It's breakfast time at Ruthie and Moe's midtown diner, and the place is filling up with its usual cross section of humanity. Short, heavyset guys with white hair and Eastern European accents rub elbows with businesswomen clutching leather briefcases as they squeeze into vinyl booths. Meantime, at the counter, some of Cleveland's finest men (and women) in blue sip their coffee cheek-by-jowl with a fellow who stares vacantly out from under long, greasy hair.
Even Mick Jagger and Chrissie Hynde have eaten here, along with lesser-known rockers coming or going from the nearby Agora or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Kevin Bacon, Callista Flockhart, and other cast members from the movie Telling Lies in America have done the same. Like the rest of Ruthie and Moe's customers, they were drawn here by the promise of old-fashioned, home-cooked chow and the nostalgic setting.
This is food for people who like diner food: nothing fancy and lots of it. Five days a week, Ruthie Helman is back in the diner's crowded kitchen, flipping pancakes, roasting turkey breasts, making gravy, and brewing up soups. Baker Claire Murphy works beside her, turning out fresh muffins and thick, flaky-crusted pies. Out front, Moe Helman fills coffee cups, takes away dirty plates, and shares friendly banter with the slew of regulars who stop by several times a week.
Although Moe says he both loves and hates the demanding business that he and Ruthie have owned since 1989, the twinkle in his eyes belies any serious discontent. He says he gets a boost--even a sort of spiritual fulfillment--from feeding his customers, almost as though he was nurturing a whole crowd of hungry children every day.
Plus, he's clearly a guy with an eye for diner history. He can rattle off the pedigrees of the two vintage diners he brought together to shelter his restaurant, the way a proud daddy tells you his offspring's accomplishments.
The first diner, which was hauled to the corner of Prospect Avenue and East 40th in 1940, is a 1938 Jerry O'Mahoney, built in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and outfitted in Hartford, Connecticut. The bullet-shaped, stainless steel beauty has a domed silver ceiling, a black-and-white mosaic-tiled floor, black booths, and a full-length black marble counter.
Three years ago, Moe parked a 1956 Kullman diner that he found in Pennsylvania behind the Jerry O'Mahoney and connected the two. The addition of the more modern Kullman, with its turquoise-colored booths and a concave ceiling illuminated with recessed pink and gold lights, doubled the restaurant's seating capacity from forty to eighty and made room for a lobby and a kitchen expansion.
Beginning at 6 o'clock each weekday morning, that kitchen cranks out an array of venerable diner foods. For breakfast, try Ruthie's honest-to-goodness blueberry pancakes. Lacy and just slightly crisp around the edges, they are full of plump berries and so sweet and buttery that they hardly need the addition of pancake syrup.
For an extra treat, order a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice along with the short stack. For those of us raised on reconstituted frozen concentrate, the sweet juice, full of pulp and with just a hint of bitter citrus oil, is always a revelation.
Grits is on the breakfast menu, too. Ruthie makes it moist and smooth, with nary a lump. Although unadorned grits may be one of the world's blandest foods, it makes a tasty, stick-to-your-ribs addition to a meal when treated to a pat of butter and a sprinkling of salt and pepper.
Around 10:45 a.m., the menu changes over to lunch foods. In addition to daily specials (Fish Fry every Friday and meatloaf on Thursdays), there are choices like homemade soup and chili, burgers, and that pinnacle of culinary Americana, French fries with gravy.
Here is the perfect antidote for pale, fast-food fries: a steaming plateful of long, golden potato strips, fresh-cut and still wearing their skins, swimming in thin, almost translucent turkey gravy. While the first few mouthfuls are delicious, the real treat comes after the gravy has soaked into the fries, turning them into sort of a salty custard or, as my fellow chowhound describes it, "crisp mashed potatoes." This is not good for you, but it is very, very good.
The flavorful gravy is a by-product of the fifteen to twenty turkey breasts that Ruthie roasts each week. Whittled into juicy slices, those breasts come to rest on nice, soft, commercial white bread and are cuddled down under a blanket of that smooth, hot gravy. Sided by fries and a little plastic cup of cole slaw, it's a lunch fit for a diner king.
Burgers are also an option, although none of them are fancy. Moe's Burger is just an all-beef hamburger patty topped with barely sauteed onions and buttery mushrooms, and accompanied by a little plastic tub of rich sour cream. Ruthie's Burger is even more fundamental: the same patty topped with your choice of Swiss, cheddar, or mozzarella cheese and served with lettuce, tomato, and a pickle.
With those burgers, thick, cold, and creamy milkshakes or malts are almost a mandate. No gummy-tasting, grainy, low-fat, ice-milk drinks here: Ruthie and Moe's shakes are made with whole milk and Cleveland's own Pierre's ice cream. They come to you still in their stainless-steel blender containers, so you can savor the abundance of pouring them, repeatedly, into a tall glass.
Of course, like most of their fellow aging Baby Boomers, Ruthie and Moe know that sometimes you have to eat healthy. So in addition to meat and potatoes, they offer several vegetarian and relatively low-fat options.
There's a meatless Garden Burger, topped with melted mozzarella, shredded lettuce, tomato, onion, and a tangy honey-mustard sauce. And for those who want to feel downright virtuous--at least by diner standards--there's the Three-Cheese Pita: a loaf of white pita bread lined with melted Swiss, mozzarella, and cheddar, and stuffed with raw red onion rings, tomatoes, mushrooms, and cucumbers.
A cardboard sign over the counter proclaims, "Ruthie says homemade soup will cure anything." After a few servings of her mild chicken broth surrounding a tender-but-firm matzo ball, I have come to believe she is right. The big, shallow bowl of soup comes prettily sprinkled with chopped parsley, presumably so diners get some vitamins along with their Jewish penicillin.
Ruthie takes responsibility for the Beatles posters that decorate the diner walls, while Moe gets the credit for the oldies that fill the countertop jukeboxes. Ranging from Billie Holiday to Elvis Costello, with plenty of Beatles and Supremes thrown in for good measure, the jukebox selections play all day and form the background track for Ruthie and Moe's weekday lives.
For dessert, guests can choose from an assortment of pies, cakes, and puddings. Although I was disappointed in a bowl of dry rice pudding I sampled on one visit, I loved the big wedge of Claire Murphy's apple pie that I tried on another stop. The thick filling tasted of fruit, sugar, and cinnamon, and the crust was delicate and flaky. Topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and slapped down on the counter by a waitress who calls you "Hon," it's an authentic slice of American life.
Moe says Cleveland restaurateur Kenny King worked in this very spot (then known as the ABC Diner) during the 1940s, before he founded his chain of burger joints. And in a way, Moe says, people's tastes seem to have come full circle since that time.
"For a while, people were saying nobody eats meat anymore," he observes. "But folks seem to have gotten tired of all that trendy stuff. They are back to eating hamburgers again. And I'm here to serve them."
You've said a mouthful, Brother Moe. Now pass the gravy.
Ruthie and Moe's Diner
4002 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland. 216-431-8063. Open Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.; carryout available.
Short stack of Blueberry Pancakes (2), $2.75
Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice, $1.35
French Fries with Gravy, $2
Matzo Ball Soup, $2.75
Hot Turkey Sandwich, $6.25
Three-Cheese Pita, $4.25
Moe's Burger, $5.50