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Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Cindy’s Diner, which will be moving this month, only has 15 stools inside. There are two picnic tables outside.

The diner things in life

Sitting in Cindy’s like being served slice of history

Co-owner John Scheele works the griddle at Cindy’s Diner, which is open for breakfast and lunch.
Waitress Angela “Brat” Harter has worked at Cindy’s for 18 years.
Cindy’s has a collection of character mugs for children. Regular customers can keep their own mugs in a case.
Hash browns, ham and eggs are part of the “garbage” breakfast.
Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Cindy’s Diner is moving from the corner of Harrison and Wayne streets to the corner of Berry Street and Maiden Lane. It will open there June 30.

– It’s 8 a.m., and the slender, sassy waitress who answers to the name of Brat stands in the midst of her domain behind the cherry red counter inside Cindy’s Diner. She plants her hand on a hip and says, “There are a lot of interesting things that happen outside these windows.”

In case you’re not aware, which means you haven’t been downtown within the past quarter century, Cindy’s is that quaint little joint that, for the time being, sits on the northwest corner of Wayne and Harrison streets. The place is an aggregate of iconic images; a 1940s fusion between a boxy streetcar with awnings and Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks” painting – the one with a solitary man and a couple sitting at opposite corners inside a late-night diner. The woman is in a red dress. Both men wear fedoras.

Except Cindy’s doesn’t do late nights. It doesn’t even do early evenings. It’s breakfast and lunch only – “garbage,” the house specialty, in the morning; a burger at noon. You want dinner? Go somewhere else. Cindy’s closes at 2. And because the little restaurant is moving to a different location, it won’t reopen until June 30.

Because a local brokerage firm thought that location would make a good place for a new office building and parking garage, and the city thought so too, Cindy’s will be moving – lock, stock and Brat. The shortest path to its future destination would be to drag everything backward a few hundred feet over a rusty barricade, across an asphalt parking lot, jump the curb at Berry Street and onto its new diagonal home at the northwest corner of Berry and Maiden Lane. But a safer, smoother route for the move is planned Tuesday.

Through Cindy’s four large windows, including the one that faces south and allows customers to watch birds feed beneath the awning, the downtown seasons have come and gone for 23 years. It would’ve been 24 in October.

“I wasn’t here yet the morning when there was a pretty good car accident out here,” Brat says. “It was a car going the wrong way down Wayne Street and ended up running into one of the picnic tables and up in the parking lot (across Harrison) and hitting cars in the lot.”

With spatula-wielding John Scheele, the 76-year-old co-owner who is married to the place’s namesake, manning the flat griddle and Brat doing the serving and coffee refilling, it’s a two-person operation. There is not much room for others on the 30-foot runway the waitress shares with Scheele, who, long ago, stuck the name of Brat on Angela Harter, who has worked half of her 36 years at Cindy’s.

“ ’Cause she’s a brat!” Scheele says with vigor. Earlier he said, “I’ve been putting up with her for 18 years. That’s been a challenge.”

There have been the regulars and the strangers, the wealthy and the homeless; mothers, mayors, truck drivers, ballplayers, lawyers, cops, mechanics, musicians. All have sat elbow-to-elbow-to-elbow, sharing conversations, sharing the morning paper that is passed up and down the 15-stool counter.

A sign above the row of red stools reads, “We Can Serve The Whole World, 15 At A Time.”

Late last week, before the place closed its doors for a month, the whole world, it seemed, kept asking about the move. They knew about the why and where; they just weren’t sure about the when and how. So to prevent Brat from repeating herself, John put up another sign – three, in fact – for those sitting at the stools. But those signs had the wrong date.

It’s 8 a.m., and two women walk in with a little girl. The ages indicate they could be three generations.

The 1-year-old is helped into a blue and pink booster seat, and she sits between the two women.

“Ladies,” Brat says. “What can I get you?”

Their breakfasts are ordered. John makes French toast, eggs and sausage patties. For Olivia, the little girl, he griddles one pancake. Brat brings the requested white milk in a yellow Big Bird mug.

The two women talk about the move, and Susan, the older of the two, says, “Pretty soon, we’ll have to go to Cindy’s Diner somewhere else.”

After the three leave, Brat gazes through the large windows onto Harrison Street, but she seems lost in thought.

The best part of Cindy’s being shut down for a month, she says, is that she has a graduation to prepare for. It’s her daughter’s, who is 18.

The door swings open, and a man and a woman sit at the counter. She is wearing red.

Steve Warden is a features writer whose “Morning Observations” column appears monthly. Email him at stwarden@jg.net.

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