I spent many hours at 24-hour diners in my late teens and early 20s, drinking oceans of coffee, chain smoking and filling notebooks with pretentious poetry. At the time, they were pretty much the only places for the under-21 crowd to meet and socialize without pesky parental units leering over their shoulders.
Our circle of friends started out at Perkins, where we regularly annoyed the waitresses by acting like it was our living room and never buying anything more than a bottomless cup of joe and a large order of fries with a side of ranch dressing. When the management finally got fed up and threw us out for good, we relocated to Denny’s, where they seemed much more receptive to our chaos and where we would see a preview of our future selves; hungry post-bar drunks not quite ready to let the night come to a graceful end.
The new 4th Street Pantry in downtown Coeur d’Alene is set to corner the 24-hour restaurant market, and since Denny’s is still basically the only other place to stuff one’s face during the wee hours, they have a very good chance of success. Owners Michael Hanes and Tanya Dalton have created a warm, comfortable environment that feels like you’ve arrived at a friend’s cozy home for a nice little visit and a satisfying homemade meal.
A friend and I visited the restaurant for lunch recently and overheard Hanes telling a customer that since their opening less than a week before, the overnight shift had been regularly packed with people. It’s not hard to do, considering that the tiny diner currently houses only seven small booths and two standing counters, but I’ve heard some rumors that they’ve got smart plans to expand into the vacant space next door.
We ducked in on a rainy, sleepy Sunday afternoon to find it percolating with activity, and we snagged the last available table. Except for one spot occupied by an older, tourist-looking couple, every booth was filled with what my lunch partner dubbed “the emo mafia underground.” In other words, black hoodie clad, eyeliner-wearing boys and girls with long bangs in their eyes and skinny jeans. Was there a Hot Topic convention in town?
It was a bit of an unusual crowd and perhaps a testament to the relaxed, inclusive appeal of the place. Examining the menu, two words jumped out instantly. Monte Cristo. I’ve waxed romantic before on these pages about my love for this rarely-seen battered and fried ham, turkey and cheese sandwich, and I knew right away I had to give it a whirl.
Still, their menu was so full of possibilities. The “Orange Cream Delight” is a French toast sandwich stuffed with orange cream cheese and sounded quite dreamy to me. Breakfast is served 24/7 and also includes more traditional fare like the Danz the Man Steak and Eggs, Harold’s Hash and Ol’Man Mike’s Biscuits and Gravy, which are already creating a buzz as the best in town. Dinner is served from 5 to 9 p.m. daily, a smattering of comfort classics such as meatloaf, pork chops and a traditional turkey dinner, all for less than 10 bucks.
The waitress came to take our order, trailed by the owner’s young daughter Mackenzie, who was learning the ropes and helping out. “Monte Cristo, please!” I announced, but my heart sank when she apologetically told me they couldn’t serve it due to a snag with the food distributor. “OK, I’ll need another minute to figure it out,” I sighed and focused on the lunch section instead. The sandwiches are served on bread from Bakery by the Lake and looked huge, but I was in a burger mood and the Bacon Cheddar Burger seemed like it would do the trick rather nicely.
Our lunches arrived in moments flat. Our burgers were tucked neatly into red plastic baskets and checkered paper, glamorous atop a pile of crisp lettuce, tomato and pickles. It tasted as good as it looked, with perfectly melted cheese oozing out the sides and smoky, crispy bacon that took the whole affair to the highest heights of satisfaction. I had ordered the huge, handmade onion rings, which were perfect, enhanced by a side of tartar that little Mackenzie brought me with a smile. My friend had ordered the “endless” fries, and of course I had to snag a few.
Sometimes a french fry is a french fry, but something about these golden brown babies made them rise way above the norm. We could barely finish the whipped cream-covered brownie that the waitress “forced” us into having for dessert. It was dense and rich, almost too delicious. The bill was stunningly easy on the wallet, amazing considering the high quality of food and service.
Seven a.m. or midnight, drunk or sober, tourist or emo kid. The 4th Street Pantry seems to have hit upon a formula for success that’s appealing to anyone any time of day: a friendly, comfortable vibe and top-shelf food at ridiculously affordable prices.
Click here to comment on this story »