MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Sign of the time: Despite the glaring neon, Doc’s Little Gem Diner is no longer Open 24 Hours. Increased utility costs have forced owner Doc Good into a part-time operator.
“When the locksmith got here, there was so much corrosion around the aluminum on the lock from not being used, it took five hours to drill around it and put the new one in, which should have been a half-hour job,” says Good.
An outside smoker inadvertently kindled the fire when he tossed a still-burning butt toward the building and it became trapped behind the aluminum and wood paneling adorning the facade. No structural damage occurred, but the Little Gem was forced to close for 2½ months before reopening Thanksgiving Day to comply with ordinances imposed by health and building inspectors.
Good didn’t want to get into specifics, but says the two-month-long shutdown “cost me my ass.” One week’s worth of Little Gem income will be cast away to National Grid, he recounts.
Minor contamination by smoke residue was the only damage to the diner’s interior. “It did not affect the booths and tables or any of the equipment,” says Good. “We just had to sanitize everything and rearrange and redo the floors of the kitchen.”
During the reconditioning phase, regulars stopped by daily wondering when the diner would reopen while others unaware of the temporary shutdown were surprised to find the Little Gem, the eatery that would never close, closed. “We had 60 people come by one day, but usually it was between 25 and 30 checking up on us,” says Good, who spent those 10 weeks sleeping on a cot at the diner. “I always had coffee on the pot and welcomed them in for a free cup to keep things upbeat around here.”
On the surface, everything would appear to be business as usual again at the Little Gem. But there is one noticeable element the fire consumed that customers are still trying to deal with: time. Sadly, the former 24-hour diner has become a part-time operation. “The cost of heating and staying open 24 hours is no longer a viable solution,” Good notes.
The new hours are Mondays through Wednesdays from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.; on Thursdays, Good opens at 6 a.m. and stays open around the clock until Sundays at 10 p.m. This way the weekenders get a chance to keep the spirit of Little Gems past alive and well.
Even though the times they have a-changed, the meet-ups of strangers frequenting the diner after hours on the weekends remains the same: wandering locals finishing up late-night affairs, nighthawks rollin’ and tumblin’ out of cabs after last call, students pulling all-nighters making the grade with a little cream on the side, workers street-sweeping in off the night shift and those just waking to punch their timecard. At Doc’s the melting pot of culture is always boiling.
Little Gem’s extensive menu cooks up many delights, including breakfast staples, burgers, appetizers, desserts, seafood and dinner entrees; they’re all priced between $2 and $11. “Our eggs benedict is the most popular item on the menu,” Good says. “On Sundays, we usually serve about 30 to 40 plates of it.” At $4.55, it is available any time the diner is open.
Offering a plate of nostalgia Mondays through Thursdays, the Little Gem whips up two eggs, toast and coffee for $1.99 and there are more than 90 blue-plate specials that appear from week to week. According to Good, what has kept customers coming back for a half-century is “reasonable prices, the staff who all have a sense of a humor and an atmosphere where everybody is welcome.”
Make a B-Line
MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Seeing red: Part of the appeal of the B’ville Diner (above) and Barbieri’s is the classic padded seating, whether you park at the counter, a table or a booth.
Traveling out of the city limits, head west on Interstate 690 to find another roadside diner that has been twisting and shouting since 1950. The B’ville Diner, 18 E. Genesee St., Baldwinsville (635-3180), still elicits a Happy Days vibe with checkered floors, a full-size jukebox be-bopping golden-era rock ditties, and sea-foam green and blue accented walls gleaming as bright as the red neon rail edging the ceiling.
Open 24 hours, seven days, the all-night café, like the Little Gem, is one of “the last of a dying breed of roadside diners,” according to co-owner Mike Chemotti. As much a meeting and gathering place as an eatery, the diner serves people from all directions of life, which can create a potent but respectable mix, especially in the wee hours of the night.
“During this season, you’ll see the bar crowd encroach on the hunters in those late hours, but they’re tolerant of each other and there is very rarely, if at all, a problem,” Chemotti says of the night gallery. Depending on the state and size of the crowd, the atmosphere might loosen up and get noisy—typically on weekends—but not everyone is drinking at that hour.
“Usually, it’s people coming in for dinner after working the second shift, or people getting an early start heading to work,” he continues. “And there are regulars who come in every day at the same time and will know each other on a first-name basis.”
Their entire menu is available at all times and includes soups, salads, appetizers, breakfast combos hot off the griddle, sandwiches, steaks, seafood and pasta. Since a slice of Americana wouldn’t be complete without a cluster of burgers, B’ville Diner offers specialties like the Big Kahuna, the Big Bopper and the Comet Cyclone, which was named after the hot-rod Mercury of the early 1960s. While waiting for food to arrive, you can drop a coin into a mini-jukebox to select a song which will then stream to the sound system so the whole diner can shimmy and shake to the oldie but goodie.
Prices range from $3 to $13.50 and after the main course, the cherry on top is a hearty homemade dessert menu which features a rainbow of pies, cakes, pudding and milkshakes. Whole dessert treats are also available for sale, but require at least a day’s notice.
MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Dashboard confessional: With its location inside a truck stop, Mama Nancy’s elicits pre-conceived notions about atmosphere and quality but once inside diners like Jason Lasky, Skyler Pence and Chrissy Pence, being served by Nancy’s sister Sandy Accordino, enjoy the ambiance and the food.
Saying bye-bye to B’ville Diner’s American Pie, another all-night food joint can be found adjacent to I-690 heading back east. Mama Nancy’s, 512 State Fair Blvd. (701-4994), is located at the Cannon Truck Stop just left of the Hiawatha Boulevard on-ramp to 690 West. It’s also open 24 hours a day, year-round.
Because of their location, Mama Nancy’s traffic jams an after-midnight gridlock of hungry travelers, truckers, workers and barflies looking to make the buzz last a little longer with eggs, sausage and a side of toast.
Doug LaLone has managed the restaurant with his wife Tammy (Nancy’s daughter) for the past six years.“I’ve heard more than once people say that they were leery to come to a truck stop to eat and never really thought about stopping in,” he admits. “But once they do come in, I’ve heard it said even more times that the place is totally different than they expected.”
During the day and evening hours, the clientele leans heavily toward families. The upscale diner atmosphere features mid-scale prices on all menu items, which includes “eggs and toast to surf and turf and everything in-between,” LaLone says.
One of the more popular items is Big Anthony’s Frittata, which can be purchased for $4.50 per half order or $6.95 for the full Monty. For those looking for an appetite suppressant or a hibernation meal, the Hungry Man’s or Woman’s special also costs $6.95 and includes three pancakes, two eggs, three pieces of bacon or sausage, home fries and toast. And the kids can cast their parents as grinch-like if they don’t let them order Green Eggs and Ham for $4.95.
LaLone says the crowd from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. is really steady and the place gets mobbed after events like Party in the Plaza and the Inner Harbor Block Party. “This is one of the few places where you can see many different people from all over Syracuse gathered together, enjoying it all,” he notes.
South American Pie
The next to last stop of the late-night dining travelogue is the spiciest spot of all. Ponchito’s Taqueria, located next to Froggy’s Tavern, 3800 New Court Ave., Lyncourt (218-0294), is open Fridays and Saturdays until 3 a.m. and is prepared to ignite a fiesta of the senses for the gringos and gringas riding high out of Syracuse cantinas.
Frank Mignacca opened last February after spending a good deal of time on the road to pick up tips and tricks to set the place apart from similar restaurants. “I traveled a lot in Southern and Central America, and it’s more Latin-style food, rather than Mexican,” he says. “I try not to label this place as a Mexican restaurant because we’ll make anything from the Latin region.”
During his travels, he spent two weeks in a Peruvian village and, despite the language barrier, found a way to interact with the locals. “They knew I was a ‘bakery guy,’ as they called it. So they put me to work and we made pizza, but I told them they had to teach me a few of the Peruvian plates,” he remembers. “Most of what you’ll get here came from ideas and recipes like that.”
All of the items on the menu cost less than $6 and all meat is delivered fresh, never frozen, which Mignacca says is the key to keeping it real. Quesadillas, tacos and burritos can be made to order with chicken, seasoned pork, ground beef, steak or grilled veggies. Delivery is available to the Mattydale, North Side, Lyncourt and downtown areas with an $8 minimum purchase.
Mignacca, his three sons Frankie, Paul and Michael, and daughter Lisa comprise the staff and have no need to check the schedule each week to find out what shifts they are working. “We’ve all been here open ’til close since we opened,” Mignacca says. “On Friday we come in at 8 a.m. and we don’t leave until Saturday morning at 4 a.m.”
During the winter, Ponchito’s is open Mondays through Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Fridays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Saturdays, 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. He says they agreed when the restaurant opened that they’d put their all into it for the first year, and are just starting to think about hiring outside the family.
“The thing that we love the most is that since February, almost a year now, we haven’t had one unruly customer,” says Mignacca of the late shift. “We’ve had crazy customers, you know, guys who fall down in the parking lot or trip over tables. And one girl tried jumping over the counter because she wanted her food so bad, and it was funny more than anything.”
Claiming it’s always an upbeat atmosphere, Mignacca lets the place take its own course, literally. “I’ll let people bring in their own booze,” he says. “If someone is plenty intoxicated, they won’t be consuming any beers. But if people want to, they sit here and have as good of a time as they want.” And unlike most places with a bring-your-own policy, Ponchito’s won’t even charge an uncorking fee before allowing you to sip a cerveza or two.
MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Snooze times: Three amigos (above, left) Michael Mignacca, family friend Joe Muhl and Paul Mignacca serve large late-night appetites with substantial South of the Border fare at Ponchito’s.
If your night revolves around a downtown theme, take a short jaunt up to 350 N. Salina St. to Barbieri’s (475-5209). The Little Italy eatery is ready to accommodate late-night cravings, and is open from 10 p.m. to 2 p.m. every day. Owner Benny Barbieri mentions that many of the nighthawks who frequent his diner are readers of the Syracuse New Times. “You know, the ones who advertise in the back of your paper,” he jokes.
Really, though, a good deal of EMTs from neighboring St. Joseph’s Hospital will stop in along with cops, Centro drivers and other dawn patrollers. Then there’s the army of starving imbibers discharged after a last-call of duty from local tavern services.
Since Barbieri’s is in the boot-shaped section of North Salina Street, it’s inevitable that Italian fare is on the menu. The pizza and Italian omelets, both priced at $5.95, sear with spicy Italian sausage and are served with a side of Italian toast. If you don’t want breakfast, try the meatball or eggplant parmigiana sub for $5.25, or the popular favorite, the chicken parmigiana entree for $5.95 ($6.95 with meatballs or sausage).
There are also a number of burgers, wraps and sandwiches for the patriotic appetites of American Joes and Janes, as well as a substantial breakfast menu, which is available at all times and priced between $3 and $8. Barbieri’s is also the only late-night dining hub that serves bottled beer, perfect for economical drinkers and eaters looking for an all-in-one deal.
Tashina Schuyler, a waitress who sometimes oversees nighttime activities, says it can get a tad wild sometimes and it’s hard to separate work from having a good time. “It gets pretty lively in here after the bars close and you never know what to expect,” she continues. “There was a conga line going around here one night and it just seems there’s always something you’ll see for the first time. It’s a good time, though.” (Our only gripe about Barbieri’s is that they pre-mix their creamer, so often clumps of powder appear in your coffee. Guys, how about the creamy, real stuff, eh?) ❏