Courtesy Diner in St. Louis can be categorized as nothing but an institution to late night partiers who are looking to ward off the impending next day hangover with some greasy food served at 3:00 a.m. It's an endearing slice of culinary life to thousands of people who have eaten "Slingers", cheeseburgers and other greasy specialties over the years. I've always wanted to try the Courtesy Diner at some point and I actually had a breakfast meeting recently at the one on Hampton, not far from Forest Park.
There are two Courtesy Diner locations in St. Louis - the one on Hampton (see map); and the original location on Kingshighway (see map) which has been opened for, geez, from what I can tell, well over 50 years. In doing some research for the Courtesy Diner, I found that it was once part of a chain of little places known as either Courtesy Sandwich Shop or Courtesy Chili. There appeared to be around 30 Courtesy Sandwich Shops in New York, Maryland and a few other eastern states at one time or another. There used to be a Courtesy Diner on S. Broadway in St. Louis until the late 90's. The last one in the chain was the Kingshighway location, owned by Larry Rugg of Restaurants Unlimited, Inc.
Rugg - who also owns the Country Fixin's Restaurant in Wentzville, MO, a handful of Hen House Restaurants in Illinois, and the former O.T. Hodge Chili Shoppe in St. Louis' Union Station - opened the Hampton location in February of 1999 on the site of an old gas station. He wanted to keep the concept constant with the location on Kingshighway - open 24/7 with breakfast served anytime, a great juke box, and good comfort food at reasonable prices. It was an immediate hit with the late night dining crowd who came over from the bars in the Central West End to satisfy their alcohol fueled appetites.
Courtesy Diner's signature dish is the Slinger - two eggs, hash browns and chili on a hamburger patty. Some people like to order cheddar cheese and onions on top. Or for the people who are really hungry, the Super Slinger comes with the above along with either beef burrito or a tamale on top of everything. Actually, it sounds a lot like the Magic Mountain/Volcano from Ross' Restaurant in Bettendorf, IA which has become a late night staple for many of us here in the Quad Cities.
Courtesy Diner's main menu consists of burgers, sandwiches, chicken fried steak, and about 10 different variations of chili served plain, with macaroni, with a burrito, with a tamale, or with hash browns. Their breakfast anytime has - of course - the Slinger, as well as eggs, omelets, pancakes, french toast, and biscuits and gravy. The menu is pretty straight forward and doesn't vary all that much.
I had a 9:00 a.m. meeting with a gentleman who was looking to get into the audio business with a concept of a home entertainment system. We'd talked a couple times before and while he seemed enthusiastic about the concept, I didn't really know if it would work or not even with the drawn out business plan that he had forwarded to me before the meeting. I told him that I was staying at the Hampton Inn in Forest Park and he suggested meeting up at the Courtesy Diner. I was completely up for that.
As I walked into the Courtesy Diner, it was pure Americana in the place. John Mellencamp was playing on the juke box, a row of booths lined the windows while a row of stools sat in front of the counter. It was clean and spiffy inside, and the place was lively with some families, two couples who had driven there on motorcycles, a handful of single people sitting at the counter and other various mid-morning visitors. I took a booth in the far back of the restaurant. The waitress, who had a sore foot, hobbled over to me to drop off menus and asked if I wanted coffee from the pot she was holding. I told her, "No coffee, but I'm waiting on someone else." She hobbled back to grab another menu and sort of tossed it on the table across from me. She didn't have an attitude, I didn't think. I'm sure she was not happy having to work on a sore foot. You gotta take that in stride in places like Courtesy Diner.
With Pink Floyd now playing on the juke box, my meeting guest showed up not long after that and we exchanged pleasantries as the waitress came over with the pot of coffee. My guest heartily turned over his cup and said to me, "They actually have very good coffee here."
My first breakfast at Courtesy Diner consisted of a couple eggs over easy with a side of bacon and whole wheat toast. My guest got a bowl of their oatmeal - "I'm trying to watch my weight and Courtesy Diner has good oatmeal."
While the eggs and bacon were nothing special, it was a good value at $3.75. I had a large glass of milk that was $1.25, so my total breakfast was just over $5.00 with tax. Along with my guest's oatmeal, coffee and a tip for the waitress hobbling around on a sore foot, the total bill came to just under $11 bucks. Pretty reasonable for a breakfast meeting, I have to say. One thing to note - take cash. Courtesy Diner doesn't take credit cards.
A couple days later, I decided to go back to Courtesy Diner by myself and try one of their omelets. I ordered up a sausage and cheese omelet on this visit with a side of bacon and a glass of milk. And while the omelet was good, it was far from the best I've ever had. But it was served quickly and efficiently, allowing me to get on my way a lot quicker than I'd would had I gotten breakfast at a larger national chain.
But it's the ambiance and history of the Courtesy Diner that makes the place unique. If you know going in that the place is a greasy spoon restaurant, that helps add to the charm of the place. While the Courtesy Diner isn't going to win many culinary awards, it's still a favorite with thousands of St. Louis area residents who want breakfast at either 2:30 in the afternoon or 2:30 in the morning. I don't come across a lot of places like the Courtesy Diner in my travels, but I wouldn't mind if I did. It's not fancy, the food is serviceable. To use an over-used modern cliché - the Courtesy Diner is what it is.