Seeking food, and finding Dino
He asked us how to spell "ambrosia." In a heavy accent we'd later learn was Greek, he shouted above the head of the paper-goods salesman to our table by the window. "A-m-b-r-o-s-i-a," I piped up. "Ah, yes, thank you! Thank you so very much," he said. "God bless America," He then returned to the argument he was having about the cost of Styrofoam cups.
My husband, Chris, and I were on the last leg of a 4,000-mile motorcycle tour of the Southwest, heading back to Indiana. Two days on flat Kansas asphalt had seemed like two weeks. Silos. Farmland. Silos. Farmland. It was hot. We were tired.
Time for a gas stop before hitting the Interstate. Across the parking lot from the gas station, the sun beat down on a building no bigger than a boxcar. "DINER" stretched across the front of the building in big, red, capital letters. A place obviously designed for the motorist long before Interstates changed the course of history. A few feet from the entrance, a Cadillac of dubious color and vintage slumped in the dust like an old dog.
We parked our motorcycles in a small patch of shade and made our way to the diner. We skirted the Cadillac, pushed through the doors, and found ourselves in a whirlwind.
The proprietor and a salesman were having a heated dialogue about how prices just keep going up and quality just keeps going down - and why is the 16-ounce more expensive now, when the materials are cheaper? We smiled politely, moved past them to a seat, and buried our heads in the menus.
I sneaked a quick look at our host. His hands flew above his wild, gray hair as he tried to explain his point to the salesman in loud and broken English. He caught me looking at him, gave me a huge smile, said he'd be with us in a minute, and went back to his discussion, scowling again.
A moment later, the spelling question. The salesman didn't believe my answer, and walked over to us thumbing a pocket dictionary. He apparently didn't realize I'd been the fifth-grade spelling champ at Edgewood Elementary School. A-m-b-r-o-s-i-a. I retained my crown.
Our table sat near three others, all set with mismatched flatware. No two chairs looked alike. Posters from local organizations, pictures of nameless people, children's drawings, and framed newspaper clippings bloomed across the walls. In the middle of it all, hanging from a red, white, and blue ribbon, was a shiny bronze medal.
The counter with its six red stools was the focal point of the establishment, but no one was seated there except the frazzled salesman. He soon mumbled something, stood, shouldered the door, and was gone. We were alone with the wild man.
If you travel long enough, it happens: You arrive smack in the middle of something bizarre and wonderful, and it's always best to simply hang on for the ride. In Ellsworth, Kan., we had arrived at the Las Vegas Diner.
"I'm Dino," he said. "Welcome to the Las Vegas Diner. God bless America!" He was polite, gracious, calm. A maitre d'. "And you are...?" With some surprise, we gave him our names and then our order. Hamburgers and fries.
As the grill begin to sizzle, Dino shouted from just out of sight, "Hey, you print as good as you spell?" Chris said, "Sure, she can!" I groaned.
Dino moved into view with a blackboard and a box of colored chalk. "Here," he said. "Make a pretty writing. 'Ambrosia Omelet - $5.95.' Choose any color you want. For my Ambrosia Omelet."
I picked pink, and began. When I finished, he said with a grin, "Now everyone can see that I make ambrosia omelets! When you come back, your writing will be waiting for you. Here. I put it in the window. It is beautiful."
Our burgers and fries arrived. As we ate, Dino began to tell us his story: how he'd left Greece to come to America - "the greatest country in the world. God bless America!" How he'd been a master chef in Las Vegas. Very rich. How his wife had left him with nothing but the trailer out back.
He traveled across the country looking for work and stopped next-door for gas. He persuaded the gas-station owner to let him open the vacant diner.
He gave us his business card. "My menu for special occasions," he said with pride. "Vichyssoise, oysters Rockefeller, shrimp scampi, clams casino, filet mignon Rossini, fettuccine primavera, chateaubriand, beef Wellington, lobster thermidor, chupino, ossobuco. Friday and Saturday evenings from 5 'til 8 p.m., by appointment only. Continental cuisine by Executive Chef Dino. 24-course meal for two: $200." We wondered if he'd had any takers in Ellsworth.
"I am a great chef, you know. See?" he said as he walked to the medal hanging above the cash register. "This medal was won by me in Salinas, Kansas. It shows I am a great chef." He hung the medal proudly around his neck.
Just then, a truck driver walked in and slid into the table beside us. He had that "I've been through Kansas" look. "Hello, I'm Dino. Welcome to my diner...."
The driver placed his order. When Dino returned with his food, he left lollipops and gum beside our plates. "For your trip," he whispered.
Suddenly, he turned, leaned over the truck driver and boomed, "You! You must take our picture! With the beautiful sign!" Startled, the driver nodded.
We trooped to the window. Dino grabbed a camera and showed the man how to operate it. The chef then hurried over to us as the truck driver, his lethargy gone, stood up on his seat to get a better angle. "Get a little closer together," he said. "That's good." Smile and snap.
"Outside!" said Dino. "Your beautiful motorcycles and my diner with your sign!" Laughing now in the sunshine. Medal and motorcycles proudly displayed.
It was time for goodbyes. "You must go now. Your trip," he said. We'd already spent twice as long as we'd planned and knew he was right. "You must come back," he said. "You are good people. Good Americans. God bless America!"
We threw our legs over the bikes, fired the engines, and moved slowly into the Kansas afternoon. We had a lot of America to cover before the sun went down. My last view of Dino was his wave in my rear-view mirror.
Ambrosia. A word from mythology describing the food of the gods. Hamburgers and fries: food of the gods? Probably not. But, in the middle of Kansas, by a madcap Greek, we know what we were served: love.
It was delicious.