Steamboat Springs Idea for a night out: 2 a.m. at Penny's Diner in Yampa.
The era of the diner has passed and the few that remain are mostly simulations of what once was. To walk into any modern-day diner is to step immediately into the realm of clichnd nostalgia.
To be honest, I don't know what I expected when I drove the 45 minutes alone to Yampa for pie ala mode and a cup of watery coffee.
I had seen Penny's Diner from the outside.
The truck stop architecture sticks out like any newcomer among clapboard, Old West buildings and hitching posts.
The thing that caught my eye and haunted my thoughts was the glowing red neon sign: Open 24 Hours.
Penny's Diner is the only 24-hour restaurant in Routt County. They serve breakfast around the clock, seven days a week.
If the outside clashes with the early 1900s surroundings, then the effect is complete time machine vertigo once you open the doors and step inside.
The interior is designed to look like an old dining car, with metal walls rounded near the ceiling. The one-room restaurant is a straight shot from the door with four 1950s-style booths and a few stools at the bar.
The decor is a mish mash combination of everything diner.
All eras are included. The only thing missing is a jukebox.
The setup is incredibly intimate, more like sitting in a kitchen than the restaurant. The seating lines the stove. There isn't enough room for another row of booths against the far wall.
The waitress can supervise every bite taken. Likewise, the customer can watch every hash brown flip, which can be intimidating, or it can play perfectly into the first rule of diner eating idealize your waitress.
Speak to her as little as possible, but watch as much as you like. In your diner visit, she will be either the chain-smoking, hard-working single mother Bruce Springsteen heroine, or a dressed-down version of your grandmother.
When I thanked my waitress for bringing the food, she looked at me strangely and said, "Yeah. OK."
Kind of like my grandmother would.
The second rule is to idealize your food. The apple pie. The hash browns out of a bag. The toast brushed with butter. That is America, the way it used to be, and the way things should be.
Wax privately poetic about how honest and unassuming is your chicken fried steak. This is no boutique restaurant.
This is life, served on a hand washed, shining white plate. The coffee refills are free.
Return to idealizing the waitress who is doubling as a cook.
The third and last rule is to idealize yourself in the diner environment. The diner experience, as with most of life, happens entirely in your head. Especially if you have gone by yourself, in the wee hours of the morning, to drink cup after cup of coffee.
You are the lonesome traveler. The warmed pie and the kind, "yeah, OK," of your waitress, comforts you for the moment.
Penny's cheap prices will keep you on the road a little longer than you originally planned.
If you must, idealize the other customers. The problem is that at this hour you are probably the only one.
Penny's Diner belongs to a chain of 1950s-style eateries that can be found adjacent to most Oak Tree Inns, which sits behind the diner and provides lodging for railway workers.
If you are working too much, are too broke or too uninspired to leave Routt County, a quick drive to the county's only bastion for late-night hunger, feels like a road trip a one night "On the Road."
The only problem with Penny's for diner connoisseurs is that it is new. The diner opened on Nov. 1 of last year.
In 20 years, the waitress will be worn down enough, the seats will be duck taped enough and the grill will be dirty enough to make it all those things that made me want to drive almost an hour in the middle of the night for food.