“Wow, I haven’t seen you guys in a long time!” the waitress percolated as she handed us our menus and poured our coffee. We gave each other sideways glances and laughed nervously. Only moments earlier, before we’d even walked into the Flying J Travel Plaza Restaurant in Post Falls, we were discussing how it had been ages and ages since we’d last eaten there.
“It’s been at least since I was a senior in high school, if not earlier,” I calculated aloud, “so that’s nearly 20 years.” “I think it was 1991 for me,” decided Q.
I answered the waitress with a question mark on my lips. “Yeah, I guess so. It has been really quite awhile.” My gaze was fluctuating between her face and her name tag, hoping something might spark a memory, some explanation, but she still seemed terribly unfamiliar.
We wracked our brains trying to figure out how she knew us, concluding that there must be another identical group of three friends, that occasionally frequents the Flying J and she simply mistook us for them.
Before our arrival, we were possibly a little caught up in the enigma, the classic Americana of the 24-hour truck stop diner. We wanted glossy cakes and pies displayed in bright pastry cases. White-and-cherry-red porcelain tiles on the countertops and floors, stainless steel fixtures in the kitchen. Beehived waitresses hopped up on strong coffee, flying around and acting sassy like Flo from Mel’s Diner: “Kiss my Grits!”
The only part of our little retro fantasy to come true were the telephones at every table, for the modern-day Flying J restaurant has absolutely zero kitsch factor and is done up in morose dark greens and boring beiges with lighting like a funeral home.
An entire wall is devoted to plaques recognizing various employees’ corporate accomplishments: “This is to certify that Norma Gradwohl has met all the qualifications of a certified prep cook and is hereby awarded the title of Certified Prep Cook.” I love this kind of circular corporate-speak.
They also let us know that “a tremendous amount of research, development and testing goes into the many items you find on our menu.” That perfectly explains the resulting product. It’s all a big experiment where the idea is to replicate actual, natural food with something else, some kind of ultra-realistic mock-up, done in a way that no one really notices the difference.
This makes our dear prep cook Norma Gradwohl more like a mad scientist, I suppose. The glossy menu is fairly predictable; Steak and Eggs, French Toast, Ham and Cheese Omelettes and a Breakfast Burrito. Lunchtime brings the usual assortment of burgers and fries, chicken sandwiches and something called “Not Your Mom’s BLT.” Sorry, there’s nothing in it that would remotely faze my mother, who’s been known to enjoy such oddities as peanut butter, pickle and mayonnaise on rye. Dinner offerings include a list of Italian Pasta dishes and entrée salads as well as Honey Mustard chicken, which answers last week’s conundrum about where all the Honey Mustard dressing disappeared to.
We were impressed at first when the waitress brought out our meals spread across three plates each. There was so much food there almost wasn’t room it on our rickety little table. My scientifically engineered eggs actually tasted pretty good, their yellow color and fluffiness like an artificial sunshine in the gloom. The hash browns were fully heated and made to look like they were cooked, but their soul remained in the freezer. The biscuit was beamed in from a bakery on Planet Crumbly, and the gravy that smothered it and the chicken fried steak showed the promise of flavor only after a heavy salt and pepper attack. The steak itself was large enough, but was tough in texture, got cold immediately due to the weak consistency of the fried outer shell.
Ultimately though, Flying J is most likely at its finest after 16 straight hours of driving a semi.