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593 High Street, Northcote, 9486 5417
My score: 3.5/5
Authenticity is all very well but it’s not always a clincher when it comes to eating out. Sookie La La calls itself a diner and its logo is a silhouette of a squat glass coffee pot, prompting visions of waitresses in monogrammed aprons calling people ‘hon’ as they deliver ‘cawfee’ and apple pie. The image is cute but I don’t really want to drink that stewed drip coffee. Luckily, Sookie La La hasn’t bolted itself to the American dream so they serve fresh filter coffee (a bottomless cup, if you like), good espresso and tweaked versions of American dishes. Authenticity plays second fiddle to awesomeness and that’s just as it should be.
The diner is small, handsome and air-conditioned with an old-fashioned mom and pop mood and tunes from antique crooners on the stereo. Three generous timber booths take up most of the room; there’s a broad bar for sipping sodas with sweethearts. The menu plucks from the New York diner repertoire, along with Tex Mex dishes and southern favourites. There’s a tendency to the rich, carb-loaded and filling, expressed eloquently in the cornmeal hoe cakes. These pert, springy pancakes come with whipped cream and maple syrup but it’s the glorious smoked apple butter that turns them into one of the more intense breakfasts you’ll ever have.
Bagels come with toppings both classic (smoked salmon, peanut butter and jam) and cool (jalapeño with cheese) and the sandwiches are fabulous. The Rachel (pastrami on rye with sauerkraut and a creamy dressing) is as easy to love as free tickets to a Broadway show, while the cheese steak elevates a Philadelphia staple from squidgy to sophisticated by stuffing a crusty baguette with roasted peppers plus the compulsory sliced steak, onions and provolone cheese.
Nostalgia kicks in bigtime with the drinks and sweets. Ice-cream spiders are made with Mexican soft drinks and shake flavours include zesty lime slice and cherry ripe. Sundaes are built to swoon over: the chocolate royale is topped with salty butter popcorn and a vegan extravaganza layers silky coconut sorbet and berry lime sauce in a chunky glass. The team features savvy ex-Small Block crew, though busy times can see service slip. Even so, Sookie La La is quaint and eminently likeable and, luckily, has a much sunnier disposition than its name.
Belle’s Diner, 150 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 9077 0788
New-style diner food and cocktails are the deal here. Try the sodas, the southern fried chicken and the kale salad with anchovy dressing.
Trunk Diner, 275 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Diner dishes often mean fried and fatty but there are good, fresh chopped salads here, along with burgers, hot dogs, and sticky winners like pecan pie. The Golden Gaytime milkshake deserves a mention too.
Freestone’s Roadhaven, 85 Great Ocean Road, Aireys Inlet, 5289 6220
The 60s theming here is immaculate but the menu mixes Americana classics with Aussie eats like chicken parma and toasties. There’s a car museum to swoon over too. Worth a stop, but book ahead.
First published in The Age, February 16, 2013.