offer a fine tip. Waiters and waitresses at these restaurants usually handle the most customers per hour and are some of the hardest workers in the restaurant industry. Customers frequently stiff them and their tips, even when generous, will be lesser amounts because of food price. If you frequent a particular small restaurant, you may get better service if you’re known as a generous tipper, and you’ll be welcomed with open arms by the wait staff.
If I'm traveling to a new city for my job, I always ask a local where all the good greasy spoons are located. I never have to explain what I mean by "greasy spoon", either. There's almost always two or three popular greasy cafes in the downtown area, and one on the outskirts of town that the locals frequent. I'm rarely disappointed by the food served at a greasy spoon, but some are clearly better than others.
My wife and I sometimes argue over whether or not a certain local restaurant should be called a "greasy spoon" or a "dive". A greasy spoon serves mostly American comfort foods like hamburgers, steaks and pancakes, and at least tries to maintain some cleanliness standards. I'm not afraid to eat in a typical greasy spoon.
A dive, on the other hand, may only do a few things well. Customers usually order the same things every time, and the regulars know what to avoid on the menu. A dive is usually less concerned with appearances than a greasy spoon or chain restaurant.