As a child there are certain little things that count as comings of age. Like the first time you’re allowed alone in the house at night without a sitter, or the first time you can go shopping with your friends and not need a parent chaperone. Well the first time you go to a place to eat out with your friends and pay the bill yourselves is definitely one of them.
I don’t remember how old we were, but I remember going to a place called Top Burger with my friend Jody, and ordering from the menu, eating and paying ourselves. We must have been aged about 12/13 or thereabouts.
Top Burger is just down the road from us. It’s in Bletchley town centre. You’ve heard of Bletchley. It’s the place where they cracked the German’s code in WW2 by using a machine called Enigma. The diner itself is more of a greasy spoon than a diner but it’s kitted out in all the diner style stuff it could muster in the 80’s. They serve burgers and chips and milkshakes. It’s all you need.
I have vague memories of eating there with my Dad when I was tiny. I remember begging my Dad to buy me a doll magazine because it had free doll clothes stuck on the front, and then sitting at a table with a milkshake, in that diner, excitedly imagining dressing my Barbies in the dresses and tops. I also remember being appalled at myself when I knocked my milkshake flying across the room (it probably wasn’t across the room but my humiliation has added drama and scale to the memory). The staff were happy to clean up and replace my drink for free, and probably assumed I was crying because my milkshake was gone – but it was only out of pure horror and embarrassment.
There was always this same old guy behind the grill wearing the white overall and hat like they wore in drive through diners in America. I remember the burgers tasting extra amazing because he lightly toasted the buns before putting it all together.
Just after the BSE crisis they changed the name of the place from Top Burger to Top Diner. I don’t know if the Mad Cow association was anything to do with it, but that was when it happened, so that was the assumption I made. I hadn’t eaten in that greasy spoon for around 15 years -until yesterday.
Jody and I are still friends. She moved away for a few years when she was studying, and I moved away once I was married but we have both now moved back, and despite us living about a mile from each other, we find it very hard to actually get together. So hard in fact that until yesterday I still had her 2010 Christmas present on my dining room table. So after finding out that we both has this week off on holiday, we made plans to get together and as a celebration of both our birthdays (and apparently Christmas) I suggested we walk to Top Diner for old time’s sake and see if it was still as good as we remembered.
We walked in to find the place packed, including the tables outside. We sat at a table and I looked around. And much to my delight was the same old guy behind the grill! He’s obviously in some kind of wonderful burger time warp that prevents him from getting any older. We had a look at the menu, which to be honest could be the same one from the 80’s (including the prices). All around the very small diner were staff asking people if they’d been served, taking orders, chatting and ALL smiling. We’re still not sure what some of the items on the menu were though…..
A guy took our order and then Jody and I decided to swap presents. One of the ladies working there came over and spotted our Christmas wrapping paper. We explained that we didn’t get to see each other very often and so we were having Christmas now. She asked if we lived far away from each other, to which we answered no, we live just up the road. She thought we were insane but seemed to love it! Jody and I, apparently have no shame…..
The food, when it arrived was gorgeous. Buns still toasted, onions still had a crunch, red sauce was radioactive red (not good for my eczema but tasted great!) and Pepsi syrupy sweet. And all for a snip of a price. In fact the tip I gave was about half the cost of my whole meal, which goes to show how good the price was.
It’s not the kind of place you could eat at weekly without blocking an artery, but it was so good to go back and see the place hadn’t changed. The staff were amazing, the food was great, the prices were ridiculous… and all of this has been just down my road for all of my life. I love that this Mom and Pop style diner is so close and I love that the same people still run it. I love that it used to be a Wimpy chain burger spot taken over by a family and I love that it’s still holding loads of my memories from my childhood. It might not be the classiest place in the world but it really made me smile. Especially because it was just the same as that first time.