36 Hours at tina's
Jokes on me that it took months to find, to become stuck on this place that’s so free of pretension. Now that I am, I think of Tina’s as a landmark on Flushing Avenue: a restaurant that’s become intrinsic to a particularly social Bushwick existence. Since it opened over 80 years ago, Tina’s has served diners from 3:30 AM to 4:00 PM, everyday. The hours of operation, charming and frustrating both, track back to the trucking and manufacturing businesses that still populate the neighborhood alongside the gradual entry of more typical Millenial-friendly enterprises and venues.
Though she is really Athina Skermo, a niece of the original namesake, the staff and patrons all know the owner as Tina. She has run the diner with her husband and at least two generations of family members in her employ for nearly a half-century. It isn’t difficult to imagine that the last significant change here was the removal of ashtrays from the tables. Oh, and avocados: A new poster advertising their availability hangs prominently above the cash register, nearly on the ceiling.
3:30 AM — 4:30 AM: I feel like a papier-mâché Me. The alcohol and extracurriculars have flattened my mind into a trainyard of idling thoughts. It’s enough to just hold a warm mug of green tea and let my hands transmit the warmth into feeling. The two friends joining me are similarly tapped out, but they summon more verve and seek out a remedy by way of chicken tenders and fries.
From a couple tables down I hear my name. “Frankie?” It’s an old co-worker. Mug in hand, drops of lukewarm tea dripping off the dangling tag, I remember that walking into Tina’s at this hour, despite wherever we’ve emigrated from—nightclub or bar or party—is to enter a safety deposit box of a kind: a place to sit and recalibrate before sunrise.
4:30 AM – 6:00 AM: I’m here with five other people, a big group at any hour, and Tina’s is crowded with warehouse workers and warehouse party folk. This visit, there’s enough alcohol in my system that I don’t so much have an appetite problem as a hand-eye coordination issue. My fork is everywhere, on other people’s plates, who, sure, offered to share. But I’m all over the table and accruing Venmo debt to be repaid later, after some sleep.
6:00 AM – 6:30 AM: After a botched date, food seems like a good way to assuage the disappointment. I drop in. It’s freezing out. This is the only time I see cops eating here, though I have a hunch that cops like the offbeat hours that Tina’s keeps. I add a donut to my meal before walking back home, the smell escaping its styrofoam clamshell.
6:30 AM — 7:30 AM: Between bites one lazy morning, I opened my phone up to a site best avoided. Life online is increasingly a continuation of our lived experience, and a dive into Tina’s Yelp page revealed a familiar sentiment: “You can make a lot of memories here because it’s cool and you’re not a douche bag.”
Given how much energy modern food culture devotes to elevating casual dining establishments, a place like Tina’s is exceptional for being so ordinary, and so affordable. Actively attracting the nocturnal partygoer, it lets us settle, wrote the same internet commenter, into our “cicadian [sic] rhythms.”
7:30 AM — 8:30 AM: Despite the length of the menu and its plethora of options, the theory goes that there’s between five to – at most – a dozen items anyone orders at a diner. Familiarity in comfort leads us to order consistently. Anything else is madness.
I begin to reconsider this strategy upon trying – for the first time – an egg cream, a menu item I had long considered superfluous, just an homage to an older New York. False. It’s still very much a part of diner culture. The waitress doesn’t hesitate to confirm that they serve them. In fact, she responds with an automatic question: “Chocolate or Vanilla?”
8:30 AM — 9:30 AM: The day after snow (or slush) storm Stella, Tina’s is relatively low key. I order pancakes for the first time in a while and watch the television. Perched in the back and always on, the TV seems to only ever broadcast “Golden Girls,” “Roseanne,” “The Price is Right,” or, as is currently the case, a procession of saccharine pop music videos.
Tina’s the only waitress working and even she’s a bit slack from the lack of activity. I know her by now to be someone who prefers being busy working — there’s order in that.
9:30 AM — 10:30 AM: I have a minor personal awakening when I see someone order the Greek burger – the usual, but topped off with olives, grilled onions, and feta cheese – for an early lunch, and feel that I will never know who I am until I order it for myself.
10:30 AM — 11:30 AM: Two dudes are talking animatedly about how great the book “City on Fire” is. They’re not treating Tina’s like a library either, but are still leaning so close in to one another, speaking so excitedly, that their leather jackets are practically touching. For my part, I’m dining alone and trying to read my own book. I look from my club sandwich to the bottle of dubiously mild hot sauce, but neither offer much consolation.
11:30 AM — 12:30 PM: The staff wears matching maroon colored tees or sweatshirts advertising the place we’re already in. Still, it’s an enviable uniform and I played with the idea of buying one to wear for Halloween last year. Incidentally and then as a totem or a jersey or something, I wore a maroon sweater of nearly the same shade for several appearances at Tina’s in a row. On the sixth occasion, I was accompanied by my girlfriend of several years. We had just then decided to stop seeing each other. Our food was left mostly untouched as we sat in the back, across from the griddle.
12:30 PM — 1:30 PM: With 54 seats, Tina’s is about twice the size of Viand on Madison Avenue, but approximate to that of Eisenberg’s over in Flatiron. The Goldilocks standard in effect. Still, the weekend lunch crew, when it’s the busiest here, are masterful at ushering people out of their tables and back into the world. Tina’s operates with what appears to be only a single cook – there’s a foreboding back room where I believe the waffle iron is – a griddle, and a sous chef of sorts who specializes in buttering toast and ushering down completed plates to the waitstaff.
A hand appears: “Broccoli omelette with a side of bacon and home fries?”
1:30 PM — 2:30 PM: A little busier at this hour. More hipsters, construction workers, guys from the Boar’s Head factory across the street. The never-ending stream of couples. Here are two: An Airbnb-ing sort with suitcases and wide eyes, and a somewhat older, more at-ease looking, probably local pair. I’ve noticed it’s the second type who tend to know the names of the servers and order for their partner.
2:30 PM — 4:00 PM: Another meal of chicken cutlet sandwich. We’re minutes past four o'clock – closing time – and the ten or so of us still here are countenancing our last bites and idle chatter. Tina’s counting change behind the counter, tallying the day’s pull and smiling. A waiter, a giant who’s also named Frankie, slows down but doesn’t stop, refilling our mugs. My friends and I aren’t quite as cavalier. It’s the middle of the afternoon and we’ve all got to be somewhere even if it’s to a place of no importance. (“I’ve got laundry to do,” one friend offers, as he angles for the check.) We gather ourselves, bundling into our belongings, and I pat my pockets out of habit making sure I’m not leaving anything behind.