A silver lining

It’s just past 11:30 a.m. when I slide into a booth at the Silver Dollar Restaurant with one question on my mind. I’m a breakfast fan (or at least a breakfast food fan: Give me two eggs over easy, bacon, toast and potatoes and I’m a happy man). Trouble is, the hours are terrible.

The Silver Dollar, though, is one place that understands a late breakfast — and their potatoes, boiled until soft and then mashed and fried on the grill, are particularly dear to me. Like the grits, the potatoes are served till they run out.

The Silver Dollar is an unassuming diner, aka a joint, a dive, a greasy spoon. Understand that these are terms of affection. The place is utterly free of pretension, and the decor bespeaks authenticity and history, from the shelves of collector-edition Pepsi and beer bottles to the autographed photos of movie cowboys Dale Berry, Lash Larue and Sunset Carson. The radio plays country music: contemporary ballads without a hint of alt-irony.

The waitress hands me the lunch menu. It still includes the eggs-and-meat I’m looking for, but breakfast fare is relegated to a small corner of the page, dwarfed by a roster of home-style dishes like country fried steak, turkey and gravy, and fried fish. (In contrast, the small, red breakfast menu contains a full array of offerings, including the dubious-sounding “eggs and brains,” which I haven’t yet mustered the courage to try.) Judging by appearances, the menu hasn’t changed in years; the only sign of any tinkering is the slips of paper updating the prices. I’ve been coming in here for a couple of years now, but it took only a few visits for the waitresses to recognize me, conferring on me the status of a regular (or at least a semi-regular). That, as much as anything, is what keeps me coming back.

From my booth — coincidentally, the very one that appeared in the locally produced feature film All the Real Girls — I can quietly read a paper as I peer across the room, checking out the rest of the clientele.

At this time of day, we are in between rushes. The regular breakfast crowd (which I’m told shows up at the 6 a.m. opening time) has gone, and the lunch crowd hasn’t yet settled in.

Still, I’m not alone. There’s always an odd cross section of customers here.

As I begin my day, sipping soda and trying to clear my head, blue-collar third-shifters are already at the bar, working their way through cans of beer. A handful of bleary-eyed kids in hoodie sweat shirts hunker over coffee in a booth that’s shrouded in cigarette smoke, looking like they haven’t slept since last night’s last party. And though the ambiance exudes small-town, good-ol’-boy conservatism, customers who see things differently can also dine here with little fear of getting dragged into an argument. Silver Dollar patrons tend to mind their own business; whatever political rifts may rage outside, customers seem to find unspoken common ground once they walk through the door: “We’re here to eat.”

Angelo Dotsikas is a man of few words. He keeps to the kitchen, emerging to work the cash register or (occasionally) chat briefly with customers at the bar.

The Dotsikas family came to the U.S. in the 1950s; in one form or another, they’ve owned the Silver Dollar since 1967. Angelo can show you photos on the walls depicting the original eatery, which opened just down the road back in 1934. The current premises — moved lock, stock, and barrel in 1973 to make way for the new bridge across the French Broad River — sits directly opposite The Grey Eagle, facing it across Clingman Avenue. And over the decades, the Silver Dollar has remained a favorite among the loyal, a kind of secret refuge. When two acquaintances happen to spot each other there, it sparks a sense of pleasant surprise and instant recognition, as if to say, “Aha — you know about this place too!”

Despite all this history, however, the Silver Dollar’s future now looks uncertain. After working seven days a week for nearly 40 years, Angelo and his wife, Catherine, are looking to retire, perhaps in another year or so. Catherine says they don’t want to sell. Instead, she’s hoping somebody will come along to lease the place and keep the grub coming. Her customers (including me) echo that sentiment.

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