One thing I really enjoy is eating at new-to-me establishments. A few years back, I had started using the hashtag #ExplorationSaturday to track my adventures as I set out to try things outside of my normal weekend routines. The more homegrown the venue, the more it speaks to me. Even when I’m traveling, I tend to seek out the experience of the intersection of one place and one moment that cannot, and likely will not, ever be replicated.
A roadside diner with a worn neon sign, or a neighborhood corner spot with gingham curtains will lure me in more easily than a chain. In general, I try to make eye contact with other people as I’m speaking with them (like fellow human beings), and servers, cashiers, and other restaurant staff usually respond positively to this. My business seems appreciated even more so. My eyes, ears, and nose absorb every sensory detail. I always hope that a few discretely snapped photographs will help me remember what I was thinking and feeling during that one, fleeting meal.
I spent many years in Tampa, Florida starting in the mid-1990s, and from what I remember of that time, there were many such places in that beautiful, historic city like the Three Coins Diner in the Seminole Heights district. For whatever reason, I had never eaten a single meal there when I was a poor college student. It probably wasn’t a factor that this little restaurant wasn’t anywhere near campus, as I had honed my skills in identifying places all over Hillsborough County where my dollar could be stretched as far as possible.
The prices at the Three Coins are and were such that I could have taken a break from my one-time, normal diet of store-brand macaroni-and-cheese, canned tuna, and Doral menthol lights to indulge myself here for maybe one meal a week. The truth is that I had probably never eaten at this diner prior to a visit back to Tampa Bay in 2013, the year of these photographs, simply because there were other places to go, or different spots that others in my party might have preferred.
Eating alone in my 20s was different than doing so in my 40s, which I chalk up to independent adulthood still being such a novel thing back then that input from and interaction with other people was still very much a priority for me at that earlier time in my life. If you’re fortunate, you’re a much more fully formed person later on and can enjoy silence and your own company that much more easily. I value time by myself, especially when I’m trying to absorb a new experience without the fear of displeasing others who may not appreciate being there as much as me.
In scanning the menu for a late lunch in a time and place before the regular reading of Yelp reviews was even on my radar, I asked myself what seemed like a safe bet. I was feeling like trying something new and didn’t necessarily want to get a basket of fish and chips, chicken fingers, a quarter pound hamburger, or some other universal staple. I wasn’t feeling quite as adventurous as some of the things I saw on the menu, but I felt like having some chicken. Of course, any of the aforementioned dishes can be prepared and served in a way such that a cook can put his or her unmistakable mark on it, but that’s actually the point of this essay as it relates to our featured car.
One could say that the newly downsized 1977 full-sized cars from Chevrolet were like chicken on the menu of what was available for purchase in the late 1970s. It still often makes me chuckle when in response to being asked what some exotic creature tasted like as food, people will opine that it “tasted like chicken”. I suppose that this is often said because chicken is a source of protein that’s ubiquitous across many restaurants and households. The new, smartly shrunken big cars from GM seemed to set the template for many cars that followed, including Ford’s Panther-platform cars and Chrysler’s new R-Bodies, both of which arrived for ’79. The right-sized Impala and Caprice, of which almost 662,000 were sold in all forms their first, ’77 model year, was perhaps the most “chicken-like” and universal of all cars on United States roads in the late ’70s.
Poultry can be prepared in a myriad of ways, and I love all kinds of chicken. Baked chicken, fried chicken, marinated chicken, strips, pieces, and nuggets, etc. are all alright with me. I don’t remember if my sandwich had particularly blown me away with its ingredients and preparation as listed on the menu, but it looked intriguing and different enough from what I was used to, which nudged me to order it. I was raised to eat what was placed in front of me, not to waste food or money, and also to actually try a new-to-me thing before making a judgement.
The owner of this Caprice had outfitted his straight-bodied example with shiny red paint (a tomato sauce base?), nice chrome rocker panel moldings that reflected the pavement below (basil?), and big wheels, which could be likened to generous portions of bacon, as on my sandwich. Is there too much wheel under those wells? Was there too much bacon on my sandwich? To answer the latter, there is never too much bacon on anything. Full stop. Too much of a good thing is said to be bad for you, and I will reluctantly concede that this is true, even in the case of my favorite cured meat. This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy a small pile of greasy, delicious bacon from time to time as I otherwise try to eat right and stay healthy. I am human, and life is short.
My point, though, is that this bent-glass Caprice coupe is this gentleman’s dish, and he can put as much “bacon” on it as he wants. He ordered that meal. You didn’t. What sense does it ever make to disparage food you don’t have to eat, or a car you don’t have to drive? With that out of the way, my open-faced sandwich was, well, interesting and flavorful, in a mostly positive way. Was I glad I ordered it? Yes! It seemed like a great choice in keeping with my attempt to soak up more local color in the beautiful, multicultural city which helped form me in young adulthood. Would I order something different off the menu instead, the next time I return? That would also be a yes. The important thing is that I would return to the Three Coins, and also that my mind remains open to trying new things, even if they’re outside of my usual preference.
Seminole Heights, Tampa, Florida.
Friday, May 17, 2013.