The Gritastrophe

This morning while browsing the newspaper I came across some saddening news: Worman's Bakery and Deli, which has been a part of downtown Jacksonville life since the late 1930's is closing it's doors for good on Saturday.

For those of you who didn't have the chance to experience it, Worman's was one of the few old school deli's you could find around this area. My mom used to talk about going there as a child and having their sweet rolls. It was just one of those places, much like Beach Road Chicken Dinners that in it's own quiet way made this city what it was -- a sleepy southern community with hidden patches of flavor and class.

It's a weird thing, because in terms of sheer land area, Jacksonville is actually the largest city in the nation, but because our population is so spread out over the area, it still (and probably always will) feels like a small town.

And yet, if you had to ask me what the town is like, where it's character comes from -- I'd probably tell you that the one thing people notice most when they visit is that there's a fast food place on almost every corner here -- something that I think says almost as much about the majority of the people who live in this town as it does their taste when it comes to fine cuisine.

There are lots of fantastic mom and pop restaurants, but more and more if you don't go hunting for them, you aren't going to know they even exist.
A problem that probably has a lot to do with why Worman's is having to close it's doors.
To be honest, even though I grew up in this city, never realized the place existed until I was in high school, when a girlfriend of mine named Dorian began taking me there for breakfast before classes (which frequently lead to eventually skipping classes and all sorts of other intimate adventures). It was one of her favorite places, which at the time was odd to me, because it was really nowhere near her school.

It was one of the important things I learned from her during that relationship, something I'll always be grateful for from her (we're still friends to this day, even though like so many dear friends it's hard to stay in touch as often as we like) -- that there's more to a city than just what's in your immediate area.

Growing up, my family ventured to a select few spots for food and entertainment. Again, with the city being so large it was rarely convenient to go across the St. Johns river for breakfast or a kosher lunch, so we usually ended up in areas close to our house.

Not that the little restaurants and nooks we found in Atlantic Beach weren't good in their own way, but that almost inadvertently I ended up with a mindset that the beaches and Regency were the only places to go, and that anything beyond that was sort of a no-man's land filled with crime and who knows what.

Downtown back in those days was sort of a wasteland. There were few office buildings, lots more homeless -- the only two things really worth doing were the science museum and the main library branch, and my mom was so loyal to the Regency library that the only time I got to go down there was on school trips -- so the fact that there was this amazing little place close to the bus station that made these amazing sandwiches for lunch and the best breakfast you ever had was largely lost on me.

But Dorian and her friends were different, once they were old enough to drive they would explore every nook and cranny of the city. Driving to all the weird and lost backroads, especially around the Northside to the point where they'd collectively built up a track of odd sights and interesting places to go they called "the course."

From the little house on top of the giant grain silos, to the wildly painted dupont paint building, to the house with the year-round Christmas decorations where Dorcas Drake used to organize her Christmas benefits for underprivledged to the car wash near the Toyota receiving docks that you could sneak in and use (and make out under) late at night, the course was a rare peek into a side of Jacksonville that my parents probably would have rather I not driven around in. These weren't the best parts of town, but being the oldest -- they had a lot of the most interesting stories behind them.
Worman's was one of these.
Everyone was always so nice there. The coffee always fresh, and the cheese grits were so good that even people (like me) who normally wouldn't eat such a thing found them hard to resist. Then there were those sweet rolls that you would buy and take with you when you left, so that the aroma would fill up the car.

When I returned to the city after college, I found my way back to Worman's now and again, but in a larger sense found myself holding on more to the spirit of exploration that had first led me to it, and worked to find a new place to eat that was more on my side of the world.

For a long time it was the University Diner, who have awesome home fries. Then when I moved to Five Points it was obviously the Derby House -- which has been there for ages, or occasionally Beethoven's Bistro way out by the Navy Base -- and now that I'm deep in the Southside my new haunt is called The Avenues Diner, which used to be a waffle house but now is like a secret surf spot that I hit on Sundays.

The Avenues Diner's claim to fame are the pancakes they serve. The first time I went in there I got an omelet and asked for a short stack on the side, and the gal said, "Gotcha -- Omelet, coffee, and a pancake." and I actually got mad -- I was like, "No I said a stack. You know, at least 2."

When she came back, she had one of those big square shaped platter dishes, on top of which were two friggin' enormous flapjacks that were literally hanging over the edges of the plate. I shot the woman a look of surprise, and she's like,
"Now you know why I said one."
It was one of the few times in my adult life when I couldn't finish an order of pancakes, and I'm still reeling in shame from the experience.

Mom and pop places are usually the best bets for good and unique food, but all too often it's breakfast that brings you to them first. And I know Denny's makes an OK pancake and gets it to you quick -- but there's just something about having eggs and bacon in a sleepy little place that makes it better. It's almost like being in someone else's kitchen, reading the paper and enjoying a cup of Joe -- almost like you could go back and cook up something yourself if you wanted to.

I've always thought of Breakfast as sort of an intimate thing, especially when you sit down for it. It shouldn't really be rushed, but when you're in a spot like IHOP or in line at the McDonald's drive-thru that feeling goes right out the window.

Of course the best option of all is cooking it yourself, but sometimes when you wake up alone you crave that feeling, the warmth of human contact and lazy eating that makes even the crabbiest of diner waitresses seem like long lost old friends.

Even better though when the food is to die for, and has been for as long as you can possibly remember.
Which is something you always used to be able to get at Worman's.

[Listening to:  Social Distortion - "Mommy's Little Monster" ]


JerseySjov said…
there's a little diner right off campus that has ridiculously good everything [it's the place i went to on friday for lunch ;)], awesome prices, friendly service, etc.
part of the appeal is that they arent open past noonish on weekends, so you have to make a plan to wake up especially early to go.
unMuse said…
I'm going to so miss Worman's. At least once a month I would go out there, even if I didn't have to go downtown, for a pastrami on rye with swiss and spicy mustard, 2 cannolis to go. That was the first sandwich I ever had there. When I was in high school I skipped with the boyfriend of the time for our first date. Then we took the bus to 5 points and ate the cannolis down by the river in San Marco.

If you ever wander back out to University Diner (now that they've moved to Merril) get the meatloaf sandwich. At Beethoven's I highly recommend the turkey panini- yes, with the cran-mayo. Singleton's in Mayport, which I've been going to since I was 7 years old, has the best Margaritas. Lillian's has fantastic gator tail...

I'm a fan of the locally owned, non-chain places myself. I could go on and on, but I've always found the food to be so much better when coming from people who honestly care.
Werdna said…
Reminds me of Hattie's High Hat. It was a hole in the wall, in what looked like an old seven eleven in a strip mall. It had divine seafood out on the Northside.

Too bad about Wormans.