Favorite diner: Here’s to a cooked-from-scratch breakfast anytime

When I told my friends I was planning to have a meatloaf omelet for dinner, the look of horror on their faces was priceless. But that’s the beauty of diner food – classic or crazy, the combinations are comfort food for someone. Whether you’re craving a burger, fries and shake for lunch, a meatloaf omelet for dinner or a slinger at 3 a.m., you can have it all at City Diner. And, as its Web site claims, it’s “a neighborhood joint,” no matter which neighborhood you call home.

Because City Diner on South Grand at Hartford is tops in the readers’ choice poll for the fifth year, I’m almost embarrassed to admit I had not previously visited it.

As I walked through the door, I was amazed by its size and welcoming vibe, with a large front dining room that gives way to an even brighter second dining room (for smokers) where guests gather at the counter or head out to the patio. Classic movie posters, framed album covers, Barbie collections and more make the walls entertaining. But it’s the people watching – couples, families with kids, a lone old man, groups of teenagers, a woman studying – that keeps things interesting.

“We have a regular clientele,” offered proprietor Peter Spoto. “Some come in daily, some even twice a day. It’s really a melting pot. I’ve worked a lot of restaurants, and this is the most diverse.” As far as the significance of “Never a Dull Moment” that’s printed on customer receipts, Spoto said, “South Grand is an unusual neighborhood where anything can happen, and it usually does. People can be a little eccentric, so when you come in you won’t be bored.”

City Diner will mark its 15th anniversary in August. Spoto started in fine dining 35 years ago and moved around a bit. He worked in Alaska before returning to St. Louis, where he looked for a place to do casual food. The little diner has been growing ever since.

“We pride ourselves on making everything from scratch – fresh-cut fries, mashed potatoes, gravy, salsa. It’s basic comfort food that brings people here,” said Spoto. And there’s plenty to choose from: an extraordinary selection of salads, sandwiches, burgers and blue-plate specials, plus two dozen breakfast items (served anytime, of course).

The slinger ($6.50) was completely satisfying, with crispy hash browns topped by a pair of sausage patties and two eggs (sunny side up are best), then covered with a generous amount of chili and finished off with Cheddar cheese. The meatloaf omelet ($6.50) was basically scrambled eggs with chunks of meatloaf, which was not extremely flavorful. (I had envisioned a slice of meatloaf, with sauce, enfolded in a fluffy omelet) But the homemade mashed potatoes and gravy on the side were delicious. The favorite was the breakfast burrito ($6.50), filled with tasty refried beans, chorizo sausage and cheese. Fresh salsa added a bright zest and complemented the eggs.

Spoto also credited his long-standing staff for City Diner’s success. “We have a real family crew and it’s a team experience,” he said.

It was obvious. Our pompadoured server, Greg Hahn, was completely friendly in a cool, nice guy kind of way. He even shared his recipe for one of the best chocolate shakes we’ve tried. The staff was constantly on the move. One guy made the rounds a dozen times, whipping his bottle of cleaner from his “holster” and spinning it like a sanitizing gunslinger.

Spoto doesn’t take his success for granted. “It makes us work harder,” he said. “We’re always striving to make ourselves better, and every year we improve.” Add to that the fact that he works with his family: His wife, Jeanne, does the bookwork and his daughter, Sophia, is a server. “She was the inspiration for this place,” Spoto shared. “I wanted something to pass on to her, and she’s why I’ve worked so hard.”