Dean’s Diner, Braintree

I have no idea who Dean is, if ever there was a Dean, but his diner chain is yet another bash at that old chestnut, the retro 50s-style American diner.

It is almost certainly owned and run by a corporate organisation trying to create a candy floss dining experience without substance.  Look around and you’ll find dozens of them around the Yoo-Kay, with their chrome fittings, vinyl-covered chairs, burger-and-fries menus and pretty waitresses in flouncy uniforms.  Maybe they think we Brits have a thing about American Graffiti, Porkys and the like?  Dean’s website has the answer:

Live The American Dream!

At Dean’s we bring you the spirit of the 50’s classic American Diner, serving the best burgers, ribs, shakes and fries in town. Open every day, all day from breakfast all the way through.

Alas, this branch of Deans pastiche diner is not on Route 66 but on a retail park not far from Cineworld and Freeport in Braintree (ie. deepest, darkest Essex.)  However, I remember vividly eating at a very much more authentic diner called the Cruisers Cafe in Williams, Arizona – very much on Route 66.  I have no serious expectations that Braintree will ever compete with Williams.

So why, I hear you ask, did a friend and I go there for lunch one Friday afternoon.  Two reasons: my companion suggested we have a bit of late lunch after going to the cinema, and of the row of chain restaurants nearby the only one I had not tried was Deans.  Reason two is that another friend had recently been to Dean’s for a milk shake, and heavily recommended said shakes.

Immediately I remembered that dialogue in the Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene from Pulp Fiction, with John Travolta questioning Uma Thurman about her 5-dollar milk shake.  I do like shakes, especially those with vanilla and/or banana, particularly my own, so it was worth a try.  I hate to admit that kind of link, since it implies an emotional link with comfort food, but on this one occasion I gave in to it (blush.)  My bad.

My biggest problem with diners such as this is that they are inherently lazy and fail to innovate in order to deliver a quality product – looking at the genuine home-made comfort food on show in authentic America diners, then compare and contrast.

For example, it’s all too easy to do a me-too cheap, soft, sweet burger bun from a factory somewhere than get proper bread with flavour and texture, but if it’s good enough for McD‘s then they get away with it, and that’s without considering the quality of the meat, which in this case has been produced without love or care in a factory.  Wrong, very wrong.

Looking at Dean’s menu you suspect there is a management team who thought it easier to just do burgers, fries, ribs, hot dogs, chicken wings, chilli, nachos, wraps, breakfasts and shakes than to put imagination into the products on sale.  Yes, you can buy assorted toppings but what’s new there? A tad anglicised but otherwise much the same as you would find at any of these joints, and every dish without exception warmed through from the freezer – nothing whatever cooked from scratch.

So to the shakes: we both chose a concoction labelled “Prohibition Colada”, effectively piña colada without the rum, though you can also buy a variant made with Malibu.  This was a £4.20 milk shake, and had to be pretty damn good to justify its price tag.  As with other diners, it was mixed fresh and came in a glass topped with canned squeezy cream and raspberry syrup (points deducted), plus the remainder in the conical metal mixing jug.  Very nice too, with vanilla ice cream, canned pineapple and coconut milk added.

The food was a bit of a mixed bag, though as we pointed out to the friendly and efficient waitress, somewhat below American portion size.  At least there was a free refill of coffee, one innovation from the States that I would welcome everywhere but which never seems to have taken off.

My friend ate: “MISSISSIPPI CHILLI DOG: Giant hot dog served with our classic chilli con carne and our cheese sauce.”  From the small bite I had, the hot dog seemed quite robust and flavoursome, properly smoked at least.  As mentioned elsewhere, I have an issue with what these places describe as “cheese sauce”, and  I would not have described it as “giant” by comparison with the real American deal, but my friend did seem to enjoy her dog and her side order of sweet potato fries.

My “PULLED BEEF WRAP” consisted of “pulled beef with roasted red peppers and our cheese sauce, flour tortilla wraps, all served with griddled onions, sour cream, lettuce and tomato with tortilla chips and spicy tomato salsa on the side.”  All stuff you can buy in cheaply off the shelf, though I was slightly mystified why it was pulled beef, not pork.  Seems the porky version will be following shortly.

The wrap was well-filled, though more with lettuce and the other stuff than beef.  Nevertheless, it was a reasonable product for £6.95.  I wish there had been an option to swap the tortilla chips for fries, but I’m not going to make a song and dance about it.

OK then, Dean’s Diner is not what I’m going to choose for somewhere special.  It was a fair lunch with a good shake.  It could stand out a bit more and sell more up-market fresh grub from fresh ingredients, but for its demographic the chain evidently pulls in the punters and gets the required ROI.  I do wish they cared a bit more about the quality of food, but commoditisation is where it’s at, sad to say, though I shall carry on with my quest to make chains put quality, seasonal freshness and giving the consumer a new and better value experience before all else.

I’d wager none of the burgers, ribs, wings, chilli, pulled beer, dogs or anything were manufactured from raw materials on the premises – and even salads were probably poured from a factory-sealed bag.  The owners would doubtless say diners don’t give a toss but to me that is a prime indicator of love and care for quality and authenticity, neither of which feature strongly when lazy clichés will do fine.

If you do go to Dean’s, remember that you can copy the outward signs of Americanism without ever capturing the essence of American culture.  For that you need the real thing, and if you want to see how the real thing is done in the US of A, start with Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network ;).

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