When I was in high school, I’d travel to California to visit a friend, and we’d spend hours late at night loitering in and just outside the local Denny’s, rarely eating anything more substantial than a side order of french fries or a short stack of pancakes. Situations like this are commonplace in suburbs and small towns around the country, where Denny’s is often the only establishment both open 24 hours and accessible to those under 21. And even for people over 21, Denny’s is a cheap and readily available late-night hangout following concerts or marathon pot-smoking sessions.
In recent months the corporate overlords at Denny’s have made an explicit effort to capitalize on this phenomenon, rolling out a special late-night menu with extreme junk-food dishes that represent their idea of what young people might want to eat. In addition to this new Denny’s Allnighter menu, the restaurant chain has started an entire Allnighter initiative, complete with a website (Dennysallnighter.com) showcasing underground bands.
An added element of the Allnighter menu is the Rockstar Menu, with four dishes “designed” by bands slightly more well-known than the ones vying for sponsorship on the Denny’s website: Eagles of Death Metal, All-American Rejects, Taking Back Sunday and Plain White T’s. I decide to scope out a couple of different local Denny’s under the right circumstances—late at night (the Allnighter is available only between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.), after a concert—to see if I can experience the youth culture the diner is trying to cultivate.
The first effort is on a Friday night, a little after midnight, and I’m with my sister. We find the Denny’s at Tropicana and Decatur sparsely populated, and spot only a couple of potential candidates for representing authentic youth culture; there is, however, a family with a small child. Our relatively young waitress seats us and hands us our menus, and with dismay I discover that the Allnighter portion is nowhere to be found. When the waitress comes back around, I ask if they have the Rockstar Menu, and she goes up to the front to grab a couple of supplements. We peruse the menus; my sister, a vegetarian, is fairly appalled at most of the offerings, but she agrees to order the Heart on a Plate, a dish sponsored by the Eagles of Death Metal. The stack of heart-shaped pancakes is topped with raspberry sauce, hot fudge, strawberries, white chocolate chips and whipped cream. It’s all part of a nutritious breakfast.
We also order, to share, a Plain White Shake (vanilla ice cream, cheesecake, whipped cream, white chocolate chips), courtesy of the Plain White T’s, and from the regular Allnighter portion of the menu I get the Sweet & Tangy BBQ Bacon Burger. The shake arrives first, missing its white chocolate chips and, I erroneously assume, its side of cheesecake as pictured on the menu. The waitress soon brings us the chips (in a cup meant to hold syrup), but she explains that actually, the cheesecake is in the shake. This is both horrifying and awesome, and I have to say that the shake is the best thing I sample on the menu during this entire experiment.
The main dishes that follow are a bit of a disappointment; like a lot of diner chains, Denny’s does breakfast best of all, and my sister finds the pancakes perfectly tasty (although their “heart” shape is a little dubious). I have pretty basic taste in food, and generally the cheaper a burger is, the more I like it, but the tiny burnt piece of something that alleges itself a burger here is probably the worst I’ve ever tasted.
A week later, after another concert, again a bit after midnight, I meet up with two co-workers at the Denny’s at Eastern and Serene. This slightly more suburban outpost is a little less dingy but also a little more lively; by the time we leave a bit after 1 a.m., there is a healthy contingent of goths taking over one section of the restaurant. Our menus here have the Allnighter supplement, but when I ask the waitress for the Rockstar Menu, she has no idea what I’m talking about.
In the meantime, we all order from the regular Allnighter menu; despite my traumatic burger experience the week before, I get the Cheesy Four Pack, a plate of sliders, as does one of my co-workers, while the other orders the Smokin’ Q Four Pack, essentially the same thing but with bacon, barbecue sauce and onion rings. To start, we order Potachos, which, as the name implies, are fried kettle chips topped with nacho accoutrements (crumbled sausage, bacon, bell peppers, cheese sauce and shredded cheddar cheese). They’re quite disgusting but also fairly tasty, if a little dry; we finish the entire plate, much to our dismay, including the “chips” that haven’t been cooked well enough and are still a little mushy.
Sadly, the sliders are at least as grotesque as the burger from the previous week; the tiny patties are crunchy and blackened and remind me of cheeseburger Lunchables, and I’m the only person who manages to get through all four of my mini-burgers (purely for professional reasons, of course). Afterward, I make the mistake of trying a bit of one of the Smokin’ Q sliders; the barbecue sauce tastes like chemical waste.
As we walk out, I eye the goth congregation, but I can’t quite see if any of them have ordered from the Allnighter menu; maybe a big Taking Back Sunday fan is disappointed that the Rockstar Menu isn’t available. It seems more likely, though, that they’re all getting regular old pancakes or fries, because the cool thing about Denny’s was never that it was actually cool, and trying so hard just makes it even less so.