There are dives for hipsters, and then there's the real deal. Places so uncool, untouched by time that they're hip in their own retro way.
Ever driven through a small town and happened into a cafe where you get to experience a genuine slice of life unbeknownst to you, with a cast of characters that rolls in every day? Not actors, but a microcosm of a society you didn't know existed in your midst. "Hey Henry, where you been?" shouted our waitress, as a wrinkled regular ambled in close to the end of lunch service. At 2 pm, a metal gate is erected across the entrance to the dining room. "Don't worry, you can still get out," laughed one of the kitchen crew in our direction.
Renton has its own Twin Peaks-like diner, in a string of independently-owned small-town shops: Renton Western Wear, DeLancey's, and the Comic Den. Founded in the 1920's, Rubattino's is apparently one of Renton's oldest restaurants. About 50 years ago they had a makeover, and the look has stayed. A pole holds up part of the ceiling where it sags from rain damage. And in the pioneer spirit of Rubattino's, the pole is celebrated — decorated with silver tape that snakes around it, as if an intentional part of the decor.
Seasonal decorations tend to hang in for the long run. If seated in the booths, you sink right into the plaid vinyl-covered springs, otherwise chrome stools support regulars drinking black-as-night coffee, and watching tv over a hamburger plate. This is not the place to ask, "Where do you source your beef from?"
All I can say is enter an alternative universe — hate it, or embrace it. We embraced it, ordering a round of Bloody Mary's for $4 a piece. "One shot of vodka or two?" No fancy pickled vegetables, no house-squeezed tomato juice.
Your server won't ask, "Would you like some ground pepper with that?" wielding a mahogany spice mill over your plate. Salt and pepper shakers are on the table — do as you please with them. You also have your pick of ketchup or Tabasco if you'd like to additionally season your food.
We happened to pick two of their most popular items. Chicken Fried Steak ($7.50) is their number-one seller and Biscuits and Gravy ($5.50). The Chicken Fried Steak can be ordered after noon as a lunch with fries or a breakfast item with hash browns, eggs your way, and your choice of toast, English muffin or biscuit. The Chicken Fried Steak has a crisp shell of golden breading, the Biscuits are floury, and there's no lack of sausage-studded cream gravy.
I managed to polish off most of my Corned Beef Hash ($7.50), ordered from the white board, but had no room to finish the generous serving of scrambled eggs. In fact, I think you get 3 eggs with most of their breakfast items. Another of our crew ordered the Pork Chops ($7.50) off the kitchen board. She asked for eggs over easy, and our waitress didn't bat an eye. The Pork Chops were the least celebrated pick, but we all gave a hearty endorsement to the hash browns. Pass the Tabasco bottle, and take a swig out of your Bloody Mary. Somewhat ironically, this is a gathering spot for local AA meetings.
The place still has a deeply entrenched smell of cigarette smoke, although the patrons now go outside to light up. That empty can of Corned Beef Hash sitting outside? It’s the communal ashtray.
I think one of my fellow diners summed it up best, "It was nice to find an old school diner that had mostly regulars, but was nice to us, the passersby."
This place makes Tom Waits lyrics come to life:
"Eggs and sausage and a side of toast
Coffee and a roll, hash browns over easy
Chile in a bowl with burgers and fries
What kind of pie?"
808 S. 3rd St.
Renton, WA 98055
Restaurant hours: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Later on Friday, Saturday
Lounge: 6 a.m. to Close