TNT Diner

Never Been: Digging into classic American diners on South Tacoma Way

We food writers suffer from an annoying condition: An obsession with finding That Newest Fancy Place.

TNFP has us sniffing out the newest corners for the newest places with the newest dining trends.

Ramen. Ceviche. Cronuts. Ugh.

It’s enough to drive a restaurant critic to seek solace in a slab of meatloaf smothered in gravy.

And that’s why at least once a year, I tackle “The Never Beens.” Those are restaurants that are 20-plus years old and that diners have traveled past countless times without ever making the trek inside.

They’re not complicated. They’re not fancy. They don’t carry pretense. They’re coated with character and carry an aura of grit.

Today’s “Never Been?” installment focuses on a single dining neighborhood: South Tacoma Way. Along a three-mile stretch from 26th to 78th, two classic American eateries serve the greatest hits of diner food: Chicken-fried steak, hand-breaded fried chicken, pot roast, biscuits and gravy, waffles and griddle cakes.

I also have a brief look at a retro burger diner that’s too new for this series, but worth a mention based on multiple reader recommendations.

And speaking of readers, they’re responsible for feeding me tips for this periodic dining series. Have your own? Send them my way. Read the accompanying information box for details.

THE HOMESTEAD RESTAURANT AND BAKERY

Info: 7837 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma; 253-476-9000 or homesteadwa.com. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Kevin Martinez has one memory from the time he went camping in Oregon with his parents, who at the time were owners of an A&W on South Tacoma Way. Though he was only 5 at the time, Martinez still recalls a fun restaurant adjacent to the campgrounds that looked like a big barn.

His mother, Sumi Martinez, grew similarly intrigued with that barn restaurant. The family returned to Tacoma with a plan: Turn their South Tacoma Way burger joint into a classic cowboy dinner house in a building shaped like a barn.

And so The Homestead Restaurant and Bakery was born.

The restaurant carries that barn theme inside and out, with a dining room outfitted with cowboy corral booths and wagon wheel decor. A honky-tonk soundtrack lilts in the background.

Sumi Martinez has operated a restaurant in that South Tacoma Way space near the B&I for 43 years, with the exception of a period from 2001 to 2008 when she entered self-imposed retirement and leased the restaurant to an operator who, diners have not been shy in telling me, “ruined the restaurant.”

Sumi Martinez, bored with retirement, took back the restaurant six years ago. Kevin ditched his corporate job in California to help his mother reshape the Homestead. He now runs daily operations, but Sumi, Kevin said, is the “73-year-old who won’t leave the building.”

Find a five-page menu of American classics — pot roast, French dip, a turkey plate, chicken fried steak and hand-pressed burgers. Breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes are served all day. Or, as Kevin said by phone, “Order pancakes or meatloaf at 8 a.m. or 8 p.m. — it’s your call.”

In a throwback to how things used to be done, the restaurant offers a free slice of house-made cream pie with dinner. With gusto I dug in to the chocolate cream with equal parts stiffened whipped cream and satiny chocolate pudding. Generously-sliced coconut cream tasted straight from grandma’s icebox.

This feels like peeking into a kitchen time capsule: The restaurant house roasts its turkeys, which means the turkey plate ($13.49) is a taste of homemade Thanksgiving whether you visit in February or November.

The Homestead kitchen crew also bakes its own coffee can bread, makes all pies and cinnamon rolls from scratch, and slow-cooks its pot roasts daily.

I gravitated to the densely-pressed meatloaf — first as an open-faced sandwich with a river of gravy ($9.99), then as a dinner entree ($9.99) with an equally generous portion of beefy gravy made from pot roast pan drippings. Both versions were flanked with a mound of mashed potatoes threaded with skins and the occasional potato chunk (read: no instant taters here).

Chicken fried steak was served as a dinner or breakfast entree ($11.99/$13.49). The breakfast version of the pounded steak came with a crispy breaded jacket, a blanket of country gravy and two eggs griddled the way the breakfast gods intended, with over-easy yolks spilling eggy streams onto broadly shredded hashbrowns.

Fried chicken ($13.49) crunched divine with a clingy batter teased with pepper. Three generous bone-in pieces proved enough for two eaters. A classic half-pound cheeseburger ($8.79) tasted flame-licked and had all the burger bases covered: sliced red onions, green leaf lettuce, a juicy red tomato slice and a generous swipe of mayo. Both dishes were served with something that could have been ordinary but was not: Batter-dipped fried jo-jos with a feathery interior.

Extras served with full dinners were done to a turn. Fluffy house-baked biscuits with jam. Sauteed broccoli and carrots with a touch of snap. A choice of a crispy garden salad or home-style soup. The free pie turned dinner into a screaming deal.

When was the last time you enjoyed a three-course dinner for around $11?

MARCIA’S SILVER SPOON

Info: 2601 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma; 253-472-0157. Serving breakfast and lunch daily until 4 p.m.

For more than 50 years, the bar that sits at 26th and South Tacoma Way has been in Tracie Merrell’s family. Griddle grease runs deep in her veins. She’s the third generation of family working at a building that houses twin businesses, a bar on one side and cafe on the other.

The Cliff Notes back story: Her grandmother Betty Jean Murdock ran the tavern for a few decades before adding an adjacent cafe in 1988. Murdock’s daughter, Marcia Crelling, bought the cafe in 1995 and renamed it Marcia’s Silver Spoon. Grandma retired, and Crelling’s sister, Kathy Carr, took over the tavern, the Lucky Silver Tavern.

Flash forward to the present: Kathy Carr’s son, Chris Carr, left to sprout his own diner in Lakewood, called Carr’s. Merrell is a stay-at-home mom and occasional employee at Marcia’s. Marcia and Kathy still work next door to one another, after all these years.

Marcia’s Silver Spoon is the sort of place where time has stood still. The restaurant takes only cash or checks (because credit card fees cost more than Merrell’s salary). Order tickets still are hand written. Kitchen cooks take few shortcuts, which means food service might be slower than you’d like. (That doesn’t bother me because good food rarely is made quickly.)

Find a menu of American diner classics and a weekend line that spills out the door.

The restaurant’s Smitty burger ($9.49) gets a special nod not only for execution, but for paying homage to a burger with deep Tacoma ties that appears only on a few menus. (Don’s Drive-In in Puyallup and the Goofy Goose on Sixth Avenue are the others.) That oblong burger served on a French roll tasted as good as it gets: a hand-formed patty griddled until sizzle-edged, smeared with a puckery burger sauce, stacked tall with crisp lettuce, a slice of tomato and grilled chopped onions embedded inside gooey American cheese.

The fried chicken and waffles ($10.99) included four pieces of chicken with a well-seasoned hand breading, flanked by fluffy waffles and a generous side plate of condiments: Whipped butter, Log Cabin-style syrup and a soup bowl of house-made sausage gravy. (Extra points for giving more gravy than one could possibly ever consume in a sitting.)

Go for the chicken-fried steak ($12.99) with two eggs over easy. A thinly pounded steak with a crunchy coating takes up half a platter (yes, platter, not plate) with a foundation of crispy hash browns and a generous pool of pepper-flecked sausage gravy.

If you order one meal for sharing, make it the ultimate omelet ($10.99) with two meat choices, onions, peppers, mushrooms and more. The execution showed how meticulous the kitchen is with the smallest of details. Breakfast meats and vegetables were separately griddled until each perfectly done, then tucked into the three-egg omelet with cheese. Fluffy flapjacks were the size of a dinner plate.

Merrell said her family for years has wanted to expand the restaurant to offer more seating, but that’s not possible given the building’s dimensions. This month, the restaurant did replace the booths in the middle section with tables, which means more flexible seating configurations and additional room for wheelchairs.

For diners who arrive at peak time, check out the dozen stools at the dine-in bar. There are usually one or two open.

PATTY’S BURGER

Info: 5 615 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma; 253-474-0844. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Burgers as big as your head and 2-foot hot dogs are signature items at Patty’s Burger, a retro ’50s-era burger and dog diner that opened almost five years ago.

My first brush with the burger diner was writing about its enormous Cake Burger ($29.99), a seven-patty monstrosity that only takes 10 minutes to griddle and can feed an entire family.

More modestly portioned burgers with fries are more my speed. I dug the burger loaded with mushrooms, as well as a bacon burger with American cheese. Squishy sesame seed buns held hand-pressed patties, puckery burger sauce, and crisp veggies — all at drive-thru restaurant prices, around $6.59-$7.59, with fries.

Foot-long hot dogs ($4.99-$7.50, with fries) defy description, they come in so many variations. Piled-high toppers turn them into fork-and-knife affairs.

Aside from milkshakes and soda served in jug-size glasses, the real attraction is the decor, layered all the way up to the ceiling. Find posters of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, replicas of vintage roadside signs and personal snapshots of classic cars, courtesy of restaurant regulars.

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