24 Hours Inside: Beginners Diner

Spend 24 hours inside Beginners Diner with Contributing Staff Writer Sky Ueki as he immerses himself in the classic American dining experience.
24 Hours Inside: Beginners Diner
Image by Sky Ueki for The UCSD Guardian

There’s something special about restaurants that are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Plates are cleaned, used, and cleaned again without having the time to rest and collect dust. The kitchens hum with staff that are in forever rotation, playing an endless game of “don’t lose the streak” with each other. There is comfort in a place that will never turn you away, no matter the hour. The patrons inside seem to be coming or going from some event, be it a football game, the last performance of a musical, or a late-night study session that had been derailed by hunger. They all come together in a single space and enjoy the hospitality of classic American dining. 

It’s within this beautiful context that Beginners Diner exists. I first discovered this nostalgic eatery in October of last year, lured in by the Lafayette Hotel’s art deco style and curated decor. Operated by Consortium Holdings, the hotel recently underwent a $31 million renovation, reopening with bars, restaurants, and a live music venue.

The Lafayette Hotel (Image by Sky Ueki)

Past the giant globe and pool reminiscent of “The Great Gatsby,” Beginners Diner is tucked into the lobby’s corner, modeled after a 1940s dining car. The immersion is impeccable, down to the napkins with printed sketches of the diner’s patron saints.

Serving up renditions of traditional Greek and Jewish diner food from the East Coast, Executive Chef Ted Smith has created a menu that puts diner food on a pedestal and attempts to enshrine the American diner experience. But to truly get a feel of this curated nostalgia, I decided to immerse myself. This is the story of the 24 hours I spent inside the Beginners Diner. 

The Late Night Experience

Early Thursday at 1:49 a.m., I entered the diner, and a waiter, Carlos, took my order. From midnight to 6 a.m., the diner operates a limited breakfast menu with some popular “late-night lunch” menu items incorporated. Since it wasn’t quite breakfast time, I ordered a slice of their famous lemon meringue pie which was rotating in a display case behind the counter. The pie struck a delicate balance between the layers of meringue and lemon filling, not too sweet but just what a late-night craving calls for.

Lemon Meringue Pie at Beginners Diner (Image by Sky Ueki)

The Breakfast Experience 

Once 6 a.m. hit, it was time to move on to their breakfast options. Their most popular item, the Breakie Sando, tasted like a typical breakfast sandwich — thoroughly enjoyable but nothing to write home about. Another dish, the Bacon Avocado Benedict, came with perfectly crispy hashbrowns and a too-eggy hollandaise sauce that did not have enough butter or lemon to keep a stable consistency. The bacon portion was restricted, leaving me to question the name of the dish. Both the corned beef and duck hashes were tastefully done, much cleaner in the amount of oil you might see elsewhere. The cinnamon roll was disappointing for something having the “made in house” stamp. The bread was dry and lacking the right texture, tasting too much like yeast. The cream cheese frosting has an unsettling consistency, lacking the right feeling to accompany a cinnamon roll.

Classic Benedict at Beginners Diner (Image by Sky Ueki)

The Lunch and Dinner Experience

As for the lunch and dinner items, I found the French Dip to be rewarding as the tenderness of Wagyu roast beef sat on a French baguette layered with perfectly brown caramelized onions and melting gruyere. This stood in contrast to the other sandwich breads I had encountered throughout my four trips, which were often over-toasted and painful to bite into. The chicken schnitzel was similarly unremarkable and required the Dijon mustard to have any real flavor. I would instead opt for any of the Wagyu options, such as their featured patty melt.

Wagyu Patty Melt at Beginners Diner (Image by Sky Ueki)

At 10:38 a.m., I admittedly had to go home as I was falling asleep in the booth. When I went back to complete my 24 hours, I knew what I needed to try. The milkshakes (which include a boozy option) are priced at $9, and I think a reference to Pulp Fiction is due without having to name the line. They are indeed gourmet; each flavor, from the strawberry puree to the hazelnut spread, is made in-house and the extra whipped cream is definitely recommended.

How to do it right

After my multiple visits to complete the 24 hours, I have come to a conclusion on how to best enjoy Beginners Diner. Come when it’s busy, on a Friday or Saturday night, even if you have to wait in line for a table. Walk around and enjoy the community that all the people who have come to the Lafeytte believe in. Stick to the milkshakes, the pie, and the crispy fries (or the veal gravy-covered Disco Fries). Put your camera down and enjoy the people you are with, because the Beginners Diner is, in some ways, a museum of human interaction. In my 24 hours there, I witnessed people from many walks of life enter the diner doors. Patrons ranged from tourists staying at the hotel to a grandfather taking his grandkids out for breakfast and even construction workers stepping in for a cup of coffee. 

Inside Beginners Diner (Image by Sky Ueki)

Unfortunately, however fresh the ingredients are or however many house-made dishes they serve, Beginners Diner will never be able to recreate, or even come close to, authentic diner food. Instead, this museum provides a community space that is often lost in our individualistic society. What they serve or how well they do it isn’t as important as why they do it — to provide a forum open to anyone, anytime. Even though their dishes don’t live up to the intricacies of their decor, Beginners Diner is nevertheless a beacon of hospitality shining through the night, ready to welcome you at any hour. 

So come in and sit awhile; take as long as you need. They’ll never close. Cheers!

Beginners Diner (Image by Sky Ueki)
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About the Contributor
Sky Ueki, Contributing Staff Writer
A philosophy student by trade, Sky Ueki was born and raised in Japan where he learned his love for food. He's often found in the kitchen, passionately debating with his tomatoes in loud, spirited exchanges.
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