One typical goal of big restaurant chains is to serve the same food wherever the company's brand name is found, so the French toast tastes and even looks the same at a Denny's in California or a Denny's in Connecticut. At the Metairie site of a Denny's that never reopened after Hurricane Katrina, new local operators have taken over the space and turned the chain's conformity credo on its head.
City Diner owner Camilla Hutcherson and her family canvassed people who worked at businesses near the location, asking what they wanted to see on the menu. The result is a mixture of diner classics like waffles, club sandwiches and meatloaf and decidedly local touches including shrimp etouffee, crawfish pasta and hot sausage po-boys. At City Diner, more breakfast plates use andouille sausage than bacon strips.
Some of the choices are neither classic Americana nor Louisiana, but rather belong to a dauntingly heavy collection of dishes known as City Diner hash-brown creations. They start with a haystack of griddle-fried, shredded potatoes and add a pair of eggs, cheese, spicy cream sauce and enough shrimp, crawfish or andouille to fill a po-boy. The combination hits all the irrational cravings of early-morning or late-night hunger at once, with the big, filling potato base, the meaty chew of sausage or seafood and the creamy glide of cheese and sauce.
Not everything here is such an onslaught, but big is what City Diner does best, which befits a 24-hour operation. Three in the morning along an interstate service road is no time or place for subtlety. The wait staff even uses handheld wireless devices to transmit orders to the kitchen directly from the deep booths or long diner counter. This gives a small bump in efficiency that is no doubt welcomed by customers on short lunch breaks or late-night pit stops.
The po-boys are acceptable, but the best sandwiches are built on sourdough buns with flecks of jalapeno or dark-crusted pretzel buns that are much bigger but just as chewy and salty as conventional soft-pretzel braids. The Buffalo chicken sandwich is particularly good, with the grooves of its deeply scored meat catching the very spicy, tangy sauce.
Bacon-wrapped pork loin sounds a bit too ambitious for a place like this, but the kitchen delivers what it promises. The slice of loin is petite but well-crusted and juicy all the way through. When offered a choice of sides, pick the smooth-as-pudding mashed potatoes doused in house gravy, a thin, intense, deep-brown sauce smacking of beef essence. It improves just about everything it encounters, including bacon-studded cheese fries and a decent roast beef po-boy.
Most appetizers here aren't worth their bulk, like boudin balls that came out partially warm, partially icy and tasting more of breading than boudin. Undercooked hushpuppies also had gooey, doughy centers. Onion rings are a notable exception, thanks to a crunchy coating that tastes like fried-chicken batter.
Basics like pancakes, burgers and omelets are solid here, and the strong coffee is available in a chicory blend, yet another familiar guidepost for the local palate.