Diners, Words and No Guy Fieri

Maybe you haven’t eaten at the Twig & Leaf recently, but Ashlee Clark Thompson has. Her blog, Ashlee Eats (summarized by its motto, “Filet mignon appetite. Dollar menu budget.”) led to her first book, “Louisville Diners.” The book records her travels across the city to explore the fading art of affordable diners.

Thompson will sign copies at Crescent Hill’s Carmichael’s Bookstore on May 14, at 7 p.m.

You write often about finding cheap eats. Is cheap better? Or is it more a reflection of the reality that most people don’t have any money, and you’re helping them find something good?
ACT: Cheap isn’t always better, but expensive isn’t always better, either. I began writing about inexpensive dining when I didn’t have a lot of disposable income. … But as the blog grew, I realized that most people aren’t only looking for lower-cost meals, but (also) good value for their money. Sure, you can get fast food for less than $10, but what if you want to support local business, or just eat food that’s a little bit healthier for you? The majority of us live under financial constraints. We can’t eat at white-tablecloth restaurants every day. But access to good food should not be a privilege.

Ashlee Clark Thompson. Photo courtesy of Jessica Ebelhar.

Ashlee Clark Thompson. Photo courtesy of Jessica Ebelhar.

When newer places make simple staples (tacos, barbecue, etc.) by hand and with better ingredients, some people complain about the increased cost to consumers. Where do topics like expense or health  – most diners being less than healthy – enter this discussion?
ACT: It’s hard to eat a healthy meal at a diner, especially when you see plates of biscuits and gravy and chili cheese fries pass you by. But it’s not impossible. You just have to be strategic – maybe choosing an egg white omelet loaded with vegetables instead of a regular omelet loaded with ham and cheese, for example. Eating healthfully while on a budget, both in restaurants and at home, is challenging and takes a lot of planning.

Louisville is becoming known for its new, progressive restaurants. Is this book a work of preservation of a dying culture, or a reminder of a vital scene that is often taken for granted?
ACT: The book is definitely a reminder of a vital scene often taken for granted. There are plenty of places in the city that keep churning out good food at good prices. It’s just that they don’t get as much attention as the newer, trendier restaurants in Louisville. Diners will always have an important part in the city’s dining culture, because these businesses provide food made for everyday life. You don’t have to get dressed up or pretend to know how to pronounce tough words on a menu. You can go in, get familiar, home-cooked food and leave happy.

Do you anticipate that this book will mostly reach a local audience, or is there a world of diner lovers across the US who will also find it?
ACT: So far, the book has seemed to reach a local audience. I think readers are discovering great places in their own city that they didn’t even know existed. I hope that the book will gain some attention among diner enthusiasts nationwide and give tourists in Louisville a chance to discover something new.

Diners rarely make Top 10 lists or win awards. Is it possible to compare diners and “fancier” restaurants without also having to think about race or class issues?
ACT: Often, the folks who put together these top 10 lists or hand out awards are looking for the next big thing in culinary innovation. These lists profile new and notable restaurants with big-name chefs at the helm. However, I have as much respect for a line cook at the Frontier Diner, who can keep all his orders straight, as I do for Chef Edward Lee. Diners and “fancier” restaurants are indeed apples and oranges, but you can’t dismiss either of them in terms of their importance to the diner scene. Sure, they’re very different than one another, but to go with the apples/oranges comparison, they’re both still fruits. And sometimes, you might want an orange instead of an apple, or the apples out of season. We have to look at all of these restaurants to tell the full story of restaurant dining in Louisville. VT