If you sent the Lee Road diner cars through some sort of magical car wash, what would come out the other end is the Katz Club Diner. Scrubbed clean of a decade's worth of failure, the twin carriages are now polished to a brilliant sheen and primed to coast well into the future.
"This time is different," I find myself telling neighborhood pessimists who, like me, have lived through five—five!—different iterations there in just over 10 years. Starting with Dottie's Diner and ending with Favor Bistro, the rail cars have been a festering wound where the dreams of pie-eyed entrepreneurs went to die.
This time is different, most notably because of the man behind the glowing neon sign. Doug Katz has been operating the consistently outstanding Fire Food and Drink at Shaker Square for a year longer than all the previous failed diners combined. He has established a reputation—a brand, really—for impeccable food, professional service, and spotless spaces. Wisely, he's elected to operate only one half of the complex as a diner, reserving the other half as the "Bar Car" (see Drink, page 55).
Walking into the 45-seat diner car, it's clear that the "Doug Katz Way" is in full effect. The chrome is brighter, the glass clearer, and the linens crisper. It's a hell of a lot more comfortable, too. Gone are the days of contorting oneself into an unforgiving booth, or teetering precariously atop a backless barstool. These days, guests dine comfortably at proper tables, cushy chairs and high-backed stools.
At its core, a diner should be a neighborhood place where one can plop down any time of day and find something that really hits the spot. Apart from being too busy to actually "plop down any time of day," that defines Katz Club to a T. The menu spans all meals and moments, starting with coffee cake and ending with pie a la mode. In between are breakfast, lunch, dinner and "breakfast all day," the sweetest phrase in the English lexicon.
On the menu you'll find comfort food – not "comfort food with a twist." There are no tongue-in-cheek names with mile-long descriptions, just recognizable dishes like eggs Benedict, corned beef hash, chicken salad sandwich and meatloaf with mashed potatoes. That's not to say that any of it is ordinary; bacon and sausage are made in house, meats are roasted on site, biscuits, buns and bread are baked right here, and the desserts, well, you get the idea. If he's not making it, chances are good Katz is buying it from somebody darn close.
In the morning, a well-tended coffee bar dispatches cups of locally roasted espresso, cappuccino and French press coffee. If you're on your way to work, just pop into the small café and select from an array of fresh-baked pastries, elegantly displayed in spotless glass cake stands. Doughnuts, muffins, danish, coffee cake and even wee little homemade "pop tarts" are all ready and waiting.
Sit down to dig into a tall stack of six-inch blueberry pancakes ($11), crisp-edged, buoyant and hot off the griddle. They're served with whipped butter and real maple syrup. A description might have been helpful on the corned beef hash ($12) because I never expected it to be bogged down with cheese. But apart from that, the dish is delish, with hash browns, over-easy eggs and chewy nubbins of corned beef. Some items, like eggs, omelets, waffles and pancakes, are available until close.
The lunch menu is composed of picture-perfect club sandwiches ($12), all-beef hotdogs ($8) and patty melts ($12). Soups like chicken noodle ($5), matzo ball ($6) and clam chowder join Greek and wedge salads
I can't say enough about the chicken a la king ($15), an entrée. It's like a free-form chicken pot pie, with the creamy filling ladled over fluffy waffles rather than baked into a crust. Amazingly, Katz uses chicken "oysters," the dark nuggets that cooks normally keep for themselves. Turkey ($17) is brined, roasted and smothered in gravy. The meat is remarkably moist and flavorful—a rarity. It's served Thanksgiving style with stuffing and chutney.
Some dishes seem built for Katz' older clientele, like a barebones baked trout ($18), lightly breaded and served with coleslaw. Other items just needed tweaks, like pale onion rings ($4), pulled from the fryer a minute too soon, or potato pancakes ($5), fried too long before service.
But these are just minor issues, far from the train wrecks that doomed a handful of previous operators.