When the Whistle Stop opened 41 years ago, diners could hear a nearby locomotive's whistle, alerting passengers that their ride was approaching the train station down the street, now the site of the Big Rock Chop House. Over the years, though the ownership has changed hands a few times, this venerable diner remains much the same as it did in 1965. A year and a half ago, it was purchased by Matt Rafferty.
Metro Times: What makes a diner a diner, rather than a restaurant?
Matt Rafferty: The word diner derives from dining car. The diners date back to the late 1800s when food was served from horse-drawn covered wagons. Diners actually started out in train cars. The primary method of transportation was by rail and people had to eat while they were traveling. Now I think that diners are about the food and the atmosphere and the price. There definitely are theme diners, whether it's a train theme like the Whistle Stop or old-fashioned '50s style diners.
MT: I'm told that your diner was designated one of the top 10 diners in the United States. What makes the Whistle Stop special?
Rafferty: Last year we were voted among the top 10 diners in the country by Good Morning America. They came out and did a live broadcast. Eighty per cent of our customers are regulars. Our waitresses look out the window and see a regular customer parking his car across the street and they put in an order for his cinnamon roll French toast and a large OJ. By the time he walks in the door, his food is on the grill. It's kind of like a Cheers atmosphere. Everyone knows each other. It's not a place for people who want to be a part of the "scene", but it's about a comfortable, friendly happy place to be.
MT: This place has an old-time relaxed feeling. Does that translate into easy-to-run?
Rafferty: I don't think any restaurant is easy to run. I've been in the culinary hospitality field for a good part of my life. I was a cook out east on Nantucket Island at a four star restaurant. And I'm also a customer to many restaurants where I like to eat. I translate what I like into my own place. I'm a foodie just like you. Is it easy to run? No!
MT: What changes have you made or do you plan to make?
Rafferty: People don't want to come into a worn-out, dirty place to eat. One of the first things I did when I bought the restaurant was to clean it up, reupholster the booths and put on a coat of paint. I'm always trying to tweak the menu. There are regulars who've been coming here for 40 years who expect the same food. But I try different dinner specials from time to time. I've opened up a bakery next door where we make pies, birthday cakes, brownies, pastries and cookies. We opened an ice cream shop serving Stucchi's ice cream out of Ann Arbor. We're making shakes and floats, all the stuff you associate with an old-time ice cream parlor. I'm not planning to make too many changes to the decor. You do have to stay ahead of the game in this business. The growth in this area has been phenomenal.
MT: The word diner, to me, is somewhat synonymous with comfort food. Is that accurate?
Rafferty: Absolutely. Homemade soups, sandwiches, fresh roasted turkey and baked ham. If you want a turkey sandwich that tastes like what you make with Thanksgiving leftovers, we've got it here made on white or wheat bread that we bake here. Macaroni and cheese too. Our omelets are fluffy. Our portions are huge. I think that should be a prerequisite for calling yourself a diner.
MT: What are your favorite dishes here that you would recommend to a first-time guest?
Rafferty: My favorite dish here is our chicken pot pie. I like our Bananas Foster French Toast. Great chicken noodle soup.
MT: Are there any other diners that you love or that you researched before buying the Whistle Stop?
Rafferty: Truthfully, I never did any research. I was planning to start selling cheese steak sandwiches at festivals and events. One of my vendors told me that this place was for sale. Three weeks later I owned it. I haven't had time to look back.
The Whistle Stop is at 501 S. Eton St. in Birmingham. Open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Hours differ at the bakery and the Stucchi's ice cream shop next door. Call 248-641-5588 for information.Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]