The news that Evans Fine Foods was closing made a lot of people sad, especially the retirees who were daily fixtures at this Decatur diner. They came for breakfast, lunch or dinner — and sometimes all three meals. The staff knew these customers by name ("Hello, Mr. Tom, how are ya?"). The customers knew one another by name.
It was like an episode of “Cheers,” but with aqua blue vinyl booths replacing bar stools, and a cup of coffee or sweet tea standing in for a pint of beer. It was good people just trying to make their way in the world.
The folks at Evans, open since 1946, expected Nov. 14 to be the last day of service. It was time to renew the lease, but the rent had gone up and owners Pete and Mike Kontoes weren’t ready to dish up more money.
Similar to Evans fans who commented on Facebook after hearing news that the place was shuttering, I had to go to the no-frills diner before it closed.
Prior to heading to the gray concrete structure at the corner of Clairmont and North Decatur roads, I called up a few food lovers in town to ask about Evans, the institution. Oh, yes. It is an institution, they said. But then they admitted to not having eaten there in years — or ever. How is something an institution if you never frequent it?
When it came to the food at Evans, the old-school diner menu took you back in time to the Hamburger Treat of a patty with cottage cheese, sliced tomato and hard-boiled egg. Who eats that now? Apparently, those 65 years and older, because that’s who filled the seats at Evans the day I ate there — along with a girl about 8 years of age accompanied by an elderly couple.
That’s the thing about dining institutions. We wail at the announcement that doors will shutter. We make a point of getting in the door one last time. We take a few photos for memory’s sake and reminisce about the good old days.
But when one of these places goes away, we should ask why.
Well, why does any restaurant close? Money is usually the driver. And if there isn’t traffic, there’s no driving through anything.
Granted, Evans’ traffic seemed brisk the day I came, but I don’t know if it was always like that. I watched a guy in his 30s take a photo of an elderly man (perhaps his dad?) with Evans signage in the distance. I think quite a few people were there eating up before it all ended.
The thing is, the eating wasn’t so good. The sausage biscuit was OK, but sides like collards, green beans and carrots tasted tinny. Anything with cheese tasted, well, odd — from the mac and cheese to the chicken cheesesteak sandwich. And the fish was so salty, fishy and unappealing I boxed it up to give to less-well-fed Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalists who don’t analyze food for a living.
The service at Evans, however, was standout. I had a glass of water in front of me in seconds. And that sausage biscuit was in my mouth less than five minutes after I ordered it. It was all thanks to my server, Martha Gibson, who alerted me that, if I wanted anything from the breakfast menu, I ought to order it, since breakfast ended at 11:30 a.m. on weekdays.
Gibson had worked at Evans for 41 years and two months. She could be a top server at any restaurant in town because she exuded hospitality. Hers was not an “Is there a tip in this?” mentality. She simply looked after me as if I were her own daughter during my hourlong lunch (I did not reveal my name, nor my affiliation with the AJC, to her). We all yearn for someone to just take care of us.
So, what Evans lacked in good cooking, it made up for in heart and soul. Evans was a place where everybody knew your name. And they were always glad you came. Wouldn’t you like to get away to a place like that?
That is why Evans was special and why Evans will be missed.