Last week’s opening of America. The Diner. (962 Baxter Ave.) marked eatery No. 4 that Dustin Staggers, his brother Kyle, and various partners along the way have opened since venture No. 1, Roux, rolled out last October. One of the four, Rumplings Slurp Shop, closed after several months, but it was quickly replaced by Epic Sammich Co. earlier this summer.
Traditionally, expansion-minded restaurateurs open one, perfect it, maximize that business’ profitability for a couple of years to build up cash, and then invest in a second.
Not for the Staggers. It’s been hammer down, griddles aflame and sleep deprivation for 10 months.
And no, Dustin Staggers isn’t smuggling and selling drugs to fund those operations. That they must have a Colombian connection is one of the silliest rumors in the Louisville restaurant industry. It’s a colorful notion, no doubt, but the story’s just not that sexy. Instead, he’s simply driven to live the American dream via life as an entrepreneur.
His key source of cash is generated by a real estate services company he and Kyle founded in Tampa several years ago.
America. The Diner. is the Staggers men’s American dream writ large on the walls of what last was known as Eggs Over Baxter. A vivid American flag is painted across one wall, and a red, white and blue depiction of Mt. Rushmore covers another. Both murals look great and, of course, both were done by the Staggers. No fancy decorator for their diner.
“The look is, well, tastefully tacky,” said Dustin Staggers. “It’s supposed to be kind of tacky.”
Though it really isn’t, especially in a day of anything goes restaurant decor. Corbett’s is classy, Seviche is chic, and Mesh is trim, architecturally inspired and modern. Their finished “looks” fit what they’re trying to present as a package that includes their food and service.
So does America. The Diner. It succeeds just being itself. Its walls are a collage of comic book heroes, heroic moments in sports and humorous signs. The whole is approachable and easy to fit into.
The menu is huge and darn near all inclusive — also American. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, get any of it all day long, 24/7. Lots of restaurateurs talk about “eliminating the veto vote” by providing selection, but ATD actually delivers with a dizzying number of choices. I would not want to be the chef charged with managing all that inventory.
“We’re getting tickets in the kitchen that are all over the board, and that’s fun,” Staggers said. “Somebody wants a burger, somebody’s got eggs, somebody’s got chili, somebody else has a milkshake — that’s the beauty of a diner. Everybody can get what they want.”
On a recent lunch visit, I wanted a Reuben with tater tots ($9). Not health food, but so delicious. I’d have liked to have shared a milkshake with my sister, but I barely finished the Reuben. The portion was large, but not fulsome, and I ate nothing for the next seven hours.
My sister, generally a lighter and slower eater than I, dispatched what she deemed “an excellent hamburger” and fries ($9) in short order, faster than I ate my own meal.
“I can’t believe I ate all that,” she remarked. “I almost never eat everything at a restaurant.” Clearly, it was good. I never even got a bite, which is my job, Sis!
We considered splitting one of five hot dogs for an appetizer, and I wished for two more guests to share a basket of fried oysters. But it was lunch, after all, which implies a somewhat lighter repast, and I knew we could return for those later.
I never got to eat the highly touted fried chicken Staggers made when he was chef at the Monkey Wrench, but thankfully it reappears on ATD’s menu. For $12, you get two pieces, mashed potatoes or grits. For $11, you can get spaghetti with brisket and skirt steak meatballs, a side salad and bread, or you can get the most expensive item on the menu: a fried bone-in pork chop with mashed potatoes or grits for $14.
“It’s supposed to be affordable,” Staggers said. “That’s a diner.”
According to Staggers, ATD already has become a place where guests linger. Servers will deliver quickly if you ask, he said, but he most enjoys knowing the new restaurant is relaxing. It’s not as though it’s short on tables, booths and bar stools to seat a slow-munching crowd.
“We’re seeing people taking a seat at the bar, opening a newspaper, sitting there for an hour and eating leisurely,” he said. “I like that they feel able to come by themselves and not feel they have to rush out.”
Want adult beverages? The liquor lineup, beer and wine selections are more than ample. There’s also a small six-item cocktail list, but given the inventory visible, you likely could get just about any standard that suits your fancy.
Staggers said sales are heavily skewed toward food rather than alcohol, which is how he wants it. He’s a chef, so food comes first, though he is partial to a tipple now and again.
“To get this open, I and a lot of others worked back-to-back 120-hour weeks,” he said. “The other night was the first time in a long time when I sat down and said, ‘I’m just going to have some drinks and relax. It’s open, it’s going, so let’s relax.'”