Diners aren't about being proud; they're about being real. This is a fact merely reinforced by lumpy mashed potatoes and an antique cash register plastered with pages torn from a Jeff Foxworthy desk-calendar (you know, the jokes that all start, "You might be a redneck if...").
What's more -- and my opinion on this is humble -- diners belong to a time when Americans were a little more grateful to have food on the table. Consider a time when processed food was hailed as a great scientific breakthrough, for example, and liver 'n' onions was a staple of the American diet. You'll find these relics at Dizzy G's.
You'll also find prices that let you believe eating out is comparable to eating at home, and plates that fill you up so you don't think about food for the rest of the day.
A good diner, like a good friend, is a safe harbor of optimism: a reminder of good times past, and better ones to come. That's just what Dizzy G's owner Russ Gillespie is, and does, for downtown.
He's a no fuss, no frills kind of guy in his well-worn jeans, casual collared shirt and neatly trimmed mustache. But the "G" in Dizzy G's is a character in disguise, with tales of "terrorizing downtown" back in the '60s. A Tucson native, he's lived in Tucson most of his 47 years, graduated from the UA, worked in the corporate restaurant biz. He's raised a restaurant, two kids, and for about a decade, dachshunds.
The evidence is on the wall, next to the Coke machine, where a glossy picture of the Dizzy G's namesake is framed, "Proprieter."
"After 16 years, I just noticed it was misspelled," he grins, looking away. "I don't know what that means, if anything." He says it like there's little point in fixing it now.
Gillespie doesn't sit down much between 6:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the restaurant closes, but if you're lucky you'll find, with prodding, he's a font of anecdotal confession. He was one of downtown's original skate punks, for one, and his first job was at Perry's Jewelers on Congress Street. "He's still there!" Gillespie says with what sounds like pleasant surprise. "I go see him all the time."
Gillespie has been on both sides of the downtown business trade. "I grew up downtown, when there was actually life here," he says. El Con opened in 1963, and that's when it changed." He recalls a litany of long-gone stores spanning decades. "Downtown was still lively until the early '70s."
His Pennington Street restaurant was built in 1953, as the original Helsing's in Tucson. Then it became Gorman's, then Benji's for about 10 years, then Sandy's for two years. "Then I bought it," Gillespie says, "and named it Dizzy G's, for the dog. There were two: Dizzy and Dancer."
Note to lily-livered pet lovers: don't ask about them.
"You know, those were the good ol' days," he teases. "You didn't have to worry about taking care of the older folks. I was looking at pictures of my family the other day, and all the (generations of) dogs. None died a natural death. In those days, dogs were on the loose."
Dizzy G's is his first and only restaurant, bought in '83 with money from a second mortgage on his parents' house. "Three more years!" he laughs. "They're both dead, but they still have that mortgage...It didn't die with them. You know how that goes."
Business isn't as busy in the late-morning and afternoon hours since Mountain Bell moved out in 1987, followed by AT&T 10 years later. Public Works moved over to Stone Avenue several years ago, and the City Hall Annex across the street, rumored to become a parking structure for the Depot/Gateway project, was to be vacated by January 2000.
But come in during the week for an early breakfast, or lunch at high noon, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a table. "There are still 10,000 people who work down here," he says brightly. "That's who we depend on, not the walk-by traffic."
A notice on the door states the restaurant's compliance with the city's recent non-smoking ordinance, a move which Gillespie says lost some customers, but regained others. "I don't agree with the city legislating how you run your business, but it worked for me," he says. Six shaded, sidewalk tables offer a compromise.
"It's the not the ideal situation," he says, "but people who smoke are hardy people. They're willing to put up with a little slower service, and sit out there and be a little warmer or a little colder. If that's okay with them, it's okay with me."
My favorite table is inside, two deep on the east wall, near the cash register. That's where the elevation of the restaurant dips below street level while the sidewalk slopes higher, rendering every pedestrian a gigantic, headless pair of legs and torso.
It's a nice contrast to the demure, '50s-era place settings. Things were smaller back then. People were smaller back then. You see it in the furniture of that era -- shorter chairs, narrower tables. So at Dizzy G's, even if you order the roast beef dinner with chicken-and-rice soup, or chicken-fried steak smothered in country gravy ($4.50-$4.95), there's a subtext of moderation in that faded, plate-sized plate and petite, brown plastic coffee cup. It's a mismatched set that's a perfect fit.
During a Monday lunch rush, waitress Vicky promptly delivers a Johnny Gibson (named, of course, for the brawny barber on nearby Sixth Avenue). You'd need to lift weights to take on this warm deli sandwich, piled with real roast beef, smoked ham and a thick slice of barely melted cheddar on a toasted French roll ($4.50). The reduced-fat mayo is probably lost on this entree, but however you order it you'll be indulged without question here. Dizzy G's is big on reduced-fat mayo and canola oil in all their recipes.
All sandwiches, which hover on either side of the $5 mark, come with a generous portion of fries or potato salad.
You can order breakfast all day, too. Sweet treats like buttermilk pancakes ($2.75) and strawberry French toast ($3.50) to your average eggs, hash browns, and toast with butter and jam ($2.95). The cinnamon buns ($1) are baked fresh daily, light buttermilk rolls sticky with sugared icing.
Breakfast specials (three under $3 until 11 a.m.) include generous, greasy-spoon fare like biscuits smothered in white sausage gravy. Still rubbing the sleep from our eyes on our first morning visit, we lucked into a three-egg omelet with cheddar and green chiles, served with hash browns and a choice of biscuits or toast (usually $4.95, on special for $3.75).
We also tried the chorizo and eggs ($3.95), scrambled on request to produce a porcelain platter of finely ground meat peppered with eggs turned orange from the grease. It was a little too slick for my companion, but seemed pretty typical to me. Flavorfully spicy without sounding off any alarms, it's served with a thin, buttery tortilla from local La Estrella bakery. An isthmus of iceberg and tomato salad divide the chorizo from a pool of refried beans topped with melted yellow and white cheeses.
"We make 90-percent of our stuff," Gillespie says. "Real mashed potatoes, real chili, all our soups. We make our own Mexican food, our own salsa. I bake the cinnamon rolls, dinner rolls, bran muffins and raisin bread. I make some of the pies, some we buy. We bake all of them here -- they're good. Better than I make, so what the heck."
Gillespie is nonchalant about the food. "My philosophy on food is if you start with good stuff, fresh stuff, and you don't mess it up, it's going to be good. So we don't mess it up."
While his menu is nostalgic, he's not opposed to change, either. You can order a decent veggie burger or grilled Sonoran chicken sandwich here. And remember that buffalo burger fad from the '80s? Well, it's survived extinction at Dizzy G's.
"Someone was just selling it to me," he says with a shrug. "It was natural. We eat a lot of organic at home, though I don't do that here. People won't pay for it. If we can get organic, we do. We make everything as good as we can."
His hash browns are just what I remember from the family truck-stop days: whole grated potatoes fried to a crisp brown on the top and bottom, but soft in the middle. They have a slightly meaty flavor from the grill, without being greasy.
The coffee is weak, but these days a bottomless cup of coffee for less than a buck (89 cents) is an endangered species. We made amends with the strong iced-tea and tart lemonade.
Dizzy G's serves the whole menagerie of downtown diners: war veterans, cheap suits, stragglers from the city courthouse, downtown residents and idle shoppers. Drifters and students bum cigarettes off each other from the close-knit patio tables as a waitress darts out to make a special delivery to a neighboring store owner too busy to pick up his lunch.
This is a casual place, clean and airy. The motif is gently Southwestern, with splashes of color and ironwood carvings from Mexico. Its varnished windows and sunny tables are cozy, and its aisles of low, green vinyl booths a comfort.
It's a happy marriage, this restaurant and its patrons. They mutually possess the kind of shabby that lends character rather than makes a bad impression. They're a practical, asymmetric, unconcerned lot. What you see is what you get, and if you want frills, you can go pay $10 for a plate of food somewhere else.
It hums to the frequency of real life. The kind of place where Garrison Keillor would hunker down in a corner and take notes, and the people would say, "I'm afraid there's nothing interesting going on here. You'll just have to make something up."
And all the while, people are catching up on the local news, cups are being refilled, and the bell on the glass double doors salutes each customer who comes and goes as the smell of cinnamon rolls wafts through the air. You should be there, sometime, just to see it.