The Greenback Drug Store & Diner Helps Keep Alive A Dying Slice Of Dining Culture
There used to be a time – from the 20s thru the 60s was their prime – when a diner in the back of a drug store was as common in America as ’57 Chevys.
Most of both of these classics are long gone, the locally-owned drug stores having been wiped out when big chains either started buying them out or they just faded away as Americans passed them up for fast food joints and other options.
But a few still exist and I was in one recently, the Greenback Drug Store & Diner in Greenback, TN. It has been there since the 1920s but, alas, there’s no drug store anymore, so it’s really just a locals’ basic restaurant. It even has tables and booths. Most drug store diners simply had a counter.
In their heyday, drug store diners were fixtures in the small towns and mid-sized cities in the South and Midwest. Some included soda fountains making pretty good shakes with local ice cream. You sat at a counter on a little red stool that twirled, and you would do “sitting circles” while you waited for your food.
The food was basic, usually cheeseburgers, fries and some drug store diner “exclusives” like some type of white-ish gravy with meat lumps in it (sausage?) poured over toast.
You see, the food at these drug store counters was often not very good. Neither was the service.
But that’s not the point. You didn’t go to these things for food; you went because it was a simple place to go with friends or to just to pass the time. Some were open late and were the only places late-night workers could go to get a meal.
Ahh yes, the food. It was cooked by a guy whom you could barely see over the counter. You really didn’t want to watch him anyway because he appeared to be even more greasy than the food.
Standing between you and him was a surly, rather large woman (usually named Shirley) who seemed to view customers as invaders into her territory and would act as if serving you was a big inconvenience. So you would sit there silently for a while until you built up the nerve to order or she would say something like “are you just going to sit there and take up those stools or are you going to eat!?”
Shirley was constantly wiping down the counter with a dirty rag and you quickly learned to pick up your plate when she got near you because the flopping ends could easily lap at your food. Might have made it taste better, actually.
It always seemed odd to me as a kid that you never saw the owner in the place. I later learned there was a joke that traveled throughout America as to the reason why – he died; the rumor is he ate some of his own food.
Thankfully, the food at the Greenback Diner was fair enough. My dad and I had a quarter-pound cheeseburger ($3.19) and sides of crinkle fries ($1.99). And they happily refilled the Cokes (if they had a Shirley ever working here, she’s long since retired). Frankly, even though it had been a while since I had been in a drug store diner – decades since I even considered it – the cheeseburger tasted just as I expected, which is to say good but far from great.
However, upon further inquiry I learned the place serves an awesome breakfast, including biscuits made from scratch. The place is way out in the country – along a narrow country with farms on both sides – so you know those biscuits just have to be good.
But like all drug store diners, the point was not to go there for the food. It was to go to experience a little bit of old American culture that still exists in some places in the good ‘ol USA.