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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Cafe Dunkin Donuts & a Trip to McFonald's

While in the neighborhood of 12th and Locust Streets recently, I came across an old building that used to be one of the city’s quirkiest restaurants. It also sold the worst coffee I had ever had in my life. Imagine coffee that sits burning up in pot all day long, so stale and strong that it stays with you all day long.
  The coffee problem, I think, can be explained because the restaurant’s name was Polly’s Spinning Wheel Restaurant, or Polly’s Tea Room. The luncheonette had a large-scale tea kettle over its exterior window — in old photographs of 12th and 13th and Locust Streets you can see Polly’s gigantic tea kettle looming over the sidewalk.  I’m not sure when Polly’s opened for business, but it could have been in the 1950s.  The place was a Philadelphia institution on the order of Pat’s Steaks or Geno’s.
  Polly’s unusual attraction was that all customers got their tea leaves or Tarot cards read after they completed their meal. There were three or four readers in the eatery at any given time and customers waited up to an hour to get a reading.
  I first went to Polly’s with a friend of mine, Sherry. She was obsessed with a talented reader there who seemed to give her accurate answers concerning her love life. Before I went to Polly’s myself, I had always assumed that the customers there were slightly cracked. They certainly were not foodies.
  The food at Polly’s was far from great, but it was adequate. We often ordered a chicken entrée and coffee. The rubbery chicken made me think of a bad Three Stooges movie; the meatloaf was bricklike and the mashed potatoes were hard and cold like a soupy salt marsh in Cape May. When you ordered a pie, the crust was usually stale or hard.
  The clientele was interesting. The majority of the customers were odd-looking women in small “church” hats. Younger, professional women began to frequent the place when the Philadelphia Inquirer did a feature on Polly’s. Male customers were far less numerous, but when men came they came in groups of two or three, probably for emotional support.
  Polly’s wait staff was made up of older women who had once worked at Horn and Hardart’s on Broad Street. Some of these ladies wore hair nets and called you “hon.” All you heard there was the ching-a-ling sound of the doorbell whenever anyone entered or left. I felt as if I had walked through time into Dickens’ London every time I sat down at Polly’s.
  The bad coffee at Polly’s got me thinking about the coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts (or Café Dunkin’) on Aramingo Avenue. Café Dunkin’, as all locals know, is a funky place. While it might not be the best café in the world, it will do when you want something close to home. It’s cheap, it’s real and it is about as unpretentious as you can get.
  Compared to the café I visit when I am in Center City, Square One Coffee, Café Dunkin’ is not a café at all. Square One Coffee is a specialty coffeeshop near 13th and Spruce Streets. People park themselves there for hours. Square One is not representative of the general population because it attracts students with laptops, so most of the time it feels like an extension of a college cafeteria. Adults who are not students rarely go there because having 30 laptops in your face can be blinding. You’ll never spot a homeless person in Square One. Ditto for screaming kids or Comcast workers dressed in overalls. One good thing about Square One, though, is that the second cup of coffee is free.
  Specialty coffee is all the rage, but these fancier roasts sometimes have an awful taste. Overworking the coffee bean all too often destroys the simple deliciousness one can find in a Wawa or McDonald’s coffee. McDonald’s coffee, in my opinion, always comes out on top when compared to the more expensive blends.
  On rare occasions I head to the McDonald’s near Front and Girard, probably the least attractive McDonald’s in the city, where I order the fish fillet and fries meal. McDonald’s is certainly better than the after-hours pandemonium one encounters in the 7/11 across the street, but junk food is junk food.
  My last visit to McDonald’s was a couple of weeks ago while waiting for the 15 shuttle bus. I was seated not far from a man who was seated behind a woman and her small son. The woman’s son had very thick eyeglasses, which gave him a Dr. Peabody look. It was apparent to me that most of the McDonald’s staff knew the kid because they all took turns hugging him. While eating my sandwich, I heard the man tell the woman how beautiful she was. He kept repeating the compliment, but was then quick to tell the woman that he wasn’t trying to pick her up. Instead, he explained that his compliment was for the “greater good” and that “the universe” was telling him to tell her that she was beautiful.
  The man piled on more compliments and then he honed in on Dr. Peabody, who was happily munching on fries.
  “Hey, you have cornrow hair,” the man announced. “Cornrow, wow! Don’t get me wrong. That’s not bad. Look at me, I can’t do cornrows in my hair — look at it… but you can and that’s beautiful.”
  The zany exchange reminded me somewhat of a recent Café Dunkin experience with Steve Janas, a filmmaker with the Discovery Channel, who has also worked with actor James Franco’s Rabbit Bandini Productions. Janas was there with his camera cohort Joshua Staub and the three of us were happily munching when a pleasant homeless guy who frequents the area walked up to our table.
  I’ll call the homeless guy Jethro, only because he likes to wear a Peruvian-style knit hat with knitted braids that sort of curl down on his shoulders. Jethro actually resembled a neighborhood millennial, not someone who’s always walking back and forth into the deeper pockets of Kensington.
  I’ve given Jethro money in the past, but today was not his day. Apparently he had done something to win the disfavor of management, because no sooner had he said hello to us than he was told to get out. What he did days or months ago to warrant getting kicked out is anybody’s guess, but rules are rules. Meeting Jethro, you’d never know that he was capable of anything bad except laying on a lot of charm for handouts.
  After Jethro’s exit — he survived walking across dangerous Aramingo Avenue — I thought of all the other cafes that I have yet to visit. One of them is The River Wards Café on Richmond Street. I met the chief designer of this café on the 15 shuttle months before the café opened and was promised an invite to the opening, but that never happened.
  For me, a café has to be accessible, and that’s why Café Dunkin’, with all its glaring imperfections, usually does the job. It also happens to be the place where I can connect with neighbors who would never go to a Square One Coffee or the River Wards Café — neighbors like Maria, who is fond of corn muffins and Café Dunkin’s tuna fish croissant.
  Maria likes to tell me how the tuna fish has a tranquilizing component to it because after eating it, all she wants to do is sit there and meditate. Friends tell me to be careful about eating tuna because of its high mercury content, but when you love tuna, what can you do?
  Maria also has some weird theories about Café Dunkin’s donuts and muffins. For instance, she likes to say how sprinkle donuts have been known to cause hallucinations. Perhaps we better not go here because I don’t want to give weight to the theory that Café Dunkin’ managers are part of the Illuminati who participate in strange nighttime ceremonies when the place is bereft of customers.