Before you get into the menu at Bennie the Bum’s, there’s a full-page essay on the history of the American diner that you sort of feel honor-bound to read. It’s detailed and even a little obsessive. Who opened the first diner using a second-hand railway car (actually, it seems, old horse-drawn trolley cars were used before that). Antecedents of the New England lunch wagon. Major manufacturers of diner cars.
Great stuff--rich American color, dazzling sweeps of history. Every restaurant ought to give you high-class reading matter like this, and I say that even though ultimately it makes you feel odd about eating at Bennie the Bum’s, because it gives a passionate list of criteria of a real diner, not all of which Bennie’s satisfies (viz., “If you can’t move it, it isn’t a diner.”)
Bennie the Bum’s Diner is in fact another of Orange County’s ‘40s/'50s nostalgia eateries, and a rather good one. The decor is gum-snapping Art Deco (a little too tasteful, really, for a diner) in pink and turquoise. The jukebox, loaded up with Jimmie Dorsey and Perry Como and Elvis, has “wall boxes,” those remote units for playing the jukebox from your table.
And though you can find the occasional alien bean sprout or croissant, the food really is diner stuff. Nobody’d call it gourmet fare, just American food in large portions slapped down on the plate in a faintly harried way. You can even (this is not quite authentic) get a decent cup of java.
The large breakfast menu has the usual pancakes, waffles and French toast, plus a long list of egg combos (ham and eggs, lox and eggs, even scrapple and eggs) and an omelet option--any two items from a list, like pizza toppings. I liked the eggs Benedict, a generous version with two perfectly poached eggs on a split English muffin with Canadian bacon. (Hold on--can that be American?)
The rest of the menu is mostly sandwiches, including a real model of a BLT with lots of smoky bacon in it. I’m not prepared to say whether “The Original Philadelphia Steak Sandwich” is indeed the original--I have not felt driven to study the Philly steak very deeply--but it’s major fast-food type stuff, meaning it’s meaty, cheesy, warm and messy. The thin-sliced steak with its mass of melted cheese and onions browned almost to the point of being black falls to an incredible mess in your hands. You can’t eat it as a sandwich, you can’t eat it with a fork. You’re almost obliged to shovel it into your mouth in gobs.
The half-dozen hamburgers, declared to be tributes to famous East Coast diners, are not terribly exotic: a bacon cheeseburger, a chiliburger, a burger with sauteed onions and mushrooms. They’re honest, meaty ones though. The hot dog is a big flavorful sausage, more like a bratwurst than your usual pale-pink frank.
These items are available around the clock. There are also half a dozen entrees served only from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., straight diner stuff such as liver with bacon and onions and chicken fried steak. They seem pretty good, though the pork chop is dry and excessively plain. My southern grandmother would not have accepted the southern fried chicken because of its crisp egg batter, but it’s really pretty good, moist inside and savory. Grandma didn’t know everything.
Bennie’s likes loud seasonings. The bread comes with something like garlic bread oil, only flavored with chile and oregano. The vegetable barley soup is likely to be flavored with chile and cumin too. You can get chile con carne not only as a burger or hot dog topping but also on spaghetti (that’s Cincinnati style, folks) or as a side order. It’s pretty good diner chili, mildly hot, rather cuminy and meaty. As a side order it comes under a thick layer of melted cheese and raw onions. Mine would have been a little better if it hadn’t been just lukewarm, but hey, where do you think you are, the Waldorf?
The soda fountain is surprisingly limited--I’d have expected at least three or four sundaes. At least the milkshake is the foamy old-fashioned sort made in a worn Hamilton Beach mixer, and you get the stainless steel pitcher the shake was mixed in for second helpings.
Pies and cakes are homemade. The pies have the real American crust restaurants rarely make anymore because it doesn’t have “shelf life.” I wish I could say it was great crust, but actually it’s a little tough, though I give them points for it anyway. There’s a mainstream home-style (that is, Duncan Hines-ish) chocolate cake, quite moist, and an extravagant carrot cake, quite crowded with walnuts and coconut.
Bennie’s is an odd mix--slightly tarted-up decor, the menu essay with its hard-breathing romanticism about the folksy diner (trust me, if you want your place to become a sociable hangout with a spontaneous sense of community you shouldn’t go on about it) and rowdily enjoyable food at reasonable prices (everything is $2.75-$6.95). Bennie’s OK--not respectable, maybe, but not really a bum.
BENNIE THE BUM’S DINER 238 Laguna Ave., Laguna Beach
Open 24 hours. No credit cards.