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But like I said before, that's what you want at a place like this, and what Huddle House serves is traditional American diner food: breakfast platters, burgers built for two hands, chicken-fried steak. There's a fast-food feel to the presentation, though. Salad dressings are in plastic squeeze packets, and the dinner of fried shrimp (at least that's what the round, crunchy fried nuggets are supposed to be) rolls off the line with a sealed plastic container of Marzetti's cocktail sauce.
The burgers are unexceptional. The patty melt is a mushy imitation of the real thing. And the scrambled eggs have the color and consistency of something forgotten from a morning buffet.
Still, it's hard not to root for Huddle House. The service is cheery (if not very attentive), and the $14 breakfast platter is so generous that it doesn't leave room on the table for your elbows. It's not one plate, baby, but six — at one meal, my friend had to set the waffle (not very fluffy but very sweet) on a windowsill while he tackled the eggs, the sausage and the crisp bacon. Then he went to work on the cheese-covered hash browns, a biscuit smothered in cream gravy (bland) and a chewy patty of chicken-fried steak (with another thick helping of that gravy). The meal also included grits and gravy, but they mercifully never showed up.
At Anthony Sosa's new diner, the former Nichols Lunch space is miraculously clean, and the servers really know what they're doing. Among them is the quick-witted Bill Johnson, who has worked in almost every restaurant in town; all are quick to refill coffee cups, water glasses, soda tumblers — and, soon, cocktail glasses. For the first time in this old venue's history, it's getting a bar.
A stiff drink might come in handy if you're trying to take on the "meatloaf muffin." I had never heard of such a thing until I dined at Sosa's, and I hope never to see one again. Yes, it's a traditional ground-beef meatloaf, baked in a muffin tin and served in a soup cup. The one I sampled had an exterior so tough that I could have fired it from a cannon.
There's some exceptional food here, though: a creamy mac and cheese and a damn good chili. And I would order the fried chicken again. At Sosa's, you get a deep-fried bird that's moist and meaty under a crust with just the right amount of crunch.
Sosa's serves juicy, perfectly grilled burgers, a surprisingly authentic Reuben and a few well-executed Mexican dishes. The huevos rancheros can be ordered day and night (and should be — they're terrific), as can all of the breakfast dishes. The pancakes are airy and fluffy, and the biscuits can be had with gravy that features ample sausage bits. The cinnamon rolls are fresh and thickly iced.
Desserts here could use some work. The carrot cake looks house-made (and the waitress insisted it was, though most of the desserts here are outsourced), but my slice was as dry as the Sahara. (I'd be happy to see Sosa's offer Golden Boy pies, a staple of classic diners.)
The glory days of the all-night diner are long gone, and perfection isn't coming back to the form. Over the years, my memories of Nichols Lunch have taken on an unrealistic burnish that sometimes keeps me from admitting that the place was an absolute dump. But if the best diners are made for the imagination, then Sosa's has a good chance. It exudes the same lovable qualities that I found at Nichols, and the food is a hell of a lot better. And what of Huddle House? It's not lovable — not yet — but it's likable enough at 3 a.m. The crowd is a lot more interesting at that hour than it is during the Today show's time slot, and someone even remembered to bring out my grits.