Lincoln Street Diner

Ithaca: years pass, businesses come and go, the streetscapes grow taller, our population grows, housing prices skyrocket, the farmers market becomes ever more splendid, and traffic and parking become a total nightmare. 

But some things stay the course, providing a sense of continuity and substance, and one of these, blessedly, is the Lincoln Street Diner. Tucked away at 309 E. Lincoln St., between North Aurora and North Tioga streets, for more than 50 years, owners have come and gone, names have changed (the last incarnation was Ziffy’s), but the atmosphere hasn’t altered and the food remains substantial, fresh, and relatively inexpensive, served with warmth, the de rigeur show of tattoos, and a tolerable side of attitude. 

Though even the number of city of Ithaca diners has dwindled, this local landmark has kept the hot coffee coming in heavy-walled mugs, alongside platters of fresh eggs, sheaves of bacon, and buttered toast, six days a week, week in and week out. Parking may be tight during meal times, but you can snag a spot in the next-door laundromat if you happen to be doing your laundry at breakfast or lunchtime. Or park around the corner—there’s plenty of room there. Open from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., it draws a neighborhood crowd, old-timers who know they’ll run into friends there, the above-mentioned launderers, adventurous young people, and the city grounds, streets, and utilities folks on their coffee breaks.

At a much anticipated lunch last Wednesday I sat at the counter (at 11:50 all the tables were full) and observed the ballet—a short order cook, sandwich guy, waitress, and helper, gracefully careening past one other—in the narrow corridor that separates kitchen appliances from the counter and cash register. The staff is the definitive well-oiled machine, but any tighter quarters, or a pound gained here or there, and they would have had to Vaseline their hips. Even so, they performed with good humor and efficiency.

Wednesday lunch is freshly roasted turkey with real mashed potatoes, lumps and all, gravy, stuffing, and, if you’re lucky, a blob of canned jellied cranberry sauce—comfort food at its finest for $7.25. In the 1970s, this was a draw for many of the starving artists in town, who’d meet Wednesdays to chow down and exchange tall tales and useful information. This Wednesday I ran into the Ulysses town historian, a facilities friend from Cornell, a buddy from the gym, and the fellow who originally restored the Stewart Park merry-go-round, and who now restores and repairs wheelchairs. I have no idea who all the others were, but conversation was abundant and cheerful.

Breakfast, served until 11:30 am, includes a selection of large, fluffy, well stuffed three-egg omelets, home fries, corned beef hash, breakfast sandwiches, pancakes, or, as specials, home fries and corn muffins smothered in sausage gravy or, on Saturdays, Cajun sausage gravy over biscuits. Daily luncheon specials, served until 2:00 pm, include Mondays’ meatloaf dinner, Tuesdays’ chicken and biscuits, Thursdays’ chili dogs or Texas Hots, and Fridays’ fish fry. You never know what other specials you’ll find, and the homemade soups receive raves. Among the sides are diner-classic coleslaw, cottage cheese (does anybody really order a side of cottage cheese?), applesauce, and veg du jour. And the burgers any day are wide and weighty.

The décor: well, there isn’t much and what there is is unpretentious. A sign on the kitchen wall reads “Menu Choices: Take it or Leave it.” A cartoon image of Abe Lincoln in chef’s hat, wielding a spatula, greets you in the front window, and a more refined rendering bids you farewell at the exit. Honest Abe standing in for an honest, solid, reasonably priced diner meal.

Added bonus: it’s a short walk to Ithaca Falls, which this time of year serves as a perfect visual digestif. Reservations? Don’t be ridiculous. • 

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