Is there a type of restaurant so tied to a particular time and place in history as The Diner? Hearing the word conjures images from a bygone era – an era of flick-knives, rock & roll, slick pompadours and McCarthyism. I am of course, talking about Leeds circa 2012 – when Fieri’s Law was passed.
Named after amateur wrestler lookalike/ska-punk uncle Guy Fieri – presenter of TV’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives – the statute imposed that at least 50% of existing restaurants in Leeds – as well as any new openings – must carry the same branding and decor as a branch of TGI Friday from 1994 or a high school production of Grease – with a menu to match.
Following a complete refurbishment of the place some time early last year, Ruby Jean’s popped up in the kitchen of Nation of Shopkeepers. It had always been there, mind you – and it had always been serving some of the best bar food and Sunday Roasts in Leeds – it just didn’t have a name or a logo. Freelance graphic designers, fine art students and future unpaid interns would spend 5 nights a week at unfeasibly cool gigs, projected-illustration-post-dubstep events, and ahead-of-the-curve hip hop nights which somehow managed to dish out free fried chicken and kool-aid while avoiding accusations of cultural appropriation.
People grow up though, and venues change to suit their audience, and M&B – the brewery that owns Nation of Shopkeepers and her wacky-named sisters around the country – were proactive in shifting the focus onto food rather than events. While the service is better than before – the new, airy ambience seems to have either cheered up the old stroppy staff, or driven them further underground – the menu is largely the same; fried chicken is still here, but it costs £8 now; and you eat it while sat at a table, rather than dancing around on one to Project Pat – so we gave it a miss. We ate a Matador – a small pan of £8 Mac & Cheese with Chorizo which was too soft, not baked enough, and it might have heard stories about something called “seasoning” a long time ago, that’s all they were; stories. The cauliflower cheese – £5 cheaper at £2.95 – is a small moment of joy; baked properly, with cheese on top; seasoned well, and the vegetable has more bite and flavour that the pasta. It’s only available on Sunday though.
The burger section of the menu is pretty absurd – a Pickled Onion Monster Munch, Emmental and Thousand Island Dressing variant stands out as particularly misjudged; rather than a bit of lo-fi nostalgic gastronomy it reminded me of The Simpsons (as most things do) when Homer – left to prepare breakfast in Marge’s absence – puts together a dish from cupboard leftovers; a bottle of cloves, Tom Collins mix, and frozen pie crust. You can also get Monster Munch as an extra topping on any burger, at an ever-so reasonable £1 for three crisps.
The painful Hippy Burger – a dry concoction of spiced lentils resembling amusement park-sawdust – was left mostly uneaten, as were 3 of the 4 Sliders; the patties in which were overcooked, hard-shelled aardvarks of minced beef topped with a pulled pork which resembled luncheon meat. I don’t know how in 2014 – when Burgers are so ubiquitous that they’re no longer a food, but a talisman; a punchline, almost; of a movement – anybody is still managing to get them quite so wrong. There’s a BOGOF deal on them every Tuesday though, which is worth bearing in mind if you’re ever in the mood for two terrible burgers.
The Chicken Wings, “smoked, with BBQ sauce” showed no sign of smoking, and even less of being saucy – the boffins. They had the sort of bitter, carcinogenic taste that you’d expect from a festival disposable BBQ, I managed two of them before offering them up to the rest of the table, where they sat unclaimed until our table was cleared some time later. And that was that, the bill (including drinks) came to £68.50 which – considering the majority was unpleasant or inedible – didn’t seem like particularly good value for money at all.
Somehow – inexplicably – rebranding Nation of Shopkeepers from “fun bar with fun kitchen” to a dedicated “Diner” has been detrimental to the quality of the food. The other possibility is that the food has always been this bad; but we were all just having too much fun to care.
Meat Sharer £12.50
Cauliflower Cheese £2.95
Pickled Onion Monster Munch etc etc Burger £9.45
Hippy Deluxe £8.95
7 x Pepsi £21