The film industry coming to Albuquerque has had strange effects on the city. Parking lots tented up and streets blocked off for shoots. Celebrity sightings in coffeeshops. And offbeat locales suddenly becoming movie sets. Like Milton's Family Restaurant. I had passed the diner often while cruising pass on Central; almost tempted in as I glanced up at its retro '50s signage, but put off by its dim interior and greasy windows. Apparently I wasn't the only one drawn to it, though-- it's interior, unchanged for decades, has made it the perfect set for period films. So with a little motivation from Hollywood, I finally made it in.
We arrived after 7, the cold air already dark with the early sunset of winter. The film industry hasn't drawn any crowds-- the parking lot out back was empty, the diner's interior somehow even emptier. Nor has it left the place with any added gloss-- the mood inside was sombre, with a vague odor that makes you decide to keep it safe when it comes time to order. We passed the college students finishing their meal, the wiry men sipping coffee, and grabbed a discreet booth in the back.
The menu pages stuck-- together, to the table, to our fingers-- so we ordered quickly. A cheeseburger for me-- safe, right?-- with green chili. Bordeaux ordered a milkshake, but the waitress's face gathered up in look of worry. 'You know, before you order, it's just me working the counter tonight, so I can make it for you, but it's gonna be awhile. I just don't want you getting your hopes up, then having to wait, is all.' He ordered a glass of water instead, and she nodded gratefully. She brought our drinks, chilling in the type of goldenrod glasses that probably haven't been made since the early '80s, then disappeared.
We weren't in a hurry-- I don't know why we would have come here if we had-- so we settled in, to observe our setting. It was easy to see how it would be a great movie set, with its flagstone walls, and brown-and-orange vinyl booths. A set of black and white photos of the store's founders hung above the coffee machine, the glass in the picture frames grimy with half a century's accrued grease. The only thing that seemed to have changed in the space were the cheap foil decorations that criss-crossed from window to wall. A passer-by with a loaded camper's backpack drew our attention outside; across the road, a yoga class was just beginning. The yogi and his disciples would disappear over the course of our meal, obscure behind the veil of fogged-up windows.
Our plates arrived at the table, heavy with mounds of food. The burger was actually delicious, really. Well charred meat, strips of smoky green chili, and crisp rings of white onion. But the visit wasn't really about the food, was it?
Meal finished, we took the paper check to the register, where we found no one waiting for us. We looked out through double glass doors, where we saw our waitress-- her sweater gathered tight around her, puffs of smoke alternating with gasps of cold air escaping from her mouth. She came back in, rubbing her arms as she slipped behind the register, and greeting us with a faint smile. We handed over some bills and coins, and slipped a tip in next to the register.